Understanding Alice Walker (& the Times)

I subscribe to the New York Times Books Briefing (an email newsletter). In today’s email from Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul there is this drily stated bullet point:

Alice Walker recommended an anti-Semitic book in the Book Review’s By the Book column. In the face of public outcry, she defended her choice.

You may have read about Walker’s book recommendation last week. Turning to the article linked in the email, we find Alexandra Alter’s “Alice Walker, Answering Backlash, Praises Anti-Semitic Author as ‘Brave.’”

The headline announces in straightforward fashion that Walker recommended an anti-Semitic book. No argument. No extenuation. No excuse. No context alleged to clarify. This is not the usual treatment that the Times accords to politically correct enemies of the Jewish people such as Walker, author of The Color Purple.

Indeed, Alter’s article is devastating. Discussing the book by the aptly named David Icke, for example, Alter reports:

In the book, Mr. Icke draws on ideas from the anti-Semitic pamphlet “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” argues that Holocaust denial should be taught in schools and that Jews are responsible for organizing anti-Semitic attacks, and calls the Talmud a racist document. In other writings, he has posited that a cabal of a child-sacrificing, bloodthirsty lizard people, many of whom are Jewish, are secretly running the world.

Ms. Walker did not immediately respond to an interview request submitted through her literary agent on Friday. In response to an interview request to Mr. Icke, his son sent a link to a recording of a statement this week in which Mr. Icke denied being an anti-Semite and argued that the criticism amounted to “propaganda against me designed to discredit me and what I’m writing,” but went on to say that “some Jewish people are involved in a global conspiracy.”

Although Walker didn’t respond to an interview request, Alter cited Yair Rosenberg’s Tablet column quoting Walker’s poetry for illumination of the larger pattern:

“The only thing that is accomplished by uncritically disseminating Walker’s bigoted book bon mots is ensuring that the racism is disseminated to more people,” Yair Rosenberg wrote in Tablet.

Mr. Rosenberg and others have noted that Ms. Walker has espoused such ideas before, praising Mr. Icke’s books on her blog, in a BBC interview, and posting a video of one of his lectures on her website.

Critics also cited blatantly anti-Semitic language in her poetry, particularly one titled, “It Is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud,” which includes the lines, “Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only/ That, but to enjoy it?”

Alter’s article goes on to cite Walker’s views of Israel that are entirely in tune with the perspective of the Times. It’s part of an old, old story.

What does the Times Book Review have to say for itself? Here Alter quotes Pamela Paul’s lame defense of the Book Review’s inclusion of Walker’s recommendation. I thought that the Times’s best defense might be ignorance, but Paul is sticking with it:

In an interview with the Times’s Reader Center, the editor of the Book Review, Pamela Paul, said that the By the Book column was designed to shed light on a subject’s reading habits and to use books as a window into their views, and should not be construed as an endorsement of their choices.

“When we interview anyone, whether it’s a public official or a foreign leader or an artist, The Times isn’t saying that we approve of the person’s views and actions,” she said. “We’re saying we think the subject is worthy of interviewing; that’s our approach with By the Book.”

What a crew.

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