Alice Walker: "Going through Zionist checkpoints is like going back in time to American Civil Rights struggle"



From time to time, the Palestine Center distributes articles it believes will enhance understanding of the Palestinian political reality. The following article by Dr. Hanan Chehata was published by the Middle East Monitor on 24 November 2011.

“Alice Walker: “Going through Israeli checkpoints is like going back in time to American Civil Rights struggle””

By Dr. Hanan Chehata

American Pulitzer Prize winning author, Alice Walker, was a juror with the Russell Tribunal on Palestine which took place in South Africa this year. A prolific writer of novels, poetry and short stories her books, fiction and non-fiction, have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. While she is most well-known for “The Colour Purple” she is also a dedicated political activist and campaigner. MEMO’s Dr. Hanan Chehata caught up with Ms Walker in Cape Town to ask her why she has been so drawn to the Palestinian cause. During the course of the interview the similarities between the Palestinian struggle for liberation and the African-American struggle during the Civil Rights era is evident. She expresses her belief that “Americans have a duty to be active in the defence of Palestinian people” and further proposes that the illegal settlements paid for unwittingly by American tax payers should be lived in by the Palestinians to whom the land belongs and who should all “come home”.

Hanan Chahata: How and why did you first get involved in Palestinian activism?

Alice Walker: I married a Jewish man, a lawyer, and we were together during the Six Day War [1967] and we were very glad because the assumption then was that Israel was always the underdog and always threatened and so we felt really good that it could defend itself, blah, blah, blah. But we disagreed over the land question because I said they have to give the land back right away. I said, “OK the war is over, now give the land back.” He said, “No they [Israelis] need that land because if they don’t have that land the Arabs, generally, will bomb Israel.” I just didn’t buy it. I thought that if you take a people’s land you do them damage, a harm that they will never recover from. So that started my interest. I was aware of the massacres in Sabra and Shatila [massacres in Beirut, 1982]; I was aware of Golda Meir saying there was no such thing as a Palestinian and so on. I was an editor at Ms. Magazine and a Jewish editor there claimed that African-American women were anti-Semitic because we were asking, “what about Palestine”; “what about the massacres”; “what about the land”? So I wrote a piece, years ago, which is still on my website, talking about why people of colour in the United States would be drawn to the Palestinian cause and being very annoyed with her for saying that to do that would be anti-Semitic; that was around 1983. Since then I’ve just been interested. I’m interested in so many causes. All I want is for people to be happy and to have what they need and that their children should be safe and so, in some ways, they could be anybody and there are other areas of the world to which I am just as devoted.

HC: You’ve travelled to Gaza and the West Bank on several occasions. Can you tell us a little about those trips and why you decided to go?

AW: I first went to Gaza in 2009 with Operation Code Pink [with my good friend Medea Benjamin]. I go to Mexico every winter. While I was there in 2009 my sister died and I was so upset. I then heard on the news that there was a Palestinian mother who, during the [Israeli] bombing, had lost five of her daughters and she was unconscious. You know how sometimes things happen in your own life and you are just open and devastated and then you hear the story of someone else’s tragedy and it just resonates. I just had to go and say to whoever was left I don’t agree with this. I pay all this money in taxes, money that is used to buy these bombs but I would never drop a bomb on you or your children. We went very shortly after, just a week or two after. We went by bus from downtown Cairo right through the Sinai and ended up in Gaza. It was so unbelievably devastated. It was so disturbing. I talked to psychiatrists and some of the workers who were going to try to heal the children. I wanted Palestinian women especially who were losing their children to know that not everyone in the United States was jumping up and down and cheering over their suffering. So that was the first time.

Then I went to the West Bank for a “Ted X” event in Ramallah which was wonderful and then I also spent a week with Pal Fest. That was really wonderful too. It was like being with my tribe. And then after that [July 2011] there was the second Freedom Flotilla. What I loved about that was knowing that every single person on that boat was willing to give everything they had. It was so wonderful; such amazing people. I was on the American boat, the Audacity of Hope. The Israeli government forced the Greek government [where the boats were due to set sail from] not to let us go anywhere, but we went anyway. We just took off. We got as far as ten miles out into open water and then they came with their guns and they forced us to go back after about a two hour standoff.

HC: That was incredibly brave considering that you knew what had happened to the people on board the Mavi Marmara during the first Freedom Flotilla [in May 2010], when Israeli Commandos shot and killed nine international peace activists. You weren’t going in blindly. You all knew what a great risk you were taking.

AW: I don’t think that is going to stop anybody. I really don’t. I don’t even think it’s about bravery. Humanity – a part of it – is so awake, and it’s so aware that life is so precious that you have to do whatever you can to make it all possible for other people; especially for the children. They don’t have a say in all of this madness.

HC: You’ve been very openly critical of America’s foreign policies over the years. In 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, you were arrested for crossing a police line outside the White House during a peace rally opposing the invasion. Since then America has been waging wars and war-mongering not only in Iraq but in Afghanistan, Pakistan and many other places worldwide. What’s your take on America’s current foreign policy generally?

AW: Disastrous! We are being impoverished and we will soon be a poor country. We are already close to being a very poor country and this is really shocking for most Americans who somehow thought that no matter how much you spend on war you will still have enough at home, which is absurd. It just shows you how blind you can be if you have been privileged your whole life and if everyone defers to you and you get everything you want, and that has pretty much been life in America for Middle Class, white people.

HC: During one of the sessions of the Russell Tribunal in Cape Town you said something about the Zionists controlling the US Congress. Can you explain a little more about that?

AW: [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu recently came to America [May 2011] and gave a speech to Congress. This is a man who has bombed the water systems in Gaza, and the sewage systems, and killed all these young people and… it’s just a disaster and [members of Congress] all got up like puppets and beamed and clapped and gave him something like 30 standing ovations! If that is not a testament to the fact that they are controlled financially by the Zionist lobby then I don’t know what you need to prove it.

The Zionist lobby is remarkably strong but it is only as strong as the ignorance of the people and I have so much faith in what is happening with the awakening of the American people. Once they are awakened they can move real quickly as you can see. People are really fed up with being ignored and being treated as if they should just be satisfied with trivia while the wealthy and the government that they have bought is leading them into ruin.

HC: As a civil rights activist you must have been looking forward to the day when a black person would be president but you’ve just explained how critical you are of American foreign policy. How do you feel Barack Obama has done in representing black people in America?

AW: I think it was naive of us to think he would be able to do much within such an evil system [the American government]. It has not a whole lot to recommend it in terms of its treatment of native people, black people, poor people. The US government’s foundation was terrorism; they wiped out Native Americans to a great degree and they enslaved us for hundreds of years. There was segregation. I was born into segregation. So even though I was very happy to have him because I think just for the children to see a positive smart black person is a form of medicine, by the same token I think that seeing him eviscerated by his adversaries is not a good thing for our children.

HC: Do you see parallels between the US civil rights movement and what the Palestinian people are going through today?

AW: Yes; it is really so similar. It’s the awareness as a subjugated population that the people in power really don’t see you as human beings. They have no respect. There was a period in our history where a black person was actually said to be only three-quarters of a person – the Dred Scott case [in the mid-18th century]. When I was in the West Bank especially I felt the tension of Palestinians who could not go into Jerusalem, for instance, and had to get out of the van. Even just driving around was tense. Our driver tried to take us along some Palestinian roads but unfortunately they were blocked and so we had to get onto the big Israeli highway and then he was a complete wreck because it was illegal for him to be driving on the “Israeli-only” road. And then you have a system of different car number plates and so on. And just the arrogance is astounding.

My partner and I went through the Allenby Bridge entrance and it took us nine hours and we were subjected to, I guess about a third of the arrogance and hatred that the Arab people experience from Israeli soldiers there, and it was like going back in time, seeing our people and our elders and our parents treated like dirt as they tried to do anything. I won’t tolerate it. I cannot tolerate it. I won’t. It is so much the same as our struggle. I hope that Palestinians will learn more about the civil rights movement in America because it would be very useful to come to understand how our people got their freedom. Violence actually doesn’t work. It is such a bad thing, even though you may feel like it, a lot, it just backfires and so you have to have a different strategy and it is helpful if you have a strategy that also strengthens you.

HC: What lessons can the Palestinians learn from the South African struggle and the American Civil Rights movement in terms of how to succeed in their own struggle? Is Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) the right way to go forward, for example?

AW: I am a big supporter of BDS. I frankly think that it is the best, absolutely the best way, because the Israeli government and people really love commerce and making money and so anything that interferes with that will get their attention at least.

HC: One of my favourite quotes of yours is: “Activism is my rent for living on this planet.” If people only have time to dedicate to one cause, why should people choose activism for the Palestinian issue as their focus given that there are so many other important causes in the world today?
AW: It depends on where you are from. I think Americans have a duty to be active in the defence of the Palestinian people because unbeknown to multitudes of Americans, they have done grievous harm through buying the weapons and giving Israel so much support so that the inequality is huge. Most Americans have no idea that if they pay their taxes, money will go to Israel and Israelis will have swimming pools while the children in Palestine don’t have drinkable water. Most Americans don’t know this. If they knew this they would figure out a way to have a say on this.

HC: It seems that the American public are slowly waking up to the fact that America sends well over $3 billion a year to Israel while there are American kids at home who can’t afford clothes, shoes and food.

AW: That’s right. Americans are just beginning to learn about this all now. They didn’t listen to us before, we told them, but they didn’t listen, but now they have to because they are out of work, their houses have been lost and they see that the government is not trustworthy to say the least.

HC: You have publicly stated that Israel is the greatest terrorist in that part of the world. What made you say that?
AW: Well they have more nuclear weapons and they use the idea of them as a threat to people around them. And they are supported by the United States militarily so even when they are not actively dropping bombs – and they do drop a lot of bombs – just the fact that they have all of that weaponry and that they have the United States as a backup means that they are terrorising people. Now a terrorist is someone who terrorises you, that’s it; so if you’re sending drones to kill people and scaring the neighbourhood, you are a terrorist. War is terrorism! They try to finesse it and say that they are not the terrorists and that everyone else is the terrorist but that is really ridiculous.

HC: Do you have a message that you would like to send to Palestinians and Israelis?

AW: I’m very heartened by the working together that I see between Palestinians and Israelis. There are some incredibly brave people on both sides. We had this in the [American] South too. We had some white people who came and helped us and it is just so wonderful to see the freedom of mind and the freedom of heart of people who, against all of the propaganda and all of the horror, still stand together and do what needs to be done and that’s what makes me happy. In my view the only solution will be that they all have to live there together and since I am paying, as a tax payer, for all of those settlements I think all the Palestinian people who are abroad now have a nice place to live and they should all come right back, move into those settlements and live there happily and swim in those swimming pools. It’s not that they should be “allowed” to do so but that is their right. We paid for those settlement buildings and since we paid for those buildings I get to say, as an American tax payer, who can live in them and so I say to the sister living as a refugee somewhere with ten kids, “Come home!”

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