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January 2, 2019 by

Why Did the New York Times Run Alice Walker’s Unfiltered Antisemitism?

buttonOn December 13, 2018, the New York Times Book Review, in its weekly column “By the Book,” published a Q&A with Alice Walker. The author and activist best known for her novel “The Color Purple” told the Times that she keeps on her night table a copy of And the Truth Shall Set You Free by one David Icke. His book, Walker said, is “a curious person’s dream come true.” While Walker’s reference may not have meant anything to most Book Review readers, Twitter users began to buzz about her unusual choice. Tablet magazine’s Yair Rosenberg wrote a long, damning story: Icke, we were reminded, is a British conspiracy theorist who believes that the world is controlled by alien reptilian creatures and—you guessed it—Jews. To back up his age-old canard, Icke quotes from—yes, really–The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The story immediately blazed through social media. Other news outlets began picking up the story, and Times readers bombarded the paper with angry comments. The furious backlash against the Alice Walker column apparently caught the Times off guard. Their response, a full four days after the initial piece, came in the form of a carefully worded interview with Book Review editor Pamela Paul. Paul’s answers to the questions posed to her—not actual questions by a reporter, but, the Times wrote, de facto “composite” questions, “drawn on reader feedback”—read as evasive and downright insulting to readers. For example, asked whether, in retrospect, she would have done anything differently with Walker’s column, Paul said: “No. Readers have certainly learned something about the author and her tastes and opinions. I think it’s worthwhile information for them to know.” To date, that Q&A constitutes the sum total of the Times response to this fiasco. Since then, every day, more media outlets add their voices to the condemnation of that Walker interview. On December 19, filmmaker and activist Rebecca Pierce, who is black and Jewish, wrote about it in the Forward; it was also the subject of Richard Cohen’s column in the Washington Post and Lilith contributor Nylah Burton wrote a poignant essay at NY Magazine. All of these pieces offer subtle and interesting takes on prejudice, art and idols. 

Personally, however, I believe that the New York Times is the story, in fact, and not Alice Walker. For years Walker has openly expressed anti-Semitism, which fact she always coyly denies by invoking that manipulative pretext for Jew-hating so beloved by anti-Semites: the Palestinian cause. For proof that her bias goes beyond this issue, check out Walker’s 2017 poem on her website: “It is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud.”

So what happened at the Times? Why didn’t the Book Review editor contextualize Walker’s reference to Icke? Did his name simply slip through the cracks? I find it hard to accept that such journalistic incompetence exists at this widely respected section of the paper, which is prepared well in advance of its publication date. So are we, instead, to assume that the editors there understood the awful subtext of Alice Walker’s praise for Icke and all that it implied, and just let the piece stand anyway? If this is indeed what happened, we have the right to ask, where on earth was their sense of judgment, particularly at a time when the newspaper itself has been reporting on the upsurge of hate crimes against Jews in the United States and around the world? Why didn’t they at least give the readers some context for Walker’s statement? Or, better yet, just kill the piece? I emailed Pamela Paul—and asked her directly: “Did you not realize how inflammatory Walker’s comment was?” She ignored the question; instead, she directed me back to the link for that empty Q&A with her. (“Alice, You can find a full explanation of how the editors handle the column here,” she wrote in her e-mail to me.)  I wondered if Paul was herself was Jewish; she describes herself in a recent interview as being “of Jewish ancestry. ” Once more, I emailed her, asking her to clarify. I received no response. 

Three weeks have now passed since the story broke, so by now it’s old news. Moreover it’s now a new year, and everybody is fixated on whether the new Congress is going to impeach Trump. So the paper’s staff doubtless assumes that they have safely weathered this storm.  We’ll probably never know the story of how the paper screwed this one up. But the particulars of that don’t matter so much. The lessons for all journalists—whether they cover culture, politics, or even sports—in 2019 should be clear: don’t just be a passive vehicle for bigotry in the name of “objectivity.” When sources reveal themselves to be adhering to pernicious views connected to a wave violence, journalists have to consider how to push back, ethically.

Furthermore, it is not too late for the Times to take to heart the anger of their readers, tell us honestly and openly what happened, and—yes!—apologize. The alternative—continued silence—shows the Times to be unworthy of our trust, which is the only commodity worth anything to a news organization. Even worse, the Times’ silence indirectly validates the hate talk of Icke and his cohort at a time when, alarmingly, the virus of anti-Semitism is spreading, and fast.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.


  • Barbara D Holtzman

    I’ve never much liked Alice Walker. Not sure why. So I don’t much pay attention to anything she says or does.

    The “interview” was conducted via email, edited for name spelling errors only, and published verbatim in the online version, edited for space in the hard copy. I’m thinking no one paid much attention whatsoever to what she wrote.

    Even if thay had, unless someone bothered to look up all of the books they’d likely not have known what one of them entailed. I asked around to college-educated folks of myriad backgrounds what they thought a book called “And the Truth Shall Set You Free” might be about, and absolutely not a single one (out of 9) knew the book, and they all said it sounded like a book about free speech or how news isn’t fake or similar. None of them knew who Ickes was. We need to be careful of giving some people more recognition than they deserve. Some people deserve to be ignored, forgotten, and erased.

    I disagree with the opinion that the reponse of “Readers have certainly learned something about the author and her tastes and opinions” is meaningless. If you did not already know that Alice Walker was a bitter, angry, bigoted person, you should now.

  • http://askabigailproductions.com/ Abigail Hirsch

    The NY Times has repeatedly bent over backwards to side with the other side against Jews starting with WWll when they posted news of atrocities re Jews on their back pages. They have a lot of tshuva to do which is why I do not subscribe to their paper and I do not subscribe to Haaretz which is also owned by them I believe.

  • Clare Kinberg

    I agree with the conclusion of this, NYTimes, explain and apologize. And I appreciate the links to some good writing on Alice Walker and anti-semitism. But, reducing “the Palestinian cause” to “that manipulative pretext for Jew-hating so beloved by anti-Semites” is below anything the Lilith blog should publish. How did that get by the editors?

    • Carol Anshien

      Well said, Clare, thank you. I can only wonder whether the NYTimes thought a little controversy was “OK”?

  • Rachel Esserman

    It sounds as if the Times didn’t do its job of vetting the article before it was published. I also wonder if a book were racists or homophobic whether they would have apologized or not published the article. Not all news is fit to print,

  • Miriam Kalman Friedman

    So what does Walker have to say in her own defense? How has she responded the various articles?