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A new ‘Color Purple’ adaptation hits theaters, returning author Alice Walker’s history of antisemitism to spotlight

(JTA) – The bright, colorful movie musical “The Color Purple,” which opens in theaters on Christmas, tells a story that has by now become a familiar part of the American canon — of a young Black woman’s self-empowerment and discovery of her own sexuality amid the horrific, abusive conditions of her life in the early-1900s rural South.

It’s far from the first time Americans have heard the story of Celie, the protagonist of Alice Walker’s novel “The Color Purple.” Walker’s novel debuted in 1982 and received rave reviews, the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Three years later, it was adapted into a dramatic film directed by Steven Spielberg. This new version is an adaptation of a 2005 stage musical, which itself was reworked for a successful 2015 revival.

But even as the reputation of “The Color Purple” has soared over the decades, Walker’s own has become more muddled — specifically for her difficult relationship to Judaism and her outright flirtations with antisemitism. Married to a prominent Jewish civil rights lawyer when she was younger, Walker in the mid-2010s began promoting works by an antisemitic conspiracy theorist and authored an antisemitic poem of her own. 

This combined with her longtime outspoken criticism of Israel has led some in the Jewish community to question her continued stature as a well-regarded figure of American letters and led to her being disinvited from a major book festival just last year.

Despite the fact that Walker’s reputation among Jews has nosedived since their first film together in 1985, Spielberg remains involved in the new “Color Purple” as a producer and walked the red carpet at the premiere with fellow producers Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones (who both worked on the first film as well). Directing duties this time went to Ghanaian filmmaker Blitz Bazawule.

Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s production company, did not return a request for comment for this story. 

Here’s what you need to know about Alice Walker right now.

Author Alice Walker with her then-husband Melvyn Leventhal and their daughter Rebecca, August 12, 1970. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Early life and love

Growing up in a sharecropper’s shack in rural Georgia, Walker married into Judaism when she met Melvyn Leventhal, a young law student and civil rights activist with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, at a soul food restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1966. Walker, whose activism was influenced by her progressive Spelman College Jewish professor Howard Zinn, had returned to the South to join the civil rights movement after transferring to Sarah Lawrence and traveling through Europe.

“I glared across the room at the white people eating in ‘our’ restaurant and locked eyes with a very cute guy. Oy vey,” Walker wrote in her journals at the time, later published in 2022. The two continued their courtship in New York until Leventhal finished law school. 

They were married in 1967 after Walker proposed to Leventhal and moved back to Mississippi, a state where interracial marriage was still illegal, to continue their activism. “Can there be any doubt that, no matter what, we will live happily ever after?” Walker wrote at the time. But Melvyn’s mother Miriam deeply disapproved of the marriage, calling Walker a “schvartze,” using a derogatory Yiddish term for a Black person, and going so far as to sit shiva for her son. His brother, Walker later claimed, nailed a giant Confederate flag “over an entire side of his bedroom” in protest of the union.

The two had a daughter, Rebecca, together, who would later become a prominent feminist scholar and is an executive producer of the new “Color Purple” movie alongside her mother. Rebecca Walker’s own autobiography, “Black, White, & Jewish,” describes her feeling of being pulled between the identities of her parents; it was recently pulled from a Florida school district (along with “The Color Purple”) with district officials citing sexual content.

In her journals, Walker called Leventhal “a real Jew” (emphasis hers), elaborating, “He loves justice, like one loves a magnificent misused person.” But their marriage became strained, and the two divorced in 1976, having already been separated for years. 

A hard tack against Israel

Walker’s activism around Israel for years was contentious but largely in line with most pro-Palestinian thought.

In 2010, she published a short essay book, “Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo, and Palestine/Israel,” that originated as an essay in the left-wing Jewish website Tikkun. In the book, she discusses visiting the Gaza Strip with the antiwar nonprofit CODEPINK in 2009, in the midst of an Israeli bombing campaign, and accuses world leaders of showing “indifference to the value of Palestinian life that has corrupted our children’s sense of right and wrong for generations.”

“Most Jews who know their own history see how relentlessly the Israeli government is attempting to turn Palestinians into the ‘new Jews,’ patterned on Jews of the Holocaust era, as if someone must hold that place in order for Jews to avoid it,” she writes, adding that she could never “rationally discuss” Israel with her ex-husband. “He does not see the racist treatment of Palestinians as the same racist treatment of blacks and some Jews that he fought against so nobly in Mississippi, and that he objected to in his own Brooklyn-based family.” She also listed several progressive Jews whom she said were friends of hers also protesting Israel, including Zinn, Muriel Rukeyser, Amy Goodman, and Noam Chomsky.

In 2012, Walker made her positions explicit when she turned down an offer to publish a new Israeli edition of “The Color Purple.” In a letter, she told publisher Yediot Books that she did this because she believed Israel “is guilty of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people,” and endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement — a tactic that bestselling Irish author and fellow BDS backer Sally Rooney would echo in 2021. (An earlier Hebrew-language edition of “The Color Purple” was published in the 1980s.)

In 2013, the University of Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women rescinded an invitation for Walker to speak at its 50th anniversary celebration; Walker would later claim that this was due to her views on Israel. But the university never gave a clear reason, and in fact invited her to speak again the following year without incident.

Full-on Icke

By 2017, Walker’s tone had hardened — not only against Israel, but also Jews more broadly. That year on her website, she published a poem entitled, “It Is Our (Frightful) Duty To Study The Talmud,” in which Walker writes, “Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only / That, but to enjoy it?” 

The poem, a harsh critique of Israel and what Walker suggests is a Jewish urge to dominate non-Jews in accordance with the Talmud, continues, to describe “what may be done / With impunity, and without conscience, / By a Chosen people, / To the vast majority of the people / On the planet / Who were not Chosen.”

Walker also describes being “accused of being antisemitic” by a “friend / a Jewish soul / who I thought understood / or could learn to understand / almost anything” — an apparent reference to her ex-husband. The poem includes a link to an interview she conducted with controversial Israeli pro-Palestinian activist Miko Peled.

Walker’s troubles with antisemitism would break into public view the following year, when The New York Times Book Review asked her to list her favorite books for a regular column. Among her choices was “And The Truth Shall Set You Free,” by antisemitic conspiracy theorist David Icke. The book purports to explore the secret forces behind global power, and contains numerous screeds on Israel, the Jews, and familiar conspiracy theories like the Rotshchild family.

“I believe that researchers over the years who have blamed the entire conspiracy on the Jewish people as a whole are seriously misguided; similarly, for Jewish organizations to deny that any Jewish person is working for the New World Order conspiracy is equally naive and allowing dogma or worse to blind them to reality,” Icke writes at one point in the book. Later, discussing the events that led up to the Holocaust, he states, “I believe that all this was coldly calculated by the ‘Jewish’ elite.”

Walker had nothing but praise for the book, telling the TImes, “In Icke’s books there is the whole of existence, on this planet and several others, to think about. A curious person’s dream come true.” It wasn’t her first time praising Icke, whom she has also boosted on her website and in other writings; she soon suggested that her critics were merely upset over her pro-Palestinian activism.

Walker’s outspoken love of Icke has prompted a more widespread reckoning with her beliefs on Jews. Last year, a book festival in Berkeley, California, disinvited her from a major event over what the festival said was her “endorsement of antisemitic conspiracy theorist David Icke.” Walker had been promoting “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire,” a newly published collection of her journals. Playhouses staging “The Color Purple” started publishing statements addressing Walker’s links to antisemitism

A new ‘Color’ with shades of old

The new “Color Purple” is marketing itself as a “bold” reimagining of the novel, swapping out its dour, punishing prose for splashy, elaborate choreography. Like the first Spielberg adaptation, it also features an all-star Black cast: in this case headlined by Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, “The Little Mermaid”’s Halle Bailey and musician H.E.R.

It is also being positioned by studio Warner Brothers Discovery as a major awards contender — notable as the Spielberg-directed version was famously shut out of all 10 Oscars it was nominated for. At the time, film critic Roger Ebert, who named Spielberg’s film the best of the year, suspected this was due to the racism of a nearly entirely white Academy.

In the midst of Israel’s ongoing war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Walker has continued to advocate for Palestinians. Last month she appeared in a webinar hosted by Socialist Action entitled “Palestine Will Be Free From the River to the Sea“ that also featured an editor of the anti-Zionist website Electronic Intifada.

Meanwhile, Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation has launched an initiative to collect testimony from Israeli survivors of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. Spielberg himself, while not directly involved in the project, has endorsed it, saying, “I never imagined I would see such unspeakable barbarity against Jews in my lifetime.”

Spielberg has made no public comments about Walker or the new “Color Purple” this year, though the two of them both walked the red carpet at the film’s premiere.

The post A new ‘Color Purple’ adaptation hits theaters, returning author Alice Walker’s history of antisemitism to spotlight appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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South Dakota Passes Bill Adopting IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

Gov. Kristi Noem (R) speaking to legislators during the State of the State address on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024 at South Dakota State Captiol in Pierre. Photo: Samantha Laurey and Argus Leader via REUTERS CONNECT

South Dakota’s state Senate passed on Thursday a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to refer to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism when investigating anti-Jewish hate crimes.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) already adopted the definition, which has been embraced by lawmakers across the political spectrum, via executive order in 2021. This latest measure, HB 1076, aims to further integrate the IHRA’s guidance into law and includes the organization’s examples of antisemitism. It now awaits a vote by the state House of Representatives.

“As antisemitism continues to rise across America, having a clear and standardized definition enables a more unified stance against this hatred,” the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), said in a statement. “We appreciate Governor Kristi Noem for making this legislation a policy goal of hers, strengthening the use of the IHRA Working Definition in South Dakota through legislation, following the December 2021 adoption via executive proclamation.”

CAM called on lawmakers in the lower house to follow the Senate’s lead and implored “other states to join the fight against antisemitism by adopting the IHRA definition, ensuring the safety and well-being of their Jewish residents.”

First adopted in 2005 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes a list of illustrative examples ranging from Holocaust denial to the rejection of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. The definition is used by hundreds of governing institutions, including the US State Department, European Union, and the United Nations.

Widely regard as the world’s leading definition of antisemitism, it was adopted by 97 governmental and nonprofit organizations in 2023, according to a report Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) Antisemitism Research Center issued in January.

Earlier this month, Georgia became the latest US state to pass legislation applying IHRA’s guidance to state law. 33 US States have as well, including Virginia, Texas, New York, and Florida.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Columbia University Sued for Allowing Antisemitic Violence and Discrimination

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Columbia University allowed for antisemitism to explode on campus endangering the welfare of Jewish students and faculty, StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice and Students Against Antisemitism (SAA) alleges in a lawsuit announced on Wednesday.

Filed in the US District Court of Southern New York, the complaint recounts dozens of reported antisemitic incidents that occurred after Oct. 7 which the university allegedly failed to respond to adequately because of anti-Jewish, as well as anti-Zionist, bias.

“Columbia refuses to enforce its policies or protect Jewish and Israeli members of the campus community,” Yael Lerman, director of SWU Center for Legal Justice said on Wednesday in a press release. “Columbia has created a pervasively hostile campus environment in which antisemitic activists act with impunity, knowing that there will be no real repercussions for their violations of campus policies.”

“We decline to comment on pending litigation,” Columbia University spokesperson and vice president for communications told The Algemeiner on Friday.

The plaintiffs in the case accuse Columbia University of violating their contract, to which it is bound upon receiving payment for their tuition, and contravening Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. They are seeking damages as well as injunctive relief.

“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews, “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” students chanted on campus grounds after the tragedy, violating the school’s code of conduct and never facing consequences, the complaint says. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”

300 faculty signed a letter proclaiming “unwavering solidarity” with Massad, and in the following days, Students for Justice in Palestine defended Hamas’ actions as “rooted in international law.” In response, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, opting not to address their rhetoric directly, issued a statement mentioning “violence that is affecting so many people” but not, the complaint noted, explicitly condemning Hamas, terrorism, and antisemitism. Nine days later, Shafik rejected an invitation to participate in a viewing of footage of the Oct. 7 attacks captured by CCTV cameras.

The complaint goes on to allege that after bullying Jewish students and rubbing their noses in the carnage Hamas wrought on their people, pro-Hamas students were still unsatisfied and resulted to violence. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen.

More request to the university went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held demonstrations. The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events whole no one explained the inconsistency.

Virulent antisemitism at Columbia University on the heels of Oct. 7 was not a one-off occurance, the complaint alleges, retracing in over 100 pages 20 years of alleged anti-Jewish hatred at the school.

“Students at Columbia are enduring unprecedented levels of antisemitic and anti-Israel hate while coping with the trauma of Hamas’ October 7th massacre,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein said in Wednesday’s press release. “We will ensure that Columbia University is held accountable for their gross failure to protect their Jewish and Israeli students.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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University of California-Los Angeles Student Government Passes BDS Resolution

Graphic posted by University of California, Los Angeles Students for Justice in Palestine on February 21, 2024 to celebrate the student government’s passing an resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Photo: Screenshot/Instagram

The University of California-Los Angeles student government on Tuesday passed a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as false accusation that Israel is committing a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

“The Israeli government has carried out a genocidal bombing campaign and ground invasion against Palestinians in Gaza — intentionally targeting hospitals universities, schools, shelters, churches, mosques, homes, neighborhoods, refugee camps, ambulances, medical personnel, [United Nations] workers, journalists and more,” the resolution, passed 10-3 by the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC), says, not mentioning that UN personnel in Gaza assisted Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.

It continued, “Let it be resolved that the Undergraduate Student Association of UCLA formally call upon the UC Regents to withdraw investments in securities, endowments mutual funds, and other monetary instruments….providing material assistance to the commission or maintenance of flagrant violations of international law.

The days leading up to the vote were fraught, The Daily Bruin, the university’s official student newspaper reported on Wednesday.

“Non-UCLA students” sent USAC council members emails imploring them to vote for or against the resolution and USAC Cultural Affairs Commissioner and sponsor of the resolution, Alicia Verdugo, was accused of antisemitism and deserving of impeachment. The UCLA Graduate Student Association and University of California-Davis’ student government had just endorsed BDS the previous week, prompting fervent anticipation for the outcome of Tuesday’s USAC session.

Before voting took place, members of the council ordered a secret ballot, withholding from their constituents a record of where they stood on an issue of monumental importance to the campus culture. According to The Daily Bruin, they expressed “concerns” about “privacy” and “security.” Some members intimated how they would vote, however. During a question and answer period, one student who co-sponsored the resolution, accused a Jewish student of being “classist” and using “coded” language because she argued that the council had advanced the resolution without fully appreciating the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the history of antisemitism.

“As a Guatemalan, …my country went through genocide,” he snapped at the young woman, The Daily Bruin’s reporting documented. “My family died in the Guatemalan Mayan genocide. I understand. I very well know what genocide looks like.”

Other council members  voiced their support by co-sponsoring the resolution, which was co-authored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that has held unauthorized demonstrations and terrorized Jewish students across the country.

Responding to USAC’s decision, Jewish students told the paper that they find the campaign for BDS and the attempts of pro-Palestinian students to defend Hamas’ atrocities myopic and offensive.

“How can anyone dare to contextualize since Oct. 7 without acknowledging that the Jewish people are victims of such a cataclysmic attack?” Mikayla Weinhouse said. “BDS intentionally aims to divide a community. Its supporters paint a complex and century-old conflict in the Middle East as a simplistic narrative that inspires hate rather than advocates for a solution.”

University of California-Los Angeles denounced the resolution for transgressing school policy and the spirit of academic freedom.

“The University of California and UCLA, which, like all nine other UC campuses, has consistently opposed calls for a boycott against and divestment from Israel,” the school said in a statement. “We stand firm in our conviction that a boycott of this sort poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty and to the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on this campus.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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