City College headquarters
San Diego Community College District headquarters in Downtown San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

The San Diego Community College District has asked Alice Walker to speak at the investiture of the new chancellor, Carlos O. Cortez.

Walker’s continuing popularity is not hard to explain. She won the Pulitzer for her novel, The Color Purple, back in 1983, and since then has become something of an icon in the Black community. Even though she has not produced any fiction or poetry of note for years now, she continues to receive awards, honors, and invitations to speak.

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Most recently, Simon & Shuster has published the first volume of her journals to lavish reviews in The New Yorker and the New York Times.  And now, she will grace the San Diego Community College with her presence.

Yet Walker has recently expressed views that make her appearance at the investiture problematic.

In 2018, Walker revealed in an interview with The New York Times that she is a fan of David Icke, whose book, And the Truth Shall Set You Free, she called “a curious person’s dream come true.” The Times let Walker’s comment go by without challenge. But Icke is, in fact, a conspiracy theorist who believes that shape-shifting lizards rule the earth. He also hates Jews.

His book draws liberally on the infamous anti-Jewish forgery, The Protocols of Zion. He considers the Talmud “among the most appallingly racist documents on the planet” and suggests the service organization, B’nai Brith, was behind the Atlantic slave trade. Even more weirdly, he argues that radical right wing groups are, in fact, fronts for Jews: “I am told by an extremely reliable source very close to the intelligence organizations that the ‘far Right’ group, Combat 18, is a front for the sinister Anti-Defamation League, the United States and of the ‘Israeli’/Rothschild secret service, Mossad.”

Walker, however, thinks all this poisonous nonsense is great. Even worse, Walker wrote a “poem” that is equally repellent — “To Study the Talmud.” This antisemitic bit of verse starts off denouncing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, which is fine—the woman is entitled to her opinions—but then, veers off the deep end:

Is Jesus boiling eternally in hot excrement,
For his “crime” of throwing the bankers
Out of the Temple? For loving, standing with,
And defending
The poor? Was his mother, Mary,

A whore?
Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only
That, but to enjoy it?
Are three year old (and a day) girls eligible for marriage and intercourse?
Are young boys fair game for rape?
Must even the best of the Goyim (us, again) be killed?
Pause a moment and think what this could mean
Or already has meant
In our own lifetime.

Walker seems to have suffered no consequences, no embarrassment, for holding explicitly anti-Jewish views. Instead, as part of the publicity blitz for the publication of her journals, The New York Times offers a fawning profile of her. The author, reporter Elizabeth A. Harris, admits that Walker “has taken positions, including in The Times, that many have found to be antisemitic and deeply troubling.” But note the qualification, many have found to be. Which says the matter is up for debate, like inflation’s cause.

When Harris asks Walker about “To Study the Talmud,” Walker deflects, asserting “her criticism is not of Jewish people but of Israel, as well as of the ancient texts and practices of all religions, including Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.” Harris, however, does not press further. She lets Walker’s assertion stand unchallenged. She does not ask Walker for the references to “Christianity, Islam and Buddhism” in her “poem.”

The New Yorker review of her journals by Lauren Michelle Jackson, Assistant Professor of English at Northwestern University, also treats Walker’s more untoward opinions with kid gloves, trying to explain away Walker’s deep dive into the bizarre, antisemitic world of David Ickes: “Having grown up in a place where conspiracies, racial and sexual, were daily realities to be reckoned with, Walker may have developed a belated hunger for more.”

The question is why Walker’s antisemitism gets a pass. You might think that a time when the slightest hint of racism will get you cancelled (recently, a philosophy professor at San Diego State was pulled from two classes for citing racially charged language), Walker’s antisemitism would elicit strong and unambiguous condemnations. But apparently not.

The answer is that in today’s progressive world, antisemitism is just not that big a deal. Last year, David Baddiel, wrote a book, Jews Don’t Count, arguing that “a sacred circle is drawn around those whom the progressive modern left are prepared to go into battle for, and it seems as if the Jews aren’t in it.”

Even more worrisome, antisemitism in the United States continues to rise. According to the ADL’s most recent survey, 2021 saw more antisemitic incidents than ever before: 2,717, a 34% increase from the previous year. And that includes San Diego.

To be clear, I am not calling for the San Diego Community College District to retract their invitation. I don’t believe in cancel culture, I’ve written against cancel culture, and I’m not going to be a hypocrite and call for Walker’s cancellation. If this is who the SDCCD wants to spend public funds to bring in for a speaking engagement, that’s their right.

But the people who arranged this visit should ask themselves why, at a time when antisemitic attacks have reached an unprecedented level — “We’ve never seen data like this before, ever,” says Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the ADL — they thought Alice Walker would be an appropriate choice? 

Why didn’t her antisemitism matter to them? Why didn’t her adherence to hateful conspiracy theories disqualify her?

They need to ask themselves some hard questions.

Peter C. Herman is professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He has published on Shakespeare, Milton and the literature of terrorism, and has published essays in Salon, Inside Higher Ed, as well as Times of San Diego. His most recent book is “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11” (Routledge, 2020).