Novelist Alice Walker was invited, then disinvited, from speaking at the Univeristy of Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women’s fifiteth anniversary celebration. Walker claims that the disinvitation came because of pressure from pro-Israel donors. The Center claims that they just decided that they erred in inviting such a divisive figure to the celebration–Walker is an extremely harsh critic of Israel, an advocate of BDS (boycott divestment and sanctions), a former passenger on one of the pro-Hamas Gaza flotilla ships, and someone who has been accused with some evidence of allowing her criticism of Israel to shade into anti-Semitism, especially in a recent book where she seems to conflate her hostility to Israel with her hostility to her Jewish ex-husband and his family. (Update: Though it appears as though the reason she was disinvited may have simply been that the organizers were afraid she would hijack the celebratory event with a political diatribe unrelated to the Center’s mission.)
Walker’s allies have kicked up quite a fuss in the blogosphere about her treatment, and on Monday U. Mich’s Faculty Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs unanimously approved the following statement: “SACUA expresses concern about the potential damage done to the reputation of the University of Michigan and its faculty by the appearance of insensitivity to principles of academic freedom stemming from the disinvitation of Alice Walker as speaker for the CEW.”
A few comments:
(1) First, the caterwauling from the anti-Israel left about Walker’s disinvitation is unbelievably hypocritical. Even if we assume that the disinvitation was for “political reasons”, remember that Walker advocates boycotting Israel, so much so that she won’t allow The Color Purple to be translated into Hebrew. She recently called for Alicia Keys to, if you will, disinvite herself from performing in Israel. If Walker advocates boycotting an entire country based on the policies of that country, policies that obviously not everyone in that country agrees with, what possible intellectually consistent grounds are there for she and her allies to protest when others want to boycott her, for repugnant views that she clearly holds?
(2) If another speaker had made the sort of at least borderline racist remarks against other minorities that Walker has made about Jews, she would have never been invited to begin with, and if such a speaker had been invited, the same leftist types that have been denouncing the Center’s disinvitation would have been demanding such a disinvitation.
(3) Regarding the Senate committee’s report, what academic freedom principle are we talking about? Walker is not an academic, and even if her unsubstantiated (and denied) allegation that donors to the Center wanted her disinvited is true, what academic freedom principle says that an a primarily non-academic unit of a univeristy (“the University of Michigan Center for the Education of Women is dedicated to encouraging and enhancing the education and careers of adult women through programs and services, advocacy and research”) running a non-academic anniversary celebration is bound to be neutral (or for that matter unresponsive to donors) in its selection of speakers?
(4) The Center does seem to have handled Walker impolitely, and I suppose one shouldn’t lose one’s manners even with the likes of Walker. But the fact remains, she shouldn’t have been considered for the relevant honor to begin with, her advocacy of boycotts should in fact be turned against her, and again if her invective had been leveled at minority groups other than Jews, this wouldn’t be a bit controversial Unfortunately, the Center has caved somewhat and plans to invite her to a future event.
(5) The award for weirdest commentary I’ve seen on the Walker kerfuffle goes to the bizarre anti-Zionist site Mondoweiss, which somehow in the same blog post (quoting FAU student Andrew Dalack) manages to decry “censorship” and “intimidation” of pro-Palestinian activists, while using using as Exhibit A the fact that Florida Atlantic University is disciplining students who disrupted a speech by an Israeli military officer. So it’s not okay to disinvite Alice Walker, but it’s okay to disrupt pro-Israel speakers. Well okay then.