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

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.

"The Color Purple" author Alice Walker attends the "The Color Purple" Broadway revival's Opening Night at The Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on December 10, 2015 in New York City. (Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images)
"The Color Purple" author Alice Walker attends the "The Color Purple" Broadway revival's Opening Night at The Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on December 10, 2015 in New York City. (Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images)

(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.

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. PJC

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