Alice Walker, Answering Backlash, Praises Anti-Semitic Author as ‘Brave’

In a statement addressing the widespread outrage over her praise for a book with anti-Jewish overtones, the novelist Alice Walker called its author “brave enough to ask the questions others fear to ask” and denied that he was anti-Semitic.

The remarks, published on her website, came several days after a New York Times interview in which she called “And the Truth Will Set You Free,” by David Icke, “a curious person’s dream come true.” Jewish groups and many others condemned Ms. Walker for supporting the book and The Times for publishing the interview.

Ms. Walker, author of the acclaimed novel “The Color Purple,” did not back down in her statement, saying that the book was not anti-Semitic.

“I do believe he is brave enough to ask the questions others fear to ask, and to speak his own understanding of the truth wherever it might lead,” she wrote.

Ms. Walker’s response did little to dispel the controversy that erupted after she gave an enthusiastic endorsement of Mr. Icke, a British conspiracy theorist.

“There is no fair reading of Icke’s work that could be seen as not anti-Semitic,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said in an email on Friday. “Public figures should not be making excuses for Icke’s hatred; they should be condemning it.”

In the book, Mr. Icke draws on ideas from the anti-Semitic pamphlet “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” argues that Holocaust denial should be taught in schools and that Jews are responsible for organizing anti-Semitic attacks, and calls the Talmud a racist document. In other writings, he has posited that a cabal of a child-sacrificing, bloodthirsty lizard people, many of whom are Jewish, are secretly running the world.

Ms. Walker did not immediately respond to an interview request submitted through her literary agent on Friday. In response to an interview request to Mr. Icke, his son sent a link to a recording of a statement this week in which Mr. Icke denied being an anti-Semite and argued that the criticism amounted to “propaganda against me designed to discredit me and what I’m writing,” but went on to say that “some Jewish people are involved in a global conspiracy.”

In last week’s By the Book column in The Times’s Book Review section, when Ms. Walker was asked which books she has on her nightstand, Ms. Walker cited “And the Truth Shall Set You Free,” saying that “in Icke’s books there is the whole of existence, on this planet and several others, to think about.” In the same answer, she also praised “The Road of Lost Innocence,” a book about sex trafficking in Cambodia by Somaly Mam, which was discredited in 2014 when it emerged that Ms. Mam had fabricated parts of her story.

Readers who were aware of Mr. Icke’s extreme views and his role in spreading anti-Semitic tropes and ideas saw Ms. Walker’s recommendation as not only offensive, but as a dangerous endorsement of bigotry and hatred. Some critics said that in an environment where conspiracy theories have led to a rise in hate crimes and violence against Jews, and may have been a motivating factor behind the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, publishing an endorsement of such views without challenging them was irresponsible.

“The only thing that is accomplished by uncritically disseminating Walker’s bigoted book bon mots is ensuring that the racism is disseminated to more people,” Yair Rosenberg wrote in Tablet.

Mr. Rosenberg and others have noted that Ms. Walker has espoused such ideas before, praising Mr. Icke’s books on her blog, in a BBC interview, and posting a video of one of his lectures on her website.

Critics also cited blatantly anti-Semitic language in her poetry, particularly one titled, “It Is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud,” which includes the lines, “Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only/ That, but to enjoy it?”

But while Ms. Walker’s views were no secret, they hadn’t been subject to such intense public scrutiny before.

For many readers, she is best known as a beloved figure in the literary world, a poet and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Color Purple,” which was adapted into a film featuring Oprah Winfrey and a Broadway show.

Ms. Walker, 74, is also a longtime political activist and vocal feminist, known for her work with the NAACP and for taking stands on social justice issues. She has also been an outspoken critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, even comparing the country to Nazi Germany. Jewish groups including the Anti-Defamation League have been monitoring Walker’s talks and writing for years.

In her website remarks, Ms. Walker said that both she and Mr. Icke were being attacked for supporting Palestinians and that “as a woman, and a person of color, as a writer who has been criticized and banned myself, I support his right to share his own thoughts.”

“It is a sad day for freedom of inquiry, thought, and speech, when an attempt is made to frighten people into lying about what is on their nightstand,” she wrote.

Many critics took issue not only with Ms. Walker’s views, but also the Times’s decision to publish her unqualified recommendation of an anti-Semitic book without critiquing the choice or asking any follow-up questions. In a letter to The Times, Mr. Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League said The Times had failed to put the recommendation in context.

“Ms. Walker has a right to read what she will, but the Book Review has a responsibility to fact-check its material and forewarn readers if the book being recommended to readers is a conspiratorial polemic by a writer with a long history of scapegoating groups of Jews and blaming them for many of the ills of the modern world,” he wrote.

In an interview with the Times’s Reader Center, the editor of the Book Review, Pamela Paul, said that the By the Book column was designed to shed light on a subject’s reading habits and to use books as a window into their views, and should not be construed as an endorsement of their choices.

“When we interview anyone, whether it’s a public official or a foreign leader or an artist, The Times isn’t saying that we approve of the person’s views and actions,” she said. “We’re saying we think the subject is worthy of interviewing; that’s our approach with By the Book.”

It remains unclear whether the controversy will tarnish Ms. Walker’s legacy, or shape the way readers and scholars approach her celebrated body of work, which also includes “You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down” and “Finding the Green Stone.”

Writing in Slate, the book critic Laura Miller argued that while The Times should have given readers contextual information to evaluate the book, the controversy did have one upside: “A lot more people know the ugly truth about Walker and Icke now.”