Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize winning author and critic of Israel, dead at 88

Morrison’s views on Israel were seen as painful because she was an iconoclastic figure who had challenged conventions about race and oppression.

August 7, 2019 12:15
U.S. author Toni Morrison poses after being awarded the Officer de la Legion d'Honneur, the Legion o

U.S. author Toni Morrison poses after being awarded the Officer de la Legion d'Honneur, the Legion of Honour, France's highest award, in Paris November 3, 2010. (photo credit: PHILIPPE WOJAZER/REUTERS)

Novelist Toni Morrison, the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, died in New York at the age of 88 on Monday. She was known for speaking her mind about many subjects, including Israel and her disdain for the Israeli government’s policies.

In one 2006 incident, which upset many who were disappointed that a writer of Morrison’s stature could ignore the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a letter signed by Morrison and 17 other writers criticized public outrage over Hamas’s kidnapping of Gilad Schalit while there were “approximately 10,000 [Palestinians] in Israeli jails.”

The letter went on to further lament the Israeli response to Schalit’s kidnapping, stating “That this ‘kidnapping’ was considered an outrage, whereas the illegal military occupation of the West Bank and the systematic appropriation of its natural resources – most particularly that of water – by the Israeli Defense (!) Forces is considered a regrettable but realistic fact of life, is typical of the double standards repeatedly employed by the West in face of what has befallen the Palestinians, on the land allotted to them by international agreements, during the last 70 years.”

Israel’s “political aim is nothing less than the liquidation of the Palestinian nation,” it read.

The letter was printed in newspapers and magazines around the world, including The Nation.

It ended with a particularly ironic postscript: “As Juliano Mer Khamis, director of the documentary film Arna’s Children, asked: ‘Who is going to paint the ‘Guernica’ of Lebanon?’”

Mer Khamis, a Jewish-Palestinian actor/director, was murdered in 2011 by an Islamic extremist after receiving death threats for years because he brought secular theater to the youth of Jenin’s refugee camps, the very work he chronicled in the documentary the letter references.

Morrison’s views on Israel were seen as especially painful because she was an iconoclastic figure who had challenged so many conventions about race and oppression. Morrison’s work illuminated the experience of African-Americans and she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993. The Swedish Academy praised her “visionary force” and her command of “language itself, a language she wants to liberate” from racial concepts.

Born in Ohio, she studied at Howard University and got a master’s degree in literature from Cornell, then became an editor at Random House. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published when she was nearly 40.

Beloved, her 1987 novel about a female slave who kills her own baby to save her from slavery, is her best-known work. In 1988, it won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as many other awards. It was adapted into a film produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey.

Her other works include Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby and the other two novels in the Beloved trilogy, Jazz and Paradise.

In 2012, US president Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For many years, she was a professor at Princeton University.

In 2015, when she was asked to write the introduction to a collection of the complete works of Primo Levi – an Italian Jewish writer and chemist who wrote extensively of his experiences in the Holocaust – the choice generated some controversy.

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