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Sally Rooney Just Revealed the Feelgood Futility of BDS

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Protesters at a demonstration against Israel in Paris, France
Protesters at a demonstration against Israel in Paris, FranceCredit: AP Photo/Jacques Brinon
Etan Nechin
Etan Nechin

The tiny Hebrew-language publishing world took on larger than life proportions this week after Irish writer Sally Rooney, author of the international bestseller "Conversations with Friends," refused to have her new novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You” published by an Israeli publisher, due to her support for the cultural boycott of Israel.

In a statement, Rooney wrote: “I understand that not everyone will agree with my decision, but I simply do not feel it would be right for me under the present circumstances to accept a new contract with an Israeli company that does not publicly distance itself from apartheid and support the UN-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people.”

As the reasoning for her refusal, Rooney cited a report released earlier this year by B’Tselem, in which the Israeli human rights group concludes that "Israel’s system of racial domination and segregation against Palestinians meets the definition of apartheid under international law."

Rooney is a long-time supporter of Palestinian rights and, on its face, this statement is consistent with her stand not to engage with a rogue nation-state in violation of international law. 

Despite her criticism of Israel, both of her previous novels were translated by Modan, an Israeli publisher. But it’s quite understandable that her position has hardened in the meantime, especially after this summer, when the world was gripped by Sheikh Jarrah evictions and protests, the interfaith clashes within Israel, and the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Sally Rooney poses for a photograph ahead of the announcement of the winner of the Costa Book Awards in London, 2019.Credit: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Those who accuse Rooney of being antisemitic or argue, "Well, why doesn’t she boycott translations into Mandarin in response to China’s treatment of Uyghurs?" are advancing bad faith arguments.

Maintaining an uncompromising harsh stance against Israel’s illegal policies and even calling Israel an apartheid state isn’t antisemitic. As a private citizen, and as part of the international community, everyone has the choice over which causes they want to champion. Although crueler at times, the oppression of Uyghurs isn’t less pressing than the state-sanctioned violence and dispossession against Palestinians. 

Beyond that, boycotts are a perfectly legitimate, nonviolent way to show solidarity and resistance, like Gandhi’s salt march, the boycott of apartheid-era South Africa or Israeli actors refusing to perform in West Bank cultural centers.

More than that, in a world with so many competing causes, having a luminary such as Sally Rooney raise awareness of the daily struggle of Palestinians and to offer solidarity with those working to find solutions could’ve been a coup for amplifying the voices of those seeking the end of the occupation.

Instead, her gesture became a point of contention even within those engaged with the Palestinian struggle. And it’s not because her intentions aren’t right or her politics are inconsistent, but because the BDS movement’s stance on cultural boycotts, rather than providing moral clarity to those wanting to show solidarity, is so open to mistranslation that it furthers the ethical ambiguity around them.

The problem arose from her first statement, which was unclear about whether Rooney objected to a Hebrew translation, or whether she was just saying she didn’t want the novel to be published by an Israeli publisher, in Israel. 

The critiques came thick and fast: If indeed she had advocated boycotting the Hebrew language, it would have been an open and shut case: anyone who boycotts a language, rather than political, legal, or economic institutions, is a bigot. 

Sally Rooney (second from right) at the Hulu "Normal People" panel during the Winter 2020 Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, CalifCredit: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

She later adjusted her statement to say, "If I can find a way to sell these rights that is compliant with the BDS movement’s institutional boycott guidelines, I will be very pleased and proud to do so…for the moment, I have chosen not to sell these translation rights to an Israeli-based publishing house."

Although her willingness to publish in Hebrew sounds more reasonable, her second statement is even more problematic. 

MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan tweeted that Rooney says "she *does* want her book translated into Hebrew, as her last two were, but no longer wants to do so with an Israel-based publishing house." 

Hasan’s argument is misleading, because the reality is that there is no Hebrew publishing house with the capacity and market reach to publish Rooney’s book outside of Israel. Rooney is still effectively boycotting Hebrew speakers.

And futher, what is an "Israeli BDS-compliant" publishing house anyway? 

There is definitely a point of scrutiny with her current publisher Modan, which has a production and distribution agreement with Israel’s defense ministry. But there are plenty of other small, independent publishers who aren’t aligned, nor contracted with the Israeli government. 

Hebrew Book Week, an annual nation-wide event, has for many years drawn as many as a million Israelis of all ages to its stalls and performances; the largest are held in Tel Aviv's Rabin SquareCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

In any case Modan also owns part of Tzomet Sfarim, one of the largest bookstore chains in Israel. So, for any small publisher to be "BDS-compliant," it would also have to refuse to sell its book in those stores, thus making the translation economically impossible. 

Again, in practical terms, by disqualifying any Israeli company that is "complicit" with Israeli state institutions to translate her work in Israel, Rooney is blocking Hebrew readers from her work. 

Rooney says she’s both willing to do business with a BDS-aligned Israeli publisher while also choosing not to sell her rights to an "Israel-based publishing house," never mind their politics. Her statement becomes then a deterministic evaluation which deems all and every Israeli-based publishing house as inherently inconsistent with BDS and wholeheartedly in bed with the actions of the Israeli government. It’s the equivalent of blaming an Amazon delivery driver for being complicit in Jeff Bezos’ exploitation of workers.

The source of these vacillations and inconsistencies aren’t from within Rooney’s apparently well-intentioned politics but in the muddiness of how the BDS movement defines the goals and definitions of the cultural boycott.

Its long FAQ does not mention  the definition of "BDS-compliant" cultural institution within Israel, but only dictates that individuals are not targeted, which even recent experience shows is not true. The cultural boycott is vague, open to exploitation and misunderstanding, and dependent on subjective interpretation that in too many cases is simply misguided. 

BDS has a strong hold on Palestinian solidarity campaigns on Western campuses and elite cultural institutions. It tries to shame those who don’t align with its murky guidelines, leading even radical thinkers like Norman Finkelstein to disavow them as a "cult." 

Pin with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions logo during the launch of the Egyptian BDS campaign against Israel and Israeli-made goods, at the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo, EgyptCredit: AP Photo/Amr Nabil

But beyond producing momentary headlines, BDS has been a failure. 

Since its inception, it has done nothing to damage Israel's GDP or more narrowly, the economic power of the settlement movement. In its 16 years of existence, it has only managed to hurt academics and independent cultural institutions already marginalized by mainstream Israeli society and government for their dissenting position against the occupation. 

Collateral damage is understandable in any struggle for human rights, but Israel’s growing powers and its new stature in the Arab world after the Abraham Accords and its reinstatement into the African Union shows that BDS only causes collateral rather than substantive damage: it’s only the already-marginalized, the already-silenced, the already-too-politically-too-weak-to-make-a-difference who in the end feel the effect of BDS.

Instead of thinking up new and genuinely effective ways to affect change, or to find other routes to offer solidarity, many Western intellectuals and cultural figures simply go along with BDS because of the noise and prominence of its activists. 

But the inconvenient truth is that not all anti-occupation activists are aligned with BDS, and there are many constructive, though less satisfying demagogic, paths to forge which would amplify Palestinian voices and awareness of the injustice of the occupation: From raising money for bookstores bombed by the IDF to championing young Palestinian authors, to creating Israeli-Palestinian collaborations, like Edward Said did in 2001 with Daniel Barenboim.

Said explained his thinking in terms pointedly relevant to the Rooney saga: "Separation between peoples is not a solution for any of the problems that divide peoples. And certainly ignorance of the other provides no help whatever."

Sally Rooney could have engaged with the Palestinian cause in a serious and even more radical way than BDS – and communicated her position in the clearest way to a global audience.

For Israelis on the left, solidarity with the Palestinians and rejecting Israel’s crimes of occupation, whilst agitating for a just outcome, are a core part of its agenda. But when resistance is merely a performative act, it creates a vacuum of apathy where action should be. It simply replicates the strategy of the hegemonic Zionist system. 

Back in 2013, now Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was in charge of the education ministry and, inverting BDS, banned Dorit Rabinyan’s book "All the Rivers" from school curricula because it portrays Israeli soldiers as sadistic and features a love story between a Jewish woman and a Palestinian man.

Like Bennett, BDS fears the possibilities new narratives have to offer to both Israelis and Palestinians, it fears language itself because free of its ideological control, language, stories, culture – can offer new ways of thinking and conceiving a shared future. 

It’s worth remembering that Israeli readers themselves offered the best pushback to that crude attempt to define the bounds of their personal, political and intellectual worlds, by flocking in droves to buy Rabinyan’s book and sending it surging up the bestseller list.

Rooney’s gesture was meant to highlight two issues: how to show solidarity with an oppressed people, and how to hold responsible those complicit in the system that oppresses them. Unfortunately, this time, both those lofty aims got lost in translation. 

Etan Nechin is a Brooklyn-based Israeli writer and editor for The Bare Life Review: a Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Literature. Twitter:  @etanetan23

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