BDS in Books: British Author Refuses to Publish in Israel – and She's Not the Only One

British author Kamila Shamsie, whose early works had been translated into Hebrew, refuses to publish her new books in Israel. She's not the only one

Kamila Shamsie, a prize-winning and highly praised British author of Pakistani descent, refused to be translated in Hebrew
LEONARDO CENDAMO / leemage / AFP

Last week one Israeli publisher had an unusual experience. It started off perfectly ordinarily: The publisher wanted to acquire the rights to publish the last two books by British author Kamila Shamsie, a prize-winning and highly praised British author of Pakistani descent. Her early books were published in Israel – the last of them was “Burnt Shadows,” which was published in Hebrew in 2010 by Keter. But since then she has published another two books, and the same publisher wanted to acquire them.

The reply to the feelers arrived quickly: “Unfortunately, I won't be able to share the author's work with Hebrew readers at this time. It's not personal,” wrote her agent. “I know that it was a difficult decision for Kamila, and the last thing she wants is to personally offend any Israeli editors.” 

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When the publisher asked for clarifications, the following reply came from Shamsie: “I would be very happy to be published in Hebrew, but I don’t know of any (fiction) publisher of Hebrew who is not Israeli, and I understand that there is no Israeli publisher who is completely unentangled from the state. I do not want to cross the picket line formed by Palestinian civil society, which has asked everyone who wants to change the situation to not cooperate with organizations that are in any way complicit with the Israeli state.”

It’s hard to say that this is a common reply. With all due respect to the BDS organizations, most writers are enthusiastic about being translated into foreign languages. A writer writes to be read, and literature can penetrate hearts, even those located thousands of kilometers from the place where it was written.

Has the political atmosphere in recent years and the strengthening of the BDS organizations led to more instances like that of Shamsie? And which writers are more liable to block the translation of their books into Hebrew?

In June 2010 Henning Mankell made headlines in Israel. The Swedish author, who participated in the protest flotilla on the ship Mavi Marmara, declared in the days after it was raided by Israeli commandos, who killed 10 Turks aboard, that from now on he would consider whether to continue publishing his books in Hebrew. His announcement resounded at the time, although he eventually changed his mind and his books continued to be published in Israel.

Swedish writer Henning Mankell declared a boycott on Israel in the wake of the Marmara flotilla affair, then changed his mind
AP

Earlier, in 2005, British author China Mieville, one of the greatest living writers of science fiction and fantasy, announced his refusal to have his books translated into Hebrew. “I wanted to publish one of his books that I consider a masterpiece, and I spoke to his agents. They informed me that it was impossible,” recalls Israeli publisher Rani Graff. “I asked him to write any foreword he wanted and we would translate it as is and print it in the book without editing it. He refused. I gave up.”

Refusal for political reasons is thus nothing new, but is it a growing phenomenon? In the Israeli literature industry several regions – mainly the British and Scandinavian markets – are considered tough territories where relatively few Israeli books are sold for translation and distribution. In an article in Haaretz in April, writers and people in the industry spoke of an audience that will give translated Israeli books a miss for political reasons, of the interruption of events with Israeli writers or mass walkouts from them – and even of a clear statement by local agents that for political reasons, Israeli literature won’t be translated into foreign languages. In the opposite situation, where a foreign writer refuses to have his book translated into Hebrew, the picture is more complicated.

“I’ve encountered such cases several times,” says Ornit Cohen-Barak, editor of the literature series at Modan publishers. “It happened to me for the first time when I wanted to buy ‘The Yacoubian Building,’ a novel by Egyptian author Alaa al-Aswany, and they told me that he refuses to be published in Israel, no matter what. The second time it was a book by Christos Tsiolkas, an Australian writer of Greek origin. (The television series ‘The Slap’ is based on the book.) I was told that he isn’t willing to be published in Israel unless we publish an edition in Arabic for Palestinians. When we refused he informed us that he wasn’t willing.

Christos Tsiolkas, an Australian writer of Greek origin who said he wasn't willing to be published in Israel unless an edition was published in Arabic for Palestinians
ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP

“Afterwards there was another case. We had already signed an agreement with an Egyptian writer who wrote a book about Tahrir Square, something between a novel and reportage. We bought the rights and then she asked to cancel the contract because she was afraid of being harmed. Something similar happened one more time, with a writer of Palestinian origin, and since then, whenever people recommend writers from Arab countries I try to ascertain with them that they’re willing to be published in Israel, because I don’t have time to read books and arrange contracts that won’t happen.”

Those likely to be problematic, say other editors and people in the industry, are writers from Arab or Muslim countries, or writers from Western countries with Muslim roots. Incidentally, “The Yakoubian Building” was finally published in Hebrew about two years ago after a decade of opposition, not by Modan but by Kinneret publishers. It required a certain subterfuge – for the purpose Kinneret cooperated with the British Toby Press, which publishes books in Hebrew too.

“In 2014 we were interested in a book by a writer of Palestinian origin who lives in the United States,” says Dvora Negbi of Am Oved publishers. “I wrote to her agency and we asked for the manuscript of the book and I received a reply that they were sorry, but the writer supports the economic and cultural boycott of Israel and therefore refuses to publish her books here. Shortly afterwards there was a similar story. There was a phenomenal book by a female Saudi writer that I wanted to buy. Through her agent she admitted that she was afraid to have it published in Hebrew.There are cases of writers who are afraid to be published in Israel.”

Ornit Cohen-Barak, editor of the literature series at Modan publishers
דן חיימוביץ'

“I’ve encountered such cases, not recently, mainly from the Arab world,” says Ziv Lewis, who is in charge of acquiring translation rights for books published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan. “It’s actually not for political reasons, but for reasons of personal security, and these are mainly Lebanese, Iraqi, Syrian writers.

“I haven’t come across Western writers who identify with BDS. A writer wants his book to be read by as many people as possible. They may not want to contribute to public relations, won’t agree to be interviewed – but they want to be read. The same is true of writers from the Arab world whom we contact: Unofficially they all want to be published everywhere and in any language, including Hebrew.”

Cohen-Barak of Modan says: “It doesn’t happen every day that a writer refuses, only once in a while. In Egypt the problem is especially serious; they refuse. I even asked to meet with an Egyptian literary agent so I could understand it more in depth. It’s existed since I’ve been in the field. But in cases of a Western writer who’s unwilling to be translated into Hebrew, I think that here it comes from a lack of understanding. After all, culture is the place that can bridge gaps, so what good are they doing by refusing?”