Sally Rooney, Speak to Us in Our Language

The best-selling Irish writer Sally Rooney has the right to criticize Israel, but she's not doing anyone a service by shunning Israeli readers

Michal Caspi
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Sally Rooney.
Sally Rooney.
Michal Caspi

I recently read Sally Rooney’s new novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You” – the book the Irish author blocked from being distributed in Hebrew because of her support for the BDS movement. I considered sending my thoughts on the matter to her directly, but a brief internet search revealed that the only way to correspond with her is via her London publisher, by mail. Then one can only hope the letter reaches its destination, is passed on to Rooney’s agent, who will then pass it on to her – and maybe she will read it in six months, at best. So, I decided to publish my thoughts in an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper, and hope for the best.

Some background: Rooney, a 30-year-old Irish writer, has been called the voice of the millennial generation. Her previous books, “Conversations with Friends” (2017) and “Normal People” (2018), were widely read globally, and were also translated into Hebrew and published by Modan. It was recently reported that Rooney decided to not to sell the literary rights of her new book to Modan because the company has not expressed its opposition to the Israeli government’s policy toward the Palestinian people. However, Rooney emphasized that if a solution is found that conforms to the BDS guidelines and does not support Israel’s “racist” policies, she would not oppose the book’s publication in Hebrew. I respect her opinion and her right to criticize the State of Israel, but I do not think that preventing Hebrew readers from reading the book is the right approach.

Rooney is not afraid to voice her opinions publicly and has no reason to be. In an interview from about two years ago, she claimed that although she is a committed Marxist, who opposes capitalism – and her characters also support similar ideas – her writing is not intended to be political. In her books, she explained, Rooney focuses on dialogue and dynamics between her characters, and does not impose political ideas onto them.

But by taking her position, she ignores an important role that books have: generating moral insights in the reader. Philosophers of art tell us that while reading, people generate moral insights out of the empathy that arises in them and from their identification with the characters, be they morally good or not. While these may be similar to other moral insights we formulate throughout our lives, the great virtue of books is that they have the power to overcome the limitations of time and space and to convey to readers experiences that they would probably never otherwise have had. It is important to note, however, that these insights take shape whether or not the writer intended them to do; they are part of the reading experience.

If Rooney really wants to influence the situation in Israel, I would advise her not to give up publishing in Hebrew so easily.

Her devoted Israeli readers, who follow her work and identify with her ideas, will find a way to get her latest book, so I am not worried about them. Like me, they will order “Beautiful World, Where Are You” from online booksellers, and read it in English or in other translations. In this sense, Rooney will be “preaching to the converted” in Israel. Her Israeli readership will be limited to a small group of young people, with worldviews presumably located on the left side of the political map. They will be educated, likely with a relatively high social status, because they will be able to read and understand the book in a foreign language. These will eagerly read her book and approve of it with pleasure and out of deep identification with the characters. In this way, Rooney’s direct and empathetic writing and the issues she deals with will be the domain of a few – those who already believed that they would enjoy her book.

By choosing to deny the general Hebrew-reading public the opportunity of enjoying her new work, Rooney is denying them the possibility of encountering a new and foreign world and of drawing conclusions that could change their way of thinking and their actions. Many of these readers are not at all familiar with the thoughts and feelings that characterize the new novel, and reading it may raise new questions about the world’s situation. She addresses, for example, the despair one can feel in response to the destruction wreaked by humanity on the world, and the attempt to find a reason to live when everything appears hopeless.

Rooney’s writing contributes to the spread of her ideological beliefs far more than she thinks, and it also allows readers to understand in depth the social and personal problems she engages with. Moreover, many of these issues – for example, birth rates and their impact on future generations on Earth – are rarely discussed in Israeli society, although it would be beneficial if they were. I would even go so far as to say that if other foreign writers follow her example not to publish in this country, it is possible that such issues would never have a forum here at all.

The opportunity to arrive at new moral understanding, based on the empathy one feels for the situations experienced by her protagonists, will thus be denied to the average Israeli reader. In her decision, Rooney imposes on them blindness to a discourse that’s currently taking place among many young people worldwide, as well as in several small circles in Israel. If such a cultural boycott becomes widespread, and writers are not willing to present their views to the general public here, the rifts in Israeli society and the polarization between the generations and different groups and classes will only deepen. Novels are a good vehicle for conveying ideas in simple language and with the help of familiar situations, and to arouse empathy in readers and help them develop fresh moral knowledge. Without literature, our world would be small and narrow.

I’m not suggesting that Rooney’s new book is perfect in all respects; I do have some criticisms of it. But I would argue that the author’s decision to prevent the Israeli audience from reading her book is a misguided one, and I would urge her not to give up on that public so easily. Instead of trying to influence the atmosphere and discourse in Israeli society, Rooney chose the easy path, and denied us the opportunity to read her book in the Hebrew language. Instead of giving the local reader a chance to see the world through the eyes of two young Irish women trying to find beauty and hope in the chaos we live in, she chose to leave us in this chaos without seeing the glimmer of light that makes the world – for all its ugliness and destruction – beautiful.

Michal Caspi is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Politics, Philosophy and Economics program.

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