Sally Rooney's Story Is Not About Israel

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Sally Rooney poses for a photograph ahead of the announcement of the winner of the Costa Book Awards in London, 2019.

Some call it “the affair riling the literary world,” in memory of the days when the local literary world was capable of getting worked up over something. This is a tale of two live wires meeting: A world-famous writer and support for the movement promoting a cultural boycott of Israel. So yes, the local literary scene did indeed awaken from its deep slumber.

Haaretz published an essay by Michal Caspi, entitled in the Hebrew edition “A lover of books and literature” (a rare appellation these days, and one to be appreciated). Then, Oranit Cohen-Barak of Modan Press, the Israeli publisher of writer Sally Rooney, shared an open letter she wrote her; and on Thursday we learned that Steimatzky is removing her books from its shelves.

But before we delve deep into the position espoused by Caspi and Cohen-Barak, as well as many commenters on social media, one must understand the prevailing sentiment in Rooney’s native Ireland toward Israel. For many years, the Emerald Islanders have supported the Palestinians, out of identification with them. They view Israel as evil occupying England, and the Palestinians as their own counterparts, struggling for freedom.

But after the 2014 round of fighting in Gaza, something happened. My friend, an English-Jewish author and columnist, who moved 30 years ago to Galway in Ireland (where he is loved and appreciated) described to me the fear he felt for the first time as the streets were flooded with incensed Irish, wrapped in Palestinian flags. Like him, Rooney lives among her people. What he experienced as an escalation in antisemitism, she experienced as an escalation in the violation of Palestinian human rights.

But the offended reactions to Rooney’s announcement, that she will not sell translation rights into Hebrew for her new book, were an object lesson in lack of comprehension. Caspi wrote that if Rooney “truly wants to impact the situation here” she needs to reach Hebrew readers through her books. Cohen-Barak wrote that the fact that Rooney’s books are published in countries infamous for their human rights violations “places a big question mark on the consistency of your approach.”

Some determined that Rooney’s action is contrary to the spirit of literature, which is capable of traversing borders and entering hearts. But all comments, without exception, stem from an ethno-centrist viewpoint, according to which there’s a fight going on between Rooney and readers in Israel, and that she has decided to insult them personally.

It’s a bit childish and quite embarrassing. First of all, literature may traverse borders and enter hearts, but in terms of impact – Rooney’s use of her global stature is more effective than people having read her latest novel. She’s not trying to favorably impress us and isn’t impressed herself by the inconsistency Barak-Cohen exposed.

She sold her the translation rights for her two previous novels, not the right to steer her through the turbulent waters of her personal values. And I don’t know how to break this to you – but Rooney doesn’t want to impact Hebrew readers. Actually, they don’t interest her at all. She wants to use her massive celebrity to raise awareness of the Palestinian struggle. Whatever our opinion about that, our offended feelings are not part of her considerations. We’re not the story.

Literature is also an action by the writers themselves, which can subvert through defamiliarization. If you can take a person from real life and cast them in a book, you can do the reverse as well. Rooney has turned herself into a character. Her action paints a portrait in which the model, us, does not recognize their own image.

This is the phenomenon known in psychology as “the uncanny,” a powerful and terrifying experience of disorientation specifically within the realm of the familiar. Here we look at our own familiar portrait and suddenly see the faces of the Palestinians also stamped on it, and no longer recognize ourselves. A true aficionado of literature should, despite the pain, be able to appreciate this. The technical proficiency displayed by this banal writer is impressive.

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