Sally Rooney speaks onstage during a conference in Pasadena on Jan. 17, 2020. (Photo/JTA-Erik Voake-Getty Images for Hulu)
Sally Rooney speaks onstage during a conference in Pasadena on Jan. 17, 2020. (Photo/JTA-Erik Voake-Getty Images for Hulu)

‘A new moment’: BDS activists cheer Sally Rooney’s boycott, Jewish groups mostly mum

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Author Sally Rooney’s announcement last week that she is refusing to sell an Israeli publishing house the translation rights to her latest blockbuster novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You?,” marked the latest in a string of victories for the Israel boycott movement.

The news from the Irish literary star comes just months after Ben & Jerry’s decided that it would no longer sell ice cream in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Both Rooney and Ben & Jerry’s said they made their decisions over Israel’s poor treatment of Palestinians. Rooney added that she did it in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and cited an April report from Human Rights Watch that accused Israel of committing apartheid.

Rooney, whose three novels have won acclaim for documenting the ennui of millennial women, is a Marxist who has previously expressed sympathy for the Palestinian cause. But her decision not to work with Modan, a top Israeli publisher who translated Rooney’s first two books, makes her perhaps the trendiest writer to back the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israel.

There are other signs that momentum is building for BDS. Burlington, Vermont, last month nearly became the first American city to endorse the movement, and the campaign has also found fertile ground in U.S. teachers’ unions this year.

“We’re in a new moment,” said Ahmad Abuznaid, director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

Abuznaid said support has picked up for the general boycott of Israel that BDS calls for because the distinction between the Jewish state and its military occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza has collapsed in recent years. To many, he suggested, the occupation that began after the 1967 war no longer seems temporary, making BDS more appealing to critics of Israeli human rights abuses.

Those critics include a small but powerful bloc of House Democrats who last month stripped additional funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system from a spending bill in Congress. Only two members of the progressive wing support BDS, and the funding was easily approved in a separate bill. But the delay startled those who expected Iron Dome funding to pass as quickly and easily as it has in the past.

Many of Israel’s supporters, including many mainstream Democrats who support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, see BDS as a threat because its demands include recognizing the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to Israel, which could end its status as a Jewish-majority state.

Other authors’ support for BDS has not made as much of a splash as Rooney’s.

Alice Walker, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “The Color Purple,” declined to allow an Israeli edition of the book in 2012. But Walker has come under fire for endorsing a slew of bizarre antisemitic conspiracy theories, which diminished the credibility of her boycott.

Other prominent authors who have supported BDS include Junot Diaz, who won the 2008 Pulitzer; Adrundhati Roy, the Indian novelist who won the Man Booker Prize in 1997; and the anticapitalist writer Naomi Klein. But it is unclear how their stances affected their work’s availability in Israel. An English version of at least one of Roy’s novels is sold by Steimatzky, a major Israeli bookstore chain, and Klein traveled to Israel in 2009 to promote a Hebrew translation of her book “Shock Doctrine.”

The full ramifications of Rooney’s boycott also remain unclear. Original reports of the author’s decision said she was refusing to have the novel translated into Hebrew. On Oct. 12, she issued a statement clarifying that she in fact just did not want the Hebrew rights to go to an Israeli publisher, saying she would allow the translation if it could be accomplished without violating the boycott.

“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 U.N.-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people,” the statement said. “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.”

It is unclear whether there is a meaningful difference between boycotting Israeli publishers and refusing to have the book translated into Hebrew. In other words, there may be no way to have the book published in Hebrew while meeting Rooney’s and BDS’s criteria.

“In reality, there is no Hebrew publisher that can boycott Israel and remain in business, because almost all people who read books in Hebrew are located in Israel,” Roz Rothstein, chief of the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, said in an emailed statement.

Rooney’s defenders argue that it’s possible to boycott Israel without boycotting her Hebrew audience.

“She knows she has fans and readers that really appreciate her art and would appreciate having it in the Hebrew language,” said Abuznaid. “The only thing we have to figure out is how we do that ethically along the lines of BDS.”

The boycott movement is represented by a central organization with very specific demands — including consumer boycotts of seven companies, for example. But individuals and organizations that choose to boycott Israel do so using myriad standards.

The campaign specifically calls for a boycott of Israeli cultural institutions that are “complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights,” but does not specify the standards by which an institution — like a publishing house — would be considered complicit.

Rooney’s last book, “Normal People,” was translated into Hebrew and more than 20 other languages including Chinese, Russian and Persian, and was adapted into a television series for Hulu. “Beautiful World” was released on Sept. 7 and so far it appears to have been translated into German and Spanish.

The reaction to Rooney’s decision not to work with Modan, the Israeli publisher, prompted a more muted reaction from the Jewish establishment and pro-Israel advocates than Ben & Jerry’s decision earlier this summer. While the ice cream wars created a flurry of news releases, few groups responded to Rooney without first being asked.

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti Defamation League, was one of the few to speak out, saying that Rooney was “embracing BDS’s hateful tactics.” An ADL spokesman doubled down, saying that Rooney’s move was “particularly unfortunate coming from an author committed to delving into interpersonal human relations.”

The American Jewish Committee did not respond to a request for comment and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which assailed Ben & Jerry’s over the summer, did not issue a statement.

Part of the reason more pro-Israel groups may not have spoken up earlier is because Rooney’s fame is not universal. While her books have enjoyed a degree of commercial success rare for literary fiction, she is not particularly well known among the opponents of BDS.

“My guess is that most of the people who were scandalized by the Sally Rooney story 1) had to look up who Sally Rooney is and 2) wouldn’t have been able to read her work in Hebrew even if she published in it!” Yehuda Kurtzer, director of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said in an email. “So it is a less useful case both to advance the cause of BDS as a divisive force, and less urgent to respond to.”

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.


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