Sally Rooney Is Right to Boycott Israel

Novelist Sally Rooney is under attack for endorsing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. Rooney’s stand for Palestinian rights is brave and necessary — she deserves our full support.

Sally Rooney at the Hay Festival on May 28, 2017, in Hay-on-Wye, United Kingdom. (David Levenson / Getty Images)

An article published in the Forward yesterday launched a whole flotilla of headlines claiming that Irish author Sally Rooney had refused to allow her latest novel to be translated into Hebrew. But the Forward offered no evidence that Rooney objected to her book appearing in the Hebrew language: It was the offer of a translation deal from Israeli publishing firm Modan that she had turned down, in line with the principles of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Rooney’s statement, published today, made that absolutely clear:

The Hebrew-language translation rights to my new novel are still available, and 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. In the meantime I would like to express once again my solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom, justice, and equality.

Modan publishes books in partnership with the Israeli Ministry of Defense. It’s exactly the kind of firm that the BDS campaign had in mind when it called for a boycott of Israeli cultural institutions that are “complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights.”

Rooney previously gave her support to the Pakistani-British novelist Kamila Shamsie when she rejected an offer to have her work published in Israel. The 2019 open letter in support of Shamsie, signed by Rooney and other writers including Arundhati Roy and J. M. Coetzee, came after the German city of Dortmund had stripped her of a literary prize because she endorsed the BDS campaign.

Shamsie stated her reasoning in much the same terms as Rooney:

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.

Against Impunity

The Forward article by Gitit Levy-Paz that sparked off this controversy contained some of the standard rhetoric from opponents of BDS:

Rooney’s decision surprised and saddened me. I am a Jewish and Israeli woman, but I am also a literary scholar who believes in the universal power of art. Rooney has chosen a path that is anathema to the artistic essence of literature, which can serve as a portal for understanding different cultures, visiting new worlds and connecting to our own humanity.

Such high-minded talk about the “universal power of art” comes at the expense of any engagement with the very particular forms of oppression that Palestinians experience at the hands of Israel. An open letter, published earlier this year by Palestinian intellectuals and endorsed by a number of high-profile figures, including Sally Rooney, spelled out some of the details that Levy-Paz omitted:

Palestinians are being attacked and killed with impunity by Israeli soldiers and armed Israeli civilians. . . . This May, the Israeli government committed yet another massacre in Gaza by indiscriminately and relentlessly bombing Palestinians in their homes, offices, hospitals and on the street. The bombing of Gaza is part of an intentional and recursive pattern where entire families are killed and local infrastructure is destroyed. This serves to exacerbate conditions that are already unliveable in one of the most densely populated places on Earth. . . . To frame this as a war between two equal sides is false and misleading. Israel is the colonizing power. Palestine is colonized. This is not a conflict: this is apartheid.

Opponents of the BDS campaign claim that it “singles out” Israel in a suspicious and presumably antisemitic manner. Levy-Paz offers a typical example of such innuendo:

A boycott, especially a cultural one, is among the most slippery of slopes. The deployment of boycotts has in the past led to human atrocities that any loving soul would distance itself from. It is not always remembered, but among the first steps taken by the Nazi regime in Germany was the initiation of a boycott of Jewish businesses.

Of course, there have been countless examples of boycotts that didn’t lead to any undesirable outcomes, let alone “atrocities that any living soul would distance itself from.” But Levy-Paz would rather invoke the memory of Nazism than the far more pertinent example of the campaign against South African apartheid, on which the BDS movement explicitly models itself.

As a literary scholar, Levy-Paz is no doubt familiar with the disingenuous rhetorical technique exemplified by Mark Antony’s funeral speech in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. Mark Antony came not to praise Caesar but to bury him; Levy-Paz comes not to accuse Rooney of antisemitism but to gently suggest that she might reconsider her actions:

I’m not suggesting that Rooney is antisemitic, or that criticism of Israel automatically constitutes antisemitism. But given the rise of antisemitism in recent years, especially in Europe, the timing of her choice is dangerous.

In reality, Palestinian civil society launched the BDS call because the United States and other countries singled out Israel for unprecedented levels of support, military, economic, and diplomatic. In her statement, Rooney explained that she was “responding to the call from Palestinian civil society, including all major Palestinian trade unions and writers’ unions” — a crucial point that is invariably overlooked by those who accuse BDS supporters of selectively targeting Israel.

Boycotts by private citizens and organizations have to compensate for the long-term refusal of governments to impose the most minimal sanctions on Israel for its denial of Palestinian rights — or even to withdraw their active support for the occupation. Israel’s supporters don’t object to criticism as such: What they deem completely unacceptable is criticism backed up by meaningful action.

A Strategic Threat

This practice of singling out Israel for complete impunity even extends to the BDS campaign itself. Both houses of the US Congress voted in 2019 to endorse Marco Rubio’s “Combating BDS Act,” described by one critic as “legislation that reads like it’s written by the Likud Central Committee.”

The act authorized punitive measures against those engaged in action “intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or otherwise limit commercial relations with Israel or persons doing business in Israel or Israeli-controlled territories for purposes of coercing political action by, or imposing policy positions on, the Government of Israel.” It complemented a panoply of state-level anti-BDS laws already in place throughout the United States.

“Israeli-controlled territories” is a euphemism for the Palestinian land that Israel has occupied since 1967. It shows that opponents of BDS don’t object to the campaign merely because it applies to Israel in its entirety. When Ben & Jerry’s announced that it would no longer sell its ice cream in West Bank settlements, there was a virulent backlash from the Israeli government and its US supporters, with threats of retaliation against the company and its parent firm Unilever.

For all practical purposes, Israeli leaders consider illegal settlements to be an integral part of their state. They have no intention of ever dismantling those settlements, or the repressive machinery of control over Palestinians that the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has described as a form of apartheid. That’s why they react so aggressively to the slightest hint of pressure, however modest it may be.

This is the real “slippery slope” that Israel and its supporters have in mind. If the state loses access to something, anything, because it continues to oppress the Palestinians, it sets a precedent that actions should have consequences. Today it might be a translation of Beautiful World, Where Are You or a tub of cookie dough ice cream that goes missing; tomorrow it might be a US veto at the United Nations, or the latest high-tech warplane.

Put that way, it sounds almost comical, but such reasoning explains why Israel has branded the BDS campaign as a key strategic threat. The intense hostility directed against BDS is a backhanded tribute to its importance. Prominent figures who brave such hostility to support the campaign, as Sally Rooney has done, deserve our full support.