Sally Rooney Versus the State of Israel

‘The first great millennial novelist’ refuses to allow Israeli publisher to put out her new book

Skimming the vituperative social media posts of people who’d skimmed the headlines you’d think that the bestselling writer Sally Rooney, touted by some as “the first great millennial novelist,” had lost her mind.

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Appalling racist,” said one. “Congratulations to the brilliant Rooney for reinventing Nazism,” posted a second, on Twitter. “Is she only punishing the nation of the Jews, who have been the world’s scapegoats throughout history?” asked “YoungGoodman,” a third among thousands.

Her sin, in the eyes of these posters, was to refuse to allow a publisher to translate her latest novel Beautiful World, Where Are You into Hebrew. Her reasons: Israel’s institutionalized prejudice as outlined by B’Tselem, Israel’s most prominent human rights organization and in the Human Rights Watch report from April–A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.

Rooney belatedly clarified that she was not boycotting the Hebrew language, but was refusing to work “with an Israeli company that does not publicly distance itself from apartheid and support the UN-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people.” Rooney stated that she would find it an “honour” to be translated into Hebrew but was not giving Hebrew translation rights to the Israeli publishing house Modan, which had translated her previous novels, Normal People and Conversations with Friends.

On the face of it, that would present an economic opportunity for a Hebrew language publishing house outside Israel to negotiate for the rights. Presumably there would be a favorable deal for some usually-religious Jewish publishing house to serve what remains of Rooney’s Hebrew-reading public. The situation isn’t actually new, writers in Arab countries and Muslim writers around the world thinking about publishing in Israel have been trying to balance personal safety, political commitment and professional success for several years now.

What it doesn’t deal with, though, is why Israel, why Hebrew and why a boycott in this manner? Presumably not simply because, in a delicious coincidence, Rooney herself lives in County Mayo, Ireland, where the successful ostracism of Colonel Charles Boycott coined the term “boycott.”

In the Cold War “useful idiots” meant (as per Merriam Webster) “naive or credulous people who can be manipulated or exploited to advance a cause or political agenda.”

In this way, Rooney had little choice in the matter. If you’re a politically progressive Irish writer you are obliged to be pro-Palestinian. Not merely pro-Palestinian, but actually embodying a primary international stance of opposition to the state of Israel. And, of course, once she made her gesture the “useful idiots” from the other side emerged as a de facto troll army, accusing her of being antisemitic or a neo-Nazi or any other number of ad hominem attacks.

But the real reason that she, as a self-identified Marxist, has chosen to boycott Israeli publishers is that she’s a pawn in the 50-year campaign to refocus anti-colonialist attention on Israel that Dave Rich outlines in “The Left’s Jewish Problem.” She is, ironically, part of a British plot—specifically a deliberate, specific strategic decision on the part of the British Left to turn from South Africa to Israel, “From Anti-Apartheid to Anti-Zionism.”

Choosing anti-Israel propaganda for Western progressives, is a win for them because they get oil funding and a never-ending target. It’s a win for despots around the world because they are rarely anyone’s target for long. Israel’s one main ally, America, is uniquely able and willing to be a punching bag, Israel’s Arab neighbors are delighted to maintain Palestinians in abject squalor and, because the Israel/Palestine problem is so much deeper and broader than useful idiots understand, there’s no likelihood of resolving it soon.

The global right loves to stoke the flames of “Woke” vs Israel to gaslight progressives for being racists while watching with glee as yet another division opens up in the movement to save the planet from prejudice, autocracy and climate change.

Russia, China, Iran and most Arab countries would much rather activists think about Israel than about their own domestic despotism. As well as being distant enough from everywhere to fall prey to the reductive seduction of other people’s problems, Israel has no significant ability to deflect attention.

Israelis and Palestinians know that this yelling is a storm in a teacup. Most Israelis who care about novels like Rooney’s can read them in English anyway. BDS has an infinitesimal effect on everything except the polarization of the debate and the dilution of the term “antisemite.” Everyone involved in actually trying to achieve equal rights in Israel, end the Occupation and resolve the Palestinian right of return (the three goals of BDS) understands that this is an unhelpful distraction.

It’s difficult to argue with personal choice. Rooney and I may well share a lot of worldview. There’s so much injustice in the world, we all have to pick our battles. After all, Rooney’s Irish roots don’t preclude her from writing in English, the language of her oppressors. Her beliefs in human rights do not prevent her from signing China-based translations of her novels in a country currently carrying out a genocide of the Uighurs. I wouldn’t expect her to condemn Syria for the bloody murder of half a million of its citizens.

What would be cool, and fitting for a creative Irish novelist who may, indeed, be a spokesperson for a generation? Maybe not walking lockstep with British plotters. Or thinking about how characters might feel on all sides of the story. Perhaps, indeed, she might ask, in a serious, committed way of Iran, Russia, China, and Israel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You?”

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Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman is the former executive editor of the Forward and the author of an ebook about Tears for Fears, the 80s rock band. He has a PhD from Yale and writes about books, whisky and the dangers of online hate. Subscribe to his newsletter.

One thought on “Sally Rooney Versus the State of Israel

  • October 13, 2021 at 1:09 pm

    It is very hard to understand the logic of not allowing your book to be translated into a language because of what some who speak that language do.


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