Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s public announcement this month to cut off ties with her erstwhile Israeli publisher for her third novel sparked international headlines and predictable outrage from the Israeli government and its defenders. Rooney’s two previous novels had been translated into Hebrew by an Israeli publisher.
In a statement, Rooney said she made her decision in solidarity with the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to hold accountable “complicit Israeli companies and institutions in response to the apartheid system and other grave human rights violations.”
“I understand that not everyone will agree with my decision,” Rooney added, “but 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 UN-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people.”
The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz broke the news but the initial story was mischaracterized by some as a boycott of the Hebrew language rather than an Israeli company. Rooney’s statement corrected the record: rights to the Hebrew translation of the new novel remain available. “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,” Rooney wrote.
BDS is deemed a strategic threat by the state of Israel and its partisans in the United States and elsewhere. Rooney was subject to the common accusation of antisemitism that is thrown at any critic of Israeli apartheid. An Israeli social media app, for instance, called on its users to like, and thus amplify, a Facebook comment implying Rooney was unfairly singling out Israel, another well-worn attack line by Israel.
Amongst more sober-minded observers, however, there was a lot of commendation for Rooney’s decision. American Jewish novelist Michael Chabon, who had led artists delegations to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, told the AP “I say yasher koach (Hebrew for ‘Good job’ or ‘More power to you’) to Rooney” and added that he might join the cultural boycott of Israel in the future.
Rooney is not alone in refusing to partner with Israeli publishers tied to the state. In 2019, British novelist Kamila Shamsie spoke about her unwillingness to contract with Israeli firms. “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,” Shamsie told an Israeli publisher.
In 2012, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker may have been the first prominent novelist to publicly refuse to be published by an Israeli company when she cited “apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people” as her reason for turning down a proposed contract.
Arab writers have long avoided Israeli publishers either due to principled support for BDS, their own government’s sanctions, or fear of domestic backlash. Last year, several Arab authors boycotted two literary awards funded by the UAE due to the government’s normalization of relations with Israel.
While Israel blames BDS supporters for growing boycotts and has worked with U.S. state governments to undercut the movement, its own actions have provided much of the motivation for solidarity. More than a decade of right-wing Israeli governments opposing Palestinian self-determination, including the current one, along with prominent human rights organizations labeling Israeli military rule apartheid have greatly shifted perceptions of Israel.
Israel’s increasingly visible oppression of the Palestinians and the risible reality of a peace process run by the U.S. and Israel that appears more interested in managing than ending the conflict, has led many artists to go beyond merely voicing solidarity and examine their own relations with Israeli institutions. “It’s no longer as simple as having the conversations or representing your ideals through your work — authors feel encouraged to become active in the distribution and representation of that work,” observed Alex Primiani, associate director at publisher Melville House, on the literary boycott of Israel. “[Israeli publisher] Cohen-Barak is right that translated fiction can help bridge gaps, but what is the cost when nothing changes?”
Moreover, Palestinian solidarity is increasingly embedded in a broader movement for racial justice which has demanded that people actively work to dismantle systems of injustice. Finally, much of the traction behind BDS may be due to the declining viability of liberal Zionism. Before, authors who refused to boycott Israel could cite Israeli domestic opposition forces as reason enough to avoid boycotts. But it is hard to argue that there is any meaningful opposition to the occupation in mainstream Israel when even the head of the center-left Labor party refuses to use the term “occupation,” which she derides as politically correct. And their seemingly endless patience for Israeli intransigence along with their unwillingness to support any action to impose penalties on Israel has undermined their credibility.
As liberal Israeli journalist Larry Derfner, author of “No Country for Jewish Liberals,” noted, “If you say the occupation is wrong yet denounce every attempt to make Israel pay a price for it, then you're actually saying the occupation is right.”
Increasingly, for many, it appears that change will only come from the outside. Sally Rooney has certainly drawn that conclusion.