Sally Rooney has confirmed that she will not sell translation rights to her bestselling new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You to an Israeli publisher in solidarity with a boycott of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.
Her first two novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People, were translated into Hebrew by Katyah Benovits and published in Israel by Modan.
However, in the wake of two critical reports by an international and an Israeli human rights groups, which claimed that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians met the definition of apartheid under international law, the Irish author said she was supporting the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS is, she said, “a nonviolent grassroots campaign calling for an economic and cultural boycott of complicit Israeli companies and institutions modelled on the economic and cultural boycott that helped to end apartheid in South Africa”.
Earlier this year, the international campaign group Human Rights Watch published a report entitled A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution. It followed a similarly damning report by Israel’s most prominent human rights organisation B’Tselem.
Rooney acknowledged that “many states other than Israel are guilty of grievous human rights abuses”. However, she added, “this was also true of South Africa during the campaign against apartheid there. In this particular case, I am responding to the call from Palestinian civil society, including all major Palestinian trade unions and writers’ unions.
“I understand that not everyone will agree with my decision, 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 author insisted that it would be “an honour” to have her latest novel translated into Hebrew and available to Hebrew-language readers. “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.”
In May, Rooney was one of thousands of artists to sign a letter accusing Israel of apartheid and calling for its international isolation.
Gitit Levy-Paz, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, wrote a column for the Jewish news platform Forward criticising the author’s decision. “The very essence of literature, its power to bring a sense of coherence and order to the world, is negated by Rooney’s choice to exclude a group of readers because of their national identity”, she claimed.
Gerard Howlin, a former Irish government press secretary and Sunday Times columnist, tweeted: “Sally Rooney’s refusal to allow her new book be translated into Hebrew is book burning in another way.”
Others have argued that Rooney was right to take this stand and support BDS. Tribune magazine editor Ronan Burtenshaw wrote that the writer’s decision was “no surprise”, based on her previous assertions. “You can’t publish with Modan and respect the boycott. Simple as.”
Earlier this year, Roger Waters, the co-founder of Pink Floyd, and singer-songwriter Patti Smith took a similar position to Rooney, joining more than 600 musicians in signing an open letter encouraging artists to boycott performances at Israel’s cultural institutions in order to “support the Palestinian people and their human right to sovereignty and freedom”.
In 2012, Alice Walker would not allow her bestselling novel, The Colour Purple, to be translated into Hebrew in support of the boycott.
Rooney is from Castlebar, Co Mayo, and has returned to live in the county, where the term boycott originated, inspired by the tactics of Charles Stewart Parnell. Captain Charles Boycott, the land agent of an absentee landlord, Lord Erne, who lived in Lough Mask House, near Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, was subject to social ostracism organised by the Irish Land League in 1880 during the Irish "Land War" as a protest against evictions of tenant farmers. – Additional reporting: Guardian