For a state that claims to have put this year’s mass Palestinian revolt behind it, Israel’s distress over something so seemingly small as a novel is revealing.
Its foreign ministry even went so far as to accuse bestselling author Sally Rooney of blocking “peace” in the Middle East.
Rooney’s refusal to allow her latest novel to be translated into Hebrew and sold by an Israeli publishing company provoked a worldwide backlash.
Her decision was in solidarity with Palestinians. But, inevitably, supporters of Israel hit back at her with claims of antisemitism.
They said boycotting Israel was akin to targetting Jewish people.
It was about as unsubtle an attempt to conflate opposition to Israel with antisemitism as you can get.
Almost as unsubtle as the furore against Ben and Jerry’s for refusing to sell Ice Cream in West Bank settlements.
It’s clearly nonsense. Despite the Israeli state’s best efforts to say otherwise, Israel is not synonymous with Jewish identity.
But Rooney was pushed to make a statement of clarification. She was not boycotting the Hebrew language, she said—only the Israeli publishing company, Modan.
She said that, in line with the Palestinian-led Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, “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 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 truth, it would be perfectly legitimate if Rooney had decided not to sell her novel in Israel at all—just as some musicians and artists refuse to perform there.
The Israeli state uses culture to present a progressive face to the rest of the world.
It even has a “brand Israel” programme, which it has poured millions of pounds into, explicitly to replace stories of its occupation of Palestine.
This involves promoting its own films, musicians and artists, as well as encouraging artists and singers to bring their performances, art and novels to Israel.
It’s not a coincidence that Rooney’s boycott came after the Palestinian revolt earlier this year
When it works, its success is celebrated as international acceptance of Israel as a “normal” state, rather than one sustained by racism and military occupation.
Often, this comes with undertones inviting comparisons between “liberal” Israel and the “backwards” Palestinians.
But when artists refuse to go along with this, they puncture the myth. Instead of covering up Israel’s crimes, they draw attention to them.
When Rooney explained her boycott, she pointed to two landmark reports from Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem accusing Israel of crimes of apartheid.
These, she said, “Confirmed what Palestinian human rights groups have long been saying.
“Israel’s system of racial domination and segregation against Palestinians meets the definition of apartheid under international law.”
This is exactly the sort of attention that Israel’s politicians hate. It’s why the Israeli state puts so much effort into countering BDS across the world—it even has its own dedicated anti-BDS ministry.
It’s not that Israel is worried about the economic impact of a boycott.
The real “existential threat” is that BDS reflects growing awareness of Israel’s racist system—and encourages solidarity with Palestinian resistance.
It’s not a coincidence that Rooney’s boycott—or for that matter, Ben and Jerry’s—came after the Palestinian revolt earlier this year.
That revolt forced Israel’s embedded racism into the spotlight, but also showed the world that Palestinians can resist.
It was the greatest crisis Israel has faced in years.
So it might seem odd that, after all that, Israel’s supporters are so wound up about Rooney’s boycott. But they’ve got good reason to be.
It’s a sign that, in spite of everything, solidarity with Palestine is gaining ground.
When we opposed the National Front
An imagined revolt in Port Talbot