The bookstore Tsomet Sefarim in Jerusalem, Oct. 13, 2021. by the Forward

‘A hypocrite’: Israelis in publishing say Sally Rooney is turning her back on Hebrew readers

Photo by Michele Chabin

Like many Israelis, Shelley Goldman, a retired book and newspaper editor from Tel Aviv, was shocked when Irish author Sally Rooney said she will not sell the Hebrew-language rights to her latest book to a publishing house that doesn’t abide by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement’s guidelines.

Rooney said in a statement Tuesday that this doesn’t mean she’s opposed to having “Beautiful World, Where Are You” translated into Hebrew. “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,” said the rising literary star.

To Goldman, that’s a distinction without a difference.

“I don’t think that’s possible, and what does that even mean?” she said. “Hebrew is the language of Israel.” Where, Goldman wondered out loud, would Rooney find a publisher of Hebrew books that adheres to the BDS movement’s stringent cultural boycott principles?

To many in Israel’s literary world, the stand Rooney took to support Palestinians smacks of hypocrisy. Rooney’s previous books — “Conversations with Friends” and “Normal People” — were translated into more than 20 languages and distributed in countries, her critics point out, with serious human rights problems.

“When your criticism is directed at only one country and not all the others, what else can we think?” said Goldman. “She’s a hypocrite and an antisemite.”

Rooney gained fans among many Palestinians, however, who are grateful that she so publicly, and with her own work, backed BDS. Hanan Ashrawi, the activist and former Palestinian Authority minister, tweeted Tuesday: “Genuine solidarity & empathy. Sally Rooney refuses to be complicit in Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. Quality literature makes a difference.”

But even some Israelis who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause question Rooney’s decision. Given Israel’s tiny market, no one will suffer economically if her work is not published in Hebrew in Israel. But shouldn’t any author, they ask, want her voice heard across cultures?

A pro-BDS Hebrew publisher?

In Israel, Modan publishing house handled the Hebrew publication of both Rooney’s previous books. A representative of the company told The New York Times that Rooney, offering no explanation, informed Modan that it would not be publishing her third novel.

Rooney’s decision first made news in the Hebrew press, in Haaretz, and then in English on Monday in the Forward, and is now the subject of stories in major media outlets around the world. Her vocal embrace of BDS has been deemed a major win for the BDS movement, the latest in a string of victories, and an especially sweet one for Palestinians rights activists in that Rooney is a prize-winning, international bestselling author lauded for her sensitive portrayals of human relationships.

The BDS movement’s cultural boycott of Israel calls on international cultural workers and cultural organizations, including unions and associations, “to boycott and/or work towards the cancellation of events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israel, its lobby groups or its cultural institutions.” In other words, anything related to Israel – and not just the territories Israel captured during the 1967 Middle East war – must be shunned.

Those strictures make Rooney’s assurances that she’d be “honored” to see her book translated into Hebrew sound hollow to Efrat Lev, foreign rights director at the Debra Harris literary agency in Jerusalem. “Her announcement notwithstanding, according to the facts on the ground, the only publishers in Hebrew are in Israel,” Lev said.

In her statement, Rooney said her Hebrew language publisher would have to “publicly distance itself from apartheid.” No publisher in Israel, Lev said, could do this and then expect Israelis to buy its books. That’s the case, she continued, even though the majority of Israeli publishing houses and the people who work there are politically liberal.

“Most people I know are center and left. There are small presses that have a clear left-wing agenda,” but even they won’t openly support the BDS movement, said Lev.

Lev too accused Rooney of selectively targeting Israel. “It’s not fair to demand that. Does Rooney do that in China or Russia?” both known for their human rights abuses. “Personally, the hypocrisy bothers me. Israeli publishing is being held to impossible standards.”

But Rebecca Vilkomerson, the former executive director of the pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace — tweeted on Wednesday that finding a pro-BDS, Hebrew-language publisher in Israel is not so far fetched, and pointed to Andalus, a press that published in Hebrew in 2009 “The Shock Doctrine,” a book by American author Naomi Klein, who supports BDS.

When alerted that Andalus is now defunct, Vilkomerson followed up with another tweet: it’s not Rooney’s problem, but Israel’s, if it does not have a BDS-compliant press, and “having standards about who you publish with does not mean you are boycotting a language.” She added that this wouldn’t stop some people from unfairly labeling Rooney an antisemite.

A tiny economic impact
Withholding a Hebrew translation of her latest book won’t have much of an impact on Israeli society or Rooney’s bottom line, according to Israeli writer Anshel Pfeffer, who tweeted about Rooney’s boycott efforts.

“BDS has been around for 16 years, but asides from generating a lot of noise, has had zero impact on Israel, which has seen massive growth in foreign trade and ties during that period. It’s nothing more than a social media wheeze of western keyboard warriors.”

Israel’s literary scene is very robust, but it’s tiny by world standards. According to the National library of Israel, 87% of the books published in Israel in 2020 were “original literature,” most of them written in Hebrew. Its English-to-Hebrew translation niche is even smaller. Books translated to Hebrew represented 74 percent of all translated works, while the rest were translated from German, Spanish or French.

And while most Israelis can speak Hebrew, a large percentage read books in their mother tongue, most commonly English, Russian, Arabic or French. And ultra-Orthodox Jews rarely read mainstream books.

“Selling 5,000 copies of a book is a Hebrew bestseller,” Lev said. “The first print of an average book is 2,000 copies.”

Joanna Chen, an Israeli writer and literary translator who mostly translates from Hebrew to English and writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books, urged Rooney to use her fame to educate, not boycott. “I think if she really wants to make a difference, she should use her writing talents to make her work available to everyone,” she said.

Chen said she once translated a poem by the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who Israel once imprisoned for incitement. “I translated her words to the non-Arabic speaking world not because I absolutely agree with her views but because I wanted to give English speakers the ability to understand where she came from.”

Were Rooney to engage with Hebrew speakers, Chen continued, “I think she will find that they will listen, but they can’t listen and they can’t read if it’s not in Hebrew.” Translation “allows us to visit worlds unknown to us, but not if she shuts the door in the face of Hebrew speakers,” Chen said.

Goldman agreed, and said BDS cuts off dialogue by having people choose sides. She spoke about of a friend whose child was murdered in a Palestinian terror attack. This friend joined the Parents Circle, a group comprised of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents.

“The friend told me, if we can compromise, anybody can. If you’ve already chosen a side, you’re part of the problem, not the solution.”

‘A hypocrite’: Israelis in publishing say Sally Rooney is turning her back on Hebrew readers

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