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I fought South African Apartheid and the Israeli occupation. Sally Rooney’s decision is wrong

Dear Ms. Rooney,

No contemporary writer has gotten under my skin as you have. I have devoured your three novels and several of your stories, moved and astonished by the desires, anxieties and ambivalences of your characters and by the interplay among them; and not only moved and astonished but delighted by the quicksilver movements in your dialogue; and not only that, but impressed by the way you engage the damages of class and economic prospect that work upon and within your characters, and exhibit the pathos and pathologies that many millions of young people today experience as their fate. I am much older than your characters but feel bonded to them.

So it is with considerable dismay that I read your statement declining, “for the moment,” the Israeli publisher Modan’s offer to publish a Hebrew-language translation of your latest novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You?”

You write that in rejecting translation by “an Israeli-based publication house,” you are complying with the campaign by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to “end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law,” on the ground that “Israel’s system of racial domination and segregation against Palestinians meets the definition of apartheid under international law.”

Like you, I am appalled by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the violent oppression of Palestinians who live there. I am, in fact, a co-author of a 2016 call “for a targeted boycott of all goods and services from all Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, and any investments that promote the Occupation, until such time as a peace settlement is negotiated between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority,” and further calling “upon the US government to exclude settlements from trade benefits accorded to Israeli enterprises, and to strip all such Israeli entities in the West Bank from the tax exemptions that the Internal Revenue Service currently grants to American nonprofit tax-exempt organizations.” The illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank is an offense to humanity.

But it does not follow that unless a publishing house makes a political statement with which you or I agree that it should be denied a contract for translation. Were such a statement required of my own publishers in the United States and elsewhere, I daresay they would demur. They would properly say that they are making a work public for their readers; that they welcome readers of all nationalities and persuasions; and that they will swear no loyalty oath whether to a government or any other political entity.

You brought up the South African precedent. Over several decades, I was deeply involved in the global movement against South African apartheid. I am proud to have helped organize the first American demonstration against corporate ties with that foul regime, in a 1965 sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank headquarters in New York protesting their loans to the regime. In the 1980s, I was president of Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni-ae against Apartheid, which campaigned with considerable success to persuade the university to divest itself of holdings in companies involved in South Africa; and I was a leader of Faculty for Full Divestment at the University of California, Berkeley, which campaigned — with eventual success — to bring about such divestment from their own endowment.

But I would never have supported a boycott of any South African publisher that might have brought out the work of the great anti-apartheid Afrikaans-speaking writers Breyten Breytenbach and André Brink. The fact that they wished to make work by Breytenbach and Brink available to Afrikaans-language readers would have sufficed to make me glad they had decided to do so. Publication of these writers would surely have constituted a blow against apartheid, as well as a boon for literature.

And if — very much contrary to fact — a German publisher during the Nazi period had been willing to publish the work of anti-Nazis like Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, or of Langston Hughes or Richard Wright in translation, would the cause of democracy and liberty have been damaged? Did Karl Marx object to the publication of his work by capitalist publishers wherever they were based?

It is also worth noting that, however many groups have supported the BDS movement, there is not the slightest evidence that the movement has produced results that redound to the benefit of actual Palestinians. The freedom of literature is the enemy of the locked-up mind. Your own work is a splendid tribute to the spirit that strives to think its way out of prisons and gropes its way toward a more beautiful world.

Respectfully, I urge you to reconsider your decision and to make it possible for readers of Hebrew to share the pleasures and challenges of your splendid achievement.


Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author of many books, the next of which to appear is a novel, “The Opposition”, out in the spring of 2022 from Guernica Editions.

To contact the author, email [email protected]


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