Everything you need to know about the Sally Rooney/Israel controversy.
If you were on Twitter yesterday, you may have seen people talking about Sally Rooney being anti-Semitic. The reason for this conversation is the claim that Rooney refused to let her new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, be translated into Hebrew. But this isn’t actually true: this is misinformation caused by both bad-faith interpretation and articles inaccurately paraphrasing each other. As Rooney clarified this morning, what has really happened is that she has chosen not to sign another translation deal with her previous Hebrew publisher, the Israel-based Modan Publishing House, in compliance with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement—which works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.
Here’s what happened:
This year, Human Rights Watch published a report which found that Israel’s policies of segregation and domination toward Palestinians—including displacement of Palestinians, restriction of movement and political participation, and suspension of basic civil rights—meets the definition of apartheid under international law. Previously, B’Tselem, Israel’s primary human rights organization, had reported that 45% of the overall river-to-the-sea-population found “apartheid” to be an appropriate description of the Israeli regime. This was before May 2021’s conflict, where an Israeli police raid on a mosque led to Israeli airstrikes targeting the Gaza strip and rocket attacks on Israel by Palestinian nationalist group Hamas.
Last month, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in Hebrew that Rooney would not sign another translation deal with Modan Publishing House, which had published the Hebrew translations of her first two novels: “When Modan approached Rooney’s agent in an attempt to sign another translation deal, the agent announced that Rooney supports the cultural boycott movement and therefore does not approve translation into Hebrew.” The full extent of Modan’s connection to the Israeli state is unclear from this vantage point; it may be the parent company of Israel Ministry of Defense Publishing House, or it may simply have published material by the Israel Ministry of Defense before. Regardless, it’s an Israeli company, which means it falls under the list of companies and institutions boycotted under the BDS movement. (BDS has called for boycotts, divestments and sanctions on Israel as a form of non-violent pressure on Israel to comply with international law and stop discriminating against Palestinians since 2005.)
Rooney’s choice to sever ties with Modan didn’t make waves in America until yesterday, when an op-ed writer for Forward took Haaretz’s ambiguous phrasing (and possibly mistranslated the article) to mean Rooney didn’t approve translation into the Hebrew language at all, rather than by an Israel-based publishing house. Gitit Levy-Paz wrote that Rooney “has refused to allow her new novel to be translated into Hebrew” and “[is] exclud[ing] a group of readers because of their national identity.” Wrote Paz, a self-proclaimed Jewish and Israeli woman, “I’m not suggesting that Rooney is anti-Semitic, or that criticism of Israel automatically constitutes antisemitism. But given the rise of antisemitism in recent years, especially in Europe, the timing of her choice is dangerous.” (This is a suggestion that Rooney is anti-Semitic.)
This misinformation from the Forward piece—that Rooney was against a Hebrew translation in general—spread quickly on Twitter. “This is pretty ugly,” wrote David Patrikarakos. “If you want to stop your book being sold in Israel then it’s your prerogative—but banning a language?” “Boycotting Hebrew—not the Israeli state, army or occupation—is boycotting Jews,” wrote Ben Judah.
But Rooney was not boycotting the Hebrew language. This morning, in a statement released by her agent, Rooney clarified her position. “It would be an honor for me to have my latest novel translated into Hebrew and available to Hebrew-language readers. But for the moment, I have chosen not to sell those translation rights to an Israeli-based publishing house,” wrote Rooney. “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 the meantime I would like to express once again my solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom, justice, and equality.”
After this statement, a few commenters still called Rooney’s choice anti-Semitic, saying that holding Israel to a different standard than other countries which commit human rights abuses is anti-Semitism. (The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which may include applying double standards to Israel, has been hotly opposed by scholars.) Rooney addressed this in her statement: “Of course, many states other than Israel are guilty of grievous human rights abuses . . . In this particular case, I am responding to the call from Palestinian civil society, including all major Palestinian trade unions and writers’ unions.”
In addition: the Forward article, bizarrely, characterized boycotts in general as a slippery slope toward injustice. “The deployment of boycotts has in the past led to human atrocities that any loving soul would distance itself from,” wrote Levy-Paz. “It is not always remembered, but among the first steps taken by the Nazi regime in Germany was the initiation of a boycott of Jewish businesses.” Levy-Paz doesn’t mention the elephant in the room: the long history of boycotts as a tool of the people to secure civil and labor rights, like the thirteen-month Montgomery Bus Boycott, which pressured U.S. courts to rule segregation on city buses unconstitutional, or the 1965-1970 Delano Grape Boycott, which in conjunction with strikes led to table grape growers signing their first union contracts, or the economic and cultural boycott that helped end apartheid in South Africa, which Rooney directly cites in her statement.
It’s also worth noting that the boycott of Jewish businesses was staged by Nazi leadership, announced by Joseph Goebbels himself; it was an act of discrimination by the state on the grounds of ethnicity. And we agree that’s bad, right? Right?