Beautiful World, Where are You? Not in Israel or Palestine!

Ian Black
IAN BLACK

Sally Rooney, the internationally renowned young Irish author, made waves the other day when she announced that her latest and remarkably successful novel was not going to be translated into Hebrew as an expression of her support of the Palestinians.

The news attracted an unusual amount of attention and comment after the writer explained that she was complying with the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel because of its continuing occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Rooney, herself only 30 years old, is especially popular with young people who define themselves as “millennials”. Her work has garnered critical acclaim and commercial success. But she later elaborated that it would “be an honour” to have “Beautiful World, Where Are You” translated into Hebrew by a company which shared her pro-Palestinian political position. Rooney issued a statement clarifying her position after being accused of refusing to allow her novel to be translated into Hebrew at all.

This row began after it emerged that she had turned down a bid by Israeli publisher Modan for the rights to translate her latest book. She explained that while she was “very proud” that her two previous novels – Conversations With Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018) – had been translated into Hebrew, “for the moment, I have chosen not to sell these translation rights to an Israeli-based publishing house”.
Normal People was an outstanding success when it was adapted into a BBC TV series. Rooney has received several book prizes in the UK, including The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2017 and a Costa Book Award in 2018. Beautiful World, Where are You went to the top of the UK’s book charts when it came out in early September, selling over 40,000 copies in five days. Bookstore chain Waterstones said that the book became its best-selling fiction hardback of this year after only being on sale for one week.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is the most divisive and toxic issue in the Middle East and arguably the world. So it was not remotely surprising that Rooney’s decision was followed immediately with an outpouring of both fury and praise on social media.

The BDS movement defines itself as movement emboldened by the end of apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was a policy of racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the white minority government against the black majority from 1948 until 1991. Earlier this year Human Rights Watch (HRW) defined Israel as an apartheid state, following on from the Israel human rights organisation B’Tselem.
Israel has long claimed that BDS opposes the country’s very existence and is motivated by anti-Semitism. It vehemently rejects any comparison with apartheid and called the HRW report “preposterous and false”.

Israel’s Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai said of Rooney: “The cultural boycott of Israel, anti-Semitism in a new guise, is a certificate of poor conduct for her and others who behave like her.” In stark contrast, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel said Palestinians “warmly welcomed” Rooney’s decision, while other fans said she had been misrepresented.
Rooney added that while many other states were guilty of human rights abuses, in this particular case she was responding to “the call from Palestinian civil society, including all major Palestinian trade unions and writers’ unions.”

It bears repeating that is a highly controversial subject. The outspoken pro-Israeli writer Julie Burchill wrote in the British magazine The Spectator: “In the interests of consistency, I do hope that ..Rooney will be forgoing the massive Chinese market by refusing to be translated by a regime which sterilises and enslaves its minorities; and that she will also boycott an Arabic translation, considering how many Arab countries treat women as a cross between children and chattels and enjoy executing homosexuals.” Other critics accused Rooney of hypocrisy – singling out Israel while ignoring Moscow and Beijing.

Others raised the issue of universal power of words – in Hebrew or any other language. “Literature is a tool to promote dialogue and conversation,” said an Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson. “There is something inherently flawed with an intellectual who refuses to engage in conversation, and instead supports the silencing of opinion.”

Sally Rooney has also been criticised as doing nothing at all to advance the Palestinian cause: ”Rooney’s gesture was meant to highlight two issues: how to show solidarity with an oppressed people, and how to hold responsible those complicit in the system that oppresses them. Unfortunately, this time, both those lofty aims got lost in translation,” wrote one Israeli pundit.

Israeli leftists, some Jews and many other supporters of the BDS movement disagree. Criticism of Israel, they insist, does not in itself constitute anti-Semitism. As one Israeli activist expressed it on Twitter: “Let me tell you if you would be as upset about daily horrors of the occupation as they are about boycotts we wouldn’t need boycotts.” This bitter row is a vivid reminder that it remains in Israel’s own interest to end the status quo of more than half a century and to work towards freedom for the Palestinians alongside Israelis.

by: IAN BLACK

IAN BLACK