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Writer boycotting Israeli publisher still open to Hebrew translation of novel

Foreign Ministry calls decision by Sally Rooney regarding new book ‘extremely unfortunate’; Pulitzer winner Michael Chabon offers praise for move

Sally Rooney takes part in a panel during the Winter 2020 Television Critics Association Press Tour, on Friday, January 17, 2020, in Pasadena, CA. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Sally Rooney takes part in a panel during the Winter 2020 Television Critics Association Press Tour, on Friday, January 17, 2020, in Pasadena, CA. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Bestselling author Sally Rooney said that she decided not to publish her latest novel with an Israeli publishing house because she supports a boycott of Israel, but added that a non-Israeli press could still publish the book in Hebrew.

She said she is holding off on finding a Hebrew publisher until she can find one that distances itself from what she calls the alleged “apartheid against Palestinians.”

In a statement issued on Tuesday through her literary representatives, the Wylie Agency, the Irish novelist said she hoped to eventually find a Hebrew-language translator for “Beautiful World, Where Are You?” which came out last month, but will not do so through an Israeli publisher.

“It would be an honour for me to have my latest novel translated into Hebrew and available to Hebrew-language readers,” the statement said. “But for the moment, I have chosen not to sell these translation rights to an Israeli-based publishing house.”

Her previous novels, the best sellers “Normal People” and “Conversations With Friends,” were released in Hebrew through Modan Publishing House.

Modan, which said it had been informed the author did not want to publish her latest book in Israel, said Rooney’s previous works had sold “very well” in Israel. It declined to provide statistics. An Israeli official, meanwhile, called the decision “extremely unfortunate.”

“I understand that not everyone will agree with my decision, but 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,” said Rooney, 30, one of the world’s most popular and acclaimed young writers and a supporter of the Palestinians in the past.

Rooney’s decision was first reported by the Haaretz daily.

Rooney’s earlier works remain available, both in Hebrew and English, in Israel. Readers can order “Beautiful World, Where Are You” in English on such overseas websites as Amazon and Book Depository, but it isn’t currently accessible for speakers of Hebrew, the predominant language among Jewish Israelis.

Illustrative: Israeli tourists look at a BDS stand with photos and Palestinian flags, calling to ‘Free Palestine,’ at Dam Square in central Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on June 24, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In her statement, Rooney cited a pair of reports — by Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem and New York-based Human Rights Watch — that claimed Israel is guilty of the international crime of apartheid because of alleged discriminatory policies toward Arab Israelis within its own borders and toward Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

These reports, 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.”

Rooney praised the BDS movement, which calls for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israeli businesses, cultural institutions, and universities. BDS says it seeks to end Israel’s control of lands captured in the 1967 six-day war and what it describes as discrimination against Israel’s Arab minority. It also calls for the “right of return” for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to homes their ancestors fled or were expelled from in the 1948 war during Israel’s creation.

Israeli officials vehemently reject the apartheid accusations, and Israel and other BDS opponents say that the BDS campaign encourages antisemitism and aims to delegitimize or even destroy Israel. In 2019, then-United States president Donald Trump threatened to withhold federal money from educational institutions that did not reject BDS, and over 30 US states have passed anti-BDS legislation.

Rooney is the latest prominent public figure to embrace the boycott movement, whose supporters have included musicians Roger Waters and Brian Eno, filmmakers Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and “The Color Purple” author Alice Walker.

Illustrative: Palestinian and left-wing Jewish groups stage a rally walking from Times Square to United Nations Building in New York, on Thursday, September 15, 2011. The marchers are calling to end all US aid to Israel, end the occupation and support Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. (AP Photo/David Karp)

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, a founding member of the BDS movement, said in a statement that it “warmly welcomed” Rooney’s decision.

“Rooney joins countless international authors in supporting the institutional cultural boycott of Israel’s complicit publishing sector, just as progressive artists once supported the boycott of apartheid South Africa,” the statement reads.

Nurit Tinari, director of the division for cultural and scientific affairs at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said “it is extremely unfortunate that Sally Rooney has chosen the path of discrimination and boycott.”

“Literature and art are meant to foster dialogue,” she added. “We would expect an author to want to foster dialogue, hear other viewpoints, and influence through discourse.”

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai arrives at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Why read her at all?” Israel’s Diaspora affairs minister Nachman Shai tweeted Tuesday, shortly before Rooney released her statement. “The cultural boycott of Israel is antisemitism in new wrapping, [and] it’s a badge of shame for her and others who act like her.”

Rooney’s decision was supported on Tuesday by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, who in an email to The Associated Press wrote that “as a proudly Jewish writer who wants Israel to survive and thrive, and (and therefore) supports the Palestinian people in their struggle for equality, justice and human rights, I say yasher koach (Hebrew for ‘Good job’ or ‘More power to you’) to Rooney.”

Like Rooney, Chabon has had previous works translated into Hebrew. Asked what he might do in the future, he responded: “I have to think about how I want to handle this situation when the time comes, with my next book, but something like this, if sharply focused and expressed, seems not inappropriate.”

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