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It’s a sobering thought that Sally Rooney’s decision not to allow the translation rights to her book “Beautiful World, Where Are You” to be taken up by an Israel-based publisher has provoked more outrage –and indeed coverage—here in the UK than anything which has been happening in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories in recent months.
Whatever you think of the Irish novelist’s decision, it has focused attention, however briefly, on a conflict which it sometimes seems as if the world would rather forget.
It hasn’t been hard for her many critics to make the case against her stance. She has made an important clarification – that her objection is not to seeing the novel appear in Hebrew, as she was “proud” that two of her previous novels did. Instead, citing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign for a complete boycott of Israel, she has indicated she will only sell the rights –at least for now – to a publisher that is “BDS-compliant”. But in practice it’s hard to see how the book, at least in printed hard copy form, could be made available to the vast majority of Hebrew-speaking readers – who live in Israel – while keeping to BDS guidelines.
As opposed to many other organisations deeply opposed to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, BDS, though peaceful, is fuzzy about Israel’s right to exist. And it's questionable whether its associated organisation, the Palestinian Campaign For an Academic and Cultural Boycott (PACBI) – which has warmly welcomed Rooney’s decision – always acts in the interests of Palestinians. When back in 2009, the late Leonard Cohen gave a concert in Tel Aviv he donated the proceeds to the Parent’s Circle – a fine organisation of Jewish and Arab families bereaved by the conflict and deeply opposed to its occupation of Palestinian territory. And he wanted to give another concert in the West Bank Palestinian city of Ramallah, dedicating the profits to a charity supporting Palestinians held in Israeli gaols. Thanks in part to PACBI, Cohen’s invitation to Ramallah was rescinded on the grounds that he was also performing in Israel.
But it’s also important to see what Rooney’s decision is not. It has of course already been described as antisemitic. There is not a shred of evidence that Rooney is any such thing. One of the huge successes of Israeli hasbara (the word for “explaining” which denotes its government’s energetic public diplomacy) has been to conflate in the public mind a wide range of activities and movements against its policies with antisemitism, ignoring (among much else) the fact that Jewish people – including Jewish Israelis – are often in the forefront of such movements. When Ben and Jerry’s decided this year to stop selling its ice-cream in West Bank Jewish settlements, it too was widely condemned, at least in the US, as antisemitic.
There is a distinction of course between boycotts of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories on the Ben and Jerry’s model, and boycotts of Israel itself, which BDS supports and many liberals are uneasy about. But by soft-pedalling the first of these – the case for which is incontrovertible given that Israeli settlements are regarded as illegal in international law by nearly every democratic country, including Britain – Western governments have left a vacuum which BDS has started to fill. Indeed if those same governments were to take a much tougher line against the Israeli occupation, for example by boycotting goods and services from settlements (and financial services organisations which do business in the settlements) it might well have a palpable impact on Israeli policy.
Maybe the present silence of Israel’s closest allies about its policies is because of relief that the previous prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did not go ahead with the threatened formal annexation of parts of the West Bank, and perhaps that his government – whose onslaught on Hamas in May involved many civilian casualties (Hamas fired rockets at Israel too) – fell earlier this year.
Yet under Netanyahu’s successor Naftali Bennett the miseries of Palestinians have not abated. The West Bank is seeing right now an escalation of violent attacks by settlers on neighbouring Palestinians; and in some places there have been accusations – denied by the military – of complicity by Israel Defence Force units with the militant settlers.
It may be legitimate to argue that Rooney was mistaken in associating herself with an all out boycott of Israel and likely deny her Israeli fans the chance to read her latest book in Hebrew. But unless governments in the US and Europe are prepared to confront Israel with the continuing injustice of its oppression of the Palestinians, there will be more, not fewer, decisions like Rooney’s in future.
Donald Macintyre is the author of 'Gaza: Preparing for Dawn'