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12 October 2021

The Sally Rooney Hebrew row – explained

The bestselling author is not boycotting Hebrew. But why did so many people assume she was?

By Emily Tamkin

Is the author Sally Rooney boycotting Hebrew?

No.

Why did I think she was?

On Monday (11 October), news broke in the Israeli press that Sally Rooney had refused to allow her new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, to be translated by an Israeli publishing firm that has published her work before. This was then repeated in the English-language edition of Forward, which said that Rooney “refused to allow her new novel to be translated into Hebrew due to her support for cultural boycotts of Israel”.

So Sally Rooney culturally boycotts Israel?

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement argues that Israel uses culture as propaganda, and so the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel “urges international cultural workers and cultural organizations, including unions and associations, to boycott and/or work towards the cancellation of events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israel, its lobby groups or its cultural institutions”.

Have other authors done this?

Yes. For example, in 2018, British author Kamila Shamsie declined an offer from an Israeli publisher, writing: “I would be very happy to be published in Hebrew, but I don’t know of any (fiction) publisher of Hebrew who is not Israeli, and I understand that there is no Israeli publisher who is completely unentangled from the state. I do not want to cross the picket line formed by Palestinian civil society, which has asked everyone who wants to change the situation to not cooperate with organizations that are in any way complicit with the Israeli state.”

Did Rooney say something similar?

She did. In a statement from Faber, she said: “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.”

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What about other countries with human rights abuses, such as China or Saudi Arabia?

Rooney’s response to this was: “Of course, many states other than Israel are guilty of grievous human rights abuses. This was also true of South Africa during the campaign against apartheid there. In this particular case, I am responding to the call from Palestinian civil society, including all major Palestinian trade unions and writers’ unions.”

Is Rooney being hypocritical?

Some people think so. If you’re going to publish in Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, why won’t you publish in Israel? Others argue that, while there are terrible things happening around the world, they are participating in a specific campaign and responding to a call from Palestinians.

So will her book be published in Hebrew after all?

That is as yet unclear. Rooney or her publisher would need to find a translator and distributor willing to translate and distribute the book without involving Israel – for example, by a non-Israeli publisher that also publishes in Hebrew. The Yacoubian Building, a novel by Egyptian author Alaa al-Aswany, was published in Hebrew when Kinneret Publishing cooperated with British Toby Press, which also publishes in Hebrew, Haaretz reported in 2018 (though it should be noted that al-Aswany also said he objected to that publication).

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Would that be a largely symbolic distinction to make?

Maybe. Most Hebrew speakers do live in Israel, though Hebrew is taught, read and spoken around the world. But perhaps it would be worth making this distinction to keep Hebrew the language from being boycotted along with Israel, particularly if more writers decide to follow Rooney’s route.

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