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Sally Rooney won't sell translation rights to Israeli publisher, reigniting boycott debate

"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," the Irish writer said. 
Edinburgh International Book Festival 2017
Sally Rooney attends the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Aug. 22, 2017 in Scotland.Simone Padovani / Getty Images file

Millennial literary sensation Sally Rooney has chosen not to sell the Hebrew translation rights of her latest novel to an Israel-based publishing house, sparking renewed debate around the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions movement.

In a statement provided by her agent, the Irish writer said she was proud to have had her previous two novels — "Conversations With Friends" and "Normal People" — translated into Hebrew, and said it would be an honor to have her latest book — "Beautiful World, Where Are You" — made available to Hebrew-language readers as well. 

However, Rooney said she did not feel it would be right to accept a new contract with an Israeli company that does not "publicly distance itself from apartheid and support the U.N.-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people."

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

"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,” she said in the statement. "In the meantime I would like to express once again my solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom, justice and equality."

The BDS movement has called for boycotts against Israeli businesses, universities and cultural institutions in what it says is a nonviolent campaign against Israeli abuses against Palestinians. It says it aims to economically and politically pressure Israel to comply with international law and works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

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But Israeli officials say the movement is antisemitic and seeks to delegitimize or even destroy the Jewish state. Under Israeli law, supporters of the movement can be denied entry to Israel

Rooney, 30, noted that Human Rights Watch said this year that Israel was guilty of the international crimes of apartheid and persecution because of discriminatory policies toward Palestinians within its borders and in the occupied territories. That report, she said, came on the heels of a similarly damning publication by the leading Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, which for the first time labeled Israel an "apartheid regime."

Rooney’s statement clarifying her position came after the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli publisher Modan told the paper last month that Rooney won’t allow her new book to be published in Hebrew because she supports an Israel boycott. 

Tali Tchelet, a spokeswoman for the publisher, said Modan had published Rooney’s previous books and that when they asked about her third novel, the answer came back that she was not interested in publishing it in Israel. 

“We did not get any explanation for her refusal,” Tchelet wrote in an email. “We consider Sally Rooney amongst our finest authors in translation, and she definitely had a solid readership in Israel.”

The Haaretz report prompted Gitit Levy-Paz, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, to criticize Rooney’s decision in an article for the website the Forward on Monday, in which she argued that Rooney has chosen a path that is "anathema to the artistic essence of literature." 

Others, however, came to her defense. Ronan Burtenshaw, the editor of the British socialist magazine Tribune, said Forward has cynically decided to make this about language.

Burtenshaw, who attended Trinity College in Dublin around the same as Rooney, said that while there are "no easy cultural boycotts," what isn’t complicated is the "moral urgency of solidarity with the Palestinians." 

It is not the first time Rooney, who says she views the world mostly through a Marxist framework, has used her literary platform to lend support to the Palestinian cause.

Following the brief war between Israel and Hamas in May, Rooney signed an open letter written by Palestinian writers, artists and "allies" asking "people of conscience" to help dismantle Israel’s "apartheid regime." 

"Of course, many states other than Israel are guilty of grievous human rights abuses," Rooney said in her statement Tuesday. "In this particular case, I am responding to the call from Palestinian civil society, including all major Palestinian trade unions and writers’ unions."

There has long been a strong current of support for Palestinians among Irish activists, rooted in perceived parallels between the Palestinian struggle and the Irish national experience. In May, Ireland’s Parliament passed a motion describing Israeli settlements and other policies in the West Bank as “de facto annexation.” Israel’s Foreign Ministry rejected what it described as Ireland’s “outrageous and baseless” position on Israeli settlements.