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Sally Rooney's Israel boycott over publication of her new book will only backfire

Singling out Israelis for ostracization is both morally questionable and utterly counterproductive.
Image: Sally Rooney in Merrion Square in Dublin on July 24, 2021.
Sally Rooney in Merrion Square in Dublin on July 24.Ellius Grace / The New York Times via Redux

ACRE, Israel — Sally Rooney is a 30-year-old Irish writer of immense talent and insight whose novels critics and readers alike feel accurately portray the complicated lives of her own generation. Global success has provided her with an enormous platform, making hers a voice that people listen to.

Punishing us this way causes Israelis to dig in their heels, and the realization of peace moves further from reach, all sides hunkered down behind thick layers of armor and stone.

So when Rooney blocked the sale of translation rights for her third novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You?” to the same Israeli publishing house that had put out her two earlier novels in Hebrew, the message was clear: The Western liberal intelligentsia, represented here as part of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movementto “end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law,” must punish Israel, depriving Israelis of the status of other human beings by holding back the prizes of enlightened civilization, this time in the form of a novel every enlightened citizen of the Western world is planning to read.

The BDS movement was launched in 2005 by a coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations, but many of the Western activists who have since joined them remind me of smokers who have quit smoking and are now its most vociferous and intolerant opponents. After all, until only recently Western countries colonized, enslaved, pillaged, plundered and generally altered the course of vast swaths of the world’s lands and peoples, stripping them of language, culture, resources and dignity.

As a liberal Israeli Jew, it irks me to make this argument, since in my eyes the state of Israel is wrong for occupying the Palestinian territories, wrong in its treatment of the Palestinians inside Israel and in its territories, wrong for causing the Jewish population to behave like colonizers. The Jewish people, after millennia of being the unwelcome guests of other nations, should truly be a light unto the nations when it comes to fair treatment of non-Jewish citizens and neighbors.

But singling us out for ostracization is both morally questionable and utterly counterproductive.

Others have made and continue to make points better than I can about what it means to ban academics, athletes and artists from international events; about other countries with human rights violations not subject to BDS or even called to account for themselves in any meaningful way; about the antisemitism possibly lurking behind the BDS movement and underpinning its agenda; and about the difficulty for Israel in finding meaningful partners at the negotiating table truly capable of bringing about change.

But acts like Rooney’s also mean we miss some of the voices we most need to hear, like Caryl Churchill’s. After watching a performance of her astonishing play “Far Away” in London just before the pandemic, I emerged from the theater intent upon getting it staged in Israel — only to learn that the playwright refused to have her work performed there. A taut masterpiece about the absurdity of war-making and the effects it has on human beings, this was precisely the play that Israelis need to see, and process, and talk about, a possible way into exploring the true horror of our current situation and why we need to move out of it. In order to deal with catastrophe, one must be willing to confront it; the BDS movement pre-empts that confrontation, renders it impossible.

Most notably, BDS policies play right into the hands of politicians like former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who puff up with indignation and vindication: See, see, they hate us! They treat us with different, stricter standards! It confirms the Israeli public’s worst fears of being loathed — globally, irrationally, an extension of the pogroms and blood libels and defamation that are far too familiar to anyone who has read or experienced even a smidgen of Jewish history.

So instead of helping a just cause — “The Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom, justice and equality,” as iterated on the BDS website— punishing us this way causes Israelis to dig in their heels, and the realization of peace moves further from reach, all sides hunkered down behind thick layers of armor and stone.

The Jewish Israeli guests who step through the door of the hotel and artists’ residency my son and I own in the Old City of Acre, whose population of nearly 5,000 is 95 percent Muslim, often arrive skeptical and full of questions about relations with our Arab neighbors. They listen to our stories. They meet our neighbors, our staff, our friends. They note the ease and pleasure in our interactions. They eat the excellent local cuisine, wander the alleys and, more often than not, leave after a day or two with a slightly altered perception of what life could be like if the entire country’s population got along with each other as we do.

This is quiet diplomacy, gentle coercion by example, a cracking open of the door that has behind it a different reality. It’s a slow process of creating desire — the image of a happy, peaceful Israel and Palestine tantalizingly attainable — and trust, that the other side wants the same and is willing to make similar sacrifices to get there. How can our present dismal policy toward the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza ever improve if all doors are closed? People like Sally Rooney, with a voice and the power to use it, should be throwing open those doors and inviting all to step through.