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Sally Rooney: 'Normal People' author boycotts publisher linked with Israel's defence ministry

Acclaimed novelist rejects Hebrew translation request by Israeli publisher that ‘does not distance itself from apartheid’
Author Sally Rooney poses for a photograph ahead of the announcement of the winner of the Costa Book Awards 2018 in London (Reuters/File photo)

Acclaimed Irish author Sally Rooney has turned down a request from an Israeli publisher to translate her latest novel due to her support for the cultural boycott of Israel.

Modan Publishing House told Haaretz that Rooney had rejected its Hebrew translation request of Beautiful World, Where are You? The decision was confirmed by Rooney’s agent, according to the Israeli newspaper. 

On Tuesday, the 30-year-old author released a statement explaining her decision. 

Rooney said that recent reports published by Human Rights Watch and Israeli rights organisation B’Tselem have “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.”

Israel boycott: What is the BDS movement?
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She added that while many other states were guilty of human rights abuses, in this particular case she was responding to “the call from Palestinian civil society, including all major Palestinian trade unions and writers’ unions.” 

The author noted that some people would not agree with her decision, but that she could not collaborate with an Israeli company “that does not publicly distance itself from apartheid and support the UN-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people.

“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 [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] movement’s institutional boycott guidelines, I will be very pleased and proud to do so,” Rooney said.

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

Framing challenged online

Beautiful World, Where are You?  went to the top of the UK’s book charts when it came out in early September, selling over 40,000 copies in five days. 

Bookstore chain Waterstones said that the book became its best-selling fiction hardback of this year after only being on sale for one week. 

In July, following an Israeli military operation on Gaza in May, Rooney was one of several artists to sign a letter calling on governments to “cut trade, economic and cultural relations” with Israel and to end support for the country’s military. 

Modan works in partnership with the Israeli government, producing and marketing books for the Ministry of Defence Publishing House.

Several commentators on social media took issue with the way in which Rooney’s cultural boycott was being framed by media outlets, in what they perceived to be a false implication that the author was boycotting the Hebrew language.

“Rooney is not boycotting Hebrew but rather an Israeli publishing house, and the fact that some have tried to frame it as her boycotting Hebrew is ridiculous,” said journalist and Israel-Palestine analyst Mairav Zonszein. 

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) said it “warmly welcomed” the author'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,” PACBI said in a statement on Tuesday. 

Rooney is regarded as one of the most successful millennial authors. Her novel Normal People sold over a million copies and was turned into a critically acclaimed television series. 

Rooney has spoken often about her left-wing politics, and has previously stated that she sees the world through a “Marxist framework”.

Several characters in her books support progressive causes. Notably, in Normal People, the protaganist attends a protest against Israel's violence against Palestinians during the 2014 war in Gaza. 

Not the first

Rooney is not the first author to boycott Israeli publishers. 

In 2012, Pulitzer prize-winning author Alice Walker refused permission for publisher Yediot Books to print an Israeli edition of her classic novel The Color Purple, due to Israel being “guilty of of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people".

Two years ago, MEE exclusively revealed that British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie was stripped of a German literary prize because of her support for the BDS movement. 

The British-Pakistani author had been announced as the winner of the Nelly Sachs Prize, named after a Jewish poet and Nobel laureate and organised and funded by the city of Dortmund. 

However, the jury then reversed its decision to honour Shamsie because she had “been participating in the boycott measures against the Israeli government for its Palestinian policies”.

Like Rooney and Walker, Shamsie also rejected having her book translated by Israeli publishers. 

In 2018, she said: “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 organisations that are in any way complicit with the Israeli state.”

Commenting on the reporting of Rooney's decision, Shamsie tweeted on Tuesday: “I imagine all writers who have refused to sell translation rights in Israel in support of BDS have no desire to boycott a language.”

“Our actions honour the call from Palestinian civil society for a boycott of institutions linked to the Israeli state.”