(JTA) — The bestselling author Sally Rooney said she decided not to publish her latest novel with an Israeli publishing house because she supports a boycott of Israel, but added that a non-Israeli press could still publish the book in Hebrew.
Rooney’s statement, made on Tuesday, confirms a report by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last month that Rooney declined to sell Hebrew publishing rights for her new book, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” to Modan Publishing House, an Israeli press that published her first two novels in Hebrew.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency and others this week characterized Rooney’s decision not to work with Modan as a decision not to allow her critically acclaimed book to be translated into Hebrew at all. Rooney said that is not true.
“It would be an honour for me to have my latest novel translated into Hebrew and available to Hebrew-language readers,” the statement said. “But for the moment, I have chosen not to sell these translation rights to an Israeli-based publishing house.”
Whether that’s possible is unclear: The Hebrew-language publishing industry is centered in Israel, the only country where Hebrew is an official language.
Rooney, 30, the Irish author of the acclaimed 2018 novel “Normal People,” has been called one of the world’s premier millennial authors. Her books have topped bestseller charts, gotten television deals and been praised for their depiction of urbane millennial life and romance.
She had expressed her support for the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, known as BDS, in July, when she was one of thousands of artists to sign a letter urging an end to international aid to Israel as well as “trade, economic and cultural relations.” That came shortly after Israel’s May conflict with Hamas in Gaza prompted renewed international criticism of Israel, including a wave of boycott calls.
Citing recent reports by Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights group Btselem, Rooney said in her statement that “Israel’s system of racial domination and segregation against Palestinians meets the definition of apartheid under international law.” (Human Rights Watch said that “Israeli authorities systematically discriminate” against Palestinians in a way that “amounts to the systematic oppression required for apartheid.” Btselem said that Israel maintains an apartheid regime” that “uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another.“)
Anticipating questions about whether she is permitting translations in China or other countries with records of human rights abuses, Rooney acknowledged that many countries “are guilty of grievous human rights abuses,” but compared Israel to Apartheid-era South Africa and said that she’s chosen to boycott in response to a call from Palestinian civil society.
“I understand that not everyone will agree with my decision, but I simply do not feel it would be right for me under the present circumstances to accept a new contract with an Israeli company that does not publicly distance itself from apartheid and support the UN-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people,” she said.
Irish left-wing activists have long connected their historical struggle against the British to support for Palestinian independence. Both of Rooney’s first two books contained references to Israel: In “Normal People,” the main characters attend a protest of Israel’s actions in the 2014 Gaza War, and her first book, “Conversations with Friends,” contains a sardonic reference to Israel being seen as “nicer” than Palestine.
Israeli officials and advocates for Israel have decried the boycott movement as unjust, with some going so far as accusing boycott supporters of antisemitism. Israel’s Diaspora affairs minister, Nachman Shai, made that connection around Rooney’s decision.
“Why read her at all?” Shai tweeted Tuesday, shortly before Rooney released her statement. “The cultural boycott of Israel is antisemitism in new wrapping, [and] it’s a badge of shame for her and others who act like her.”
Rooney is the latest in a string of prominent artists to support a boycott of Israel, and her decision not to publish with an Israeli press is the most significant of its kind since the author Alice Walker announced in 2012 that she would not publish “The Color Purple” with an Israeli house. (Several years later, Walker drew fierce criticism after she endorsed a book that placed Jews at the center of a global conspiracy to control the world.)
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has asked Rooney’s agent if she has made any inquiries into publishing the novel in Hebrew outside of Israel. In her statement, she suggested that she would be open to doing so.
“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,” Rooney said.