Baseless claims of antisemitism and allegations of hypocrisy have been leveled for decades at anyone who rejects the fiction that Israel is a normal state.
Because there is no way to deny that Israel refuses to grant basic civil rights to millions of Palestinians in the territories it has occupied since 1967, the Israeli government and its supporters in the West reflexively smear anyone who refuses to ignore or excuse this injustice using a familiar set of lies.
That’s why the attacks on Sally Rooney this week, for refusing an Israeli publishing firm’s request to produce a Hebrew translation of her new novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You,” to honor the Palestinian-led cultural boycott of Israel, were so predictable.
Rooney explained in a written statement that she was convinced that Israel’s unequal treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories was akin to the former apartheid regime in South Africa, justifying an international campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions like the successful one against that state.
“Earlier this year, the international campaign group Human Rights Watch published a report entitled ‘A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution’. That report, coming on the heels of a similarly damning report by Israel’s most prominent human rights organization B’Tselem, 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,” Rooney wrote.
“Of course, many states other than Israel are guilty of grievous human rights abuses,” she continued, preempting one of the most common objections to the boycott campaign raised by supporters of Israel. “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.”
But before Rooney released the statement explaining her reasons for joining the boycott, she was accused of being either an antisemite, for singling out the world’s only Jewish state for criticism, or a hypocrite, for not taking similar actions to prevent translation of her work into the languages used in authoritarian nations.
“Sally Rooney’s novels are available in Chinese and Russian,” the literary critic Ruth Franklin tweeted. “Doesn’t she care about the Uighurs? Or Putin-defying journalists? To judge Israel by a different standard than the rest of the world is antisemitism.”
A London correspondent for i24 News, an outlet based in Tel Aviv, Israel, chimed in, asking, “Will she refuse Russian, Arabic and Chinese publishers, too?”
The next day, an app used by Israel’s government to coordinate the outrage of its supporters on social networks directed them to like a Facebook comment “saying that her decision reflects her antisemitic behaviour!”
The self-described Zionist music journalist Eve Barlow tweeted, despite a lack of evidence that Rooney had ever expressed any anti-Jewish sentiment: “I fully expect people like Sally Rooney to be antisemitic. It’s not a surprise. I’d be surprised if she wasn’t.”
Judea Pearl, an Israeli American computer science professor whose son Daniel was murdered by Islamist extremists in Pakistan in 2002, responded to Barlow by baselessly accusing Rooney — who was an international debate champion before she turned to fiction — of having adopted an anti-Israel position without having given the matter any thought at all.
As one stunned Irish observer noted, Pearl added that he might have expected Rooney to be antisemitic based on his offensive, and shockingly inaccurate, caricature of what her background must have been as a typical Irish person: “alcoholic parents, fanatic teachers, bad neighborhood etc.”
Sally Rooney, like anyone who grows up in the “bad neighbourhood” that is *rural Mayo*, with “alcoholic parents” who *run a regional arts centre* and “fanatic teachers” at *Trinity College Dublin* can’t help being an antisemite.— Pádraig Mac Oscair ?? (@PMacoscair) October 15, 2021
But opposing genocide in Palestine?
Ignorance about the Irish was a factor of much of the criticism of Rooney’s decision on social networks. The thought that something other than antisemitism — like the sympathy of one formerly colonized nation for another — might explain widespread Irish support for the Palestinians seemed to be utterly lost on most of those dismissing Rooney’s stance.
More knowledge of Irish history might have made Rooney’s decision less shocking to her critics. None of them, for instance, seem aware that the battle of an indigenous population to regain control of its land from settlers who seized it as part of a violent process of colonization is far from abstract to the Irish. Just last month, Ireland’s president, Michael D. Higgins, turned down an invitation to join the British queen at an event to commemorate the creation of Northern Ireland through the partition of Ireland along ethnic lines 100 years ago.
Omar Barghouti, the Palestinian co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, or BDS, movement, observed in an email interview that the “first significant instance of cultural boycott against apartheid South Africa was a 1964 declaration signed by twenty-eight Irish playwrights who committed not to permit their work to be performed before segregated audiences in South Africa.”
Barghouti also observed that the demand for Rooney to make her work available in Hebrew, or be branded an antisemite, “attempts to center the oppressor community and its privileged entitlement to read world literary works in its language intentionally de-center the oppressed, the Indigenous Palestinians, and our fundamental entitlement to freedom, justice and basic human rights.” (He might have added that the outrage at Rooney’s decision to not license a Hebrew translation is particularly odd given that just 8 percent of Jewish Israelis do not speak English.)
Then there’s the fact that Rooney is from Mayo, the Irish county where the term boycott was invented in 1880, during a popular struggle to regain control of the land from the descendants of English settlers.
It is also absurd to claim that Rooney somehow arrived at her decision on a whim. In 2019, she added her name to an open letter deploring a decision by the city of Dortmund to rescind a literature prize from the writer Kamila Shamsie “because of her stated commitment to the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.”
Earlier this year, she signed a “Letter Against Apartheid” that called on artists “to exercise their agency within their institutions and localities to support the Palestinian struggle for decolonization to the best of their ability. Israeli apartheid is sustained by international complicity, it is our collective responsibility to redress this harm.”
As the writer and activist Omar Robert Hamilton observed, Rooney was simply “following through” on those principles when she announced that she would stop working with the Israeli publishing house Modan, which published Hebrew translations of her two previous novels but also prints books for Israel’s Ministry of Defense, including an ethics guide for soldiers by the moral philosopher Asa Kasher, who helped craft the Israeli army doctrine that killing civilians in Gaza is acceptable to protect Israeli soldiers.
There was also support for Rooney. The novelist Michael Chabon told The Associated Press that “as a proudly Jewish writer who wants Israel to survive and thrive, and (and therefore) supports the Palestinian people in their struggle for equality, justice and human rights, I say yasher koach (Hebrew for ‘Good job’ or ‘More power to you’) to Rooney.” Chabon added that he might consider joining the boycott of Israeli publishers in the future.
On Twitter, Chabon responded to a defender of Israel who called Rooney’s boycott “silly” and ineffective by writing: “I commend her experimental spirit; intractable evils demand no less. Who knows what effect it will or won’t have? Not us.”
Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, mocked a claim from a spokesperson for Israel’s foreign ministry, who said that Rooney’s stance “impedes peace, dialogue, or any meaningful change.”
Because Rooney achieved fame in her 20s and has been marketed in ways that draw attention to her youth, such as “Salinger for the Snapchat generation,” supporters of Israel have also attacked her as a self-obsessed millennial, a young woman too naive to understand the conflict.
Jake Wallis Simons, deputy editor of London’s Jewish Chronicle, accused Rooney of “making a statement against Jews” in an opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph headlined “Sally Rooney’s Israeli boycott is nothing but a futile millennial gesture.” On Twitter, he added: “if Sally Rooney really cared about human rights and the values of democracy, free speech, and the rights of women and minorities, she would *support* Israel and prevent her books from being translated into Arabic or Chinese.”
But Simons has been making exactly the same argument since at least 2014, when he was celebrated by pro-Israel activists for describing calls to boycott Israel but not China or Saudi Arabia as “ridiculously naive and even hypocritical.”
Because these same arguments have been made since the BDS movement was created by Palestinian activists in 2005, the late historian Tony Judt had time to debunk them thoroughly before his death. In 2010, Judt told the London Review of Books:
If Zionism is to succeed as a representation of the original ideas of the Zionist founders, Israel has to become a normal state. That was the idea. Israel should not be special because it is Jewish. Jews are to have a state just like everyone else has a state. It should have no more rights than Slovenia and no fewer. Therefore, it also has to behave like a state. It has to declare its frontiers, recognise international law, sign international treaties and agreements. Furthermore, other countries have to behave towards it the way they would towards any other state that broke those laws. Otherwise it is treated as special and Zionism as a project has failed. People will say: ‘Why are we picking on Israel? What about Libya? Yemen? Burma? China? All of which are much worse.’ Fine. But we are missing two things: first, Israel describes itself as a democracy and so it should be compared with democracies not with dictatorships; second, if Burma came to the EU and said, ‘It would be a huge advantage for us if we could have privileged trading rights with you,’ Europe would say: ‘First you have to release political prisoners, hold elections, open up your borders.’ We have to say the same things to Israel. Otherwise we are acknowledging that a Jewish state is an unusual thing – a weird, different thing that is not to be treated like every other state.
In the same interview, Judt explained that economic and cultural ties to European nations were very important to Israelis. “The joke is that Jews spent a hundred years desperately trying to have a state in the Middle East,” Judt said. “Now they spend all their time trying to get out of the Middle East. They don’t want to be there economically, culturally or politically – they don’t feel part of it and don’t want to be part of it. They want to be part of Europe.”
In 2006, Judt, who had been an idealistic supporter of Zionism in his youth, had warned in the pages of Haaretz that decades of occupation and military rule over millions of Palestinians had been “a moral and political catastrophe” for Israel.
“Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza have magnified and publicized the country’s shortcomings and displayed them to a watching world,” Judt wrote. “Curfews, checkpoints, bulldozers, public humiliations, home destructions, land seizures, shootings, ‘targeted assassinations,’ the separation fence: All of these routines of occupation and repression were once familiar only to an informed minority of specialists and activists. Today they can be watched, in real time, by anyone with a computer or a satellite dish – which means that Israel’s behavior is under daily scrutiny by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. The result has been a complete transformation in the international view of Israel.”
“The habit of tarring any foreign criticism with the brush of anti-Semitism is deeply engrained in Israeli political instincts,” Judt added, while warning that such accusations, when made baselessly, would only erode Israel’s moral credibility.
Judt, who taught at New York University, also sensed that Israel’s brutal occupation was alienating younger generations. “Thanks to the passage of time, most Western European states have now come to terms with their part in the Holocaust,” Judt observed. “Today, now that the history of World War II is retreating from the public square into the classroom and from the classroom into the history books, a growing majority of voters in Europe and elsewhere (young voters above all) simply cannot understand how the horrors of the last European war can be invoked to license or condone unacceptable behavior in another time and place. In the eyes of a watching world, the fact that the great-grandmother of an Israeli soldier died in Treblinka is no excuse for his own abusive treatment of a Palestinian woman waiting to cross a checkpoint.”
Fifteen years later, Rooney, who was born in 1991, argued this week that the most relevant historical frame for understanding the Israeli occupation is apartheid-era South Africa.
Barghouti points out that Jews in Israel and abroad who support the BDS movement “play a significant role in exposing Israel’s regime of oppression and advocating for isolating it.”
“Younger Jewish activists there and elsewhere are increasingly abandoning Zionism and supporting Palestinian liberation,” Barghouti added. “They understand that there is nothing Jewish about Israel’s siege, ethnic cleansing, massacres, land theft and apartheid, and therefore there is nothing anti-Jewish per se in supporting BDS to end these crimes.”
One of the most prominent Jewish writers to endorse the BDS movement is Intercept contributor Naomi Klein. Klein explained in 2009 that in order to respect the boycott, her book “The Shock Doctrine” was published in Hebrew by a now-defunct publisher called Andalus which she found with the help of BDS activists. Andalus, as Klein explained, was “an activist press, deeply involved in the anti-occupation movement and the only Israeli publisher devoted exclusively to translating Arabic writing into Hebrew.” In that way she was “boycotting the Israeli economy but not Israelis.”
Barghouti also notes that the boycott of apartheid South Africa was “a key reference” for Palestinians who first called for cultural boycotts against in 2004. “This reference is neither coincidental nor rhetorical,” Barghouti says. “It stems from the many similarities between the two cases of colonial oppression, and it aims to highlight the effectiveness and moral unassailability of using the boycott in the cultural sphere to resist a persistent oppressive order that enjoys impunity and ample complicity from the powers that be around the world and to increase the isolation of oppressive regimes, like apartheid Israel.”
Rooney’s use of the word apartheid to describe Israel’s treatment of the captive Palestinian populations in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, which was repeated on news sites worldwide this week, comes five years after the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee defined that term on the closing night of the 2016 Palestinian Festival of Literature in Ramallah.
Coetzee, who had just completed an intense weeklong fact-finding mission across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, began by saying that he had always been reluctant to use the word apartheid to describe what was happening in Palestine. “Like using the word genocide to describe what happened in Turkey in the 1920s, using the word apartheid diverts one into an enflamed semantic wrangle which cuts short opportunities of analysis,” Coetzee explained.
“Apartheid was a system of enforced segregation based on race or ethnicity put in place by an exclusive self-defined group in order to consolidate colonial conquest, in particular, to cement its hold on the land and on natural resources,” Coetzee said next. “In Jerusalem and the West Bank, to speak only of Jerusalem and the West Bank, we’ve seen a system of enforced segregation based on religion and ethnicity put in place by an exclusive self-defined group to consolidate a colonial conquest, in particular to maintain, and indeed extend, its hold on the land and its natural resources. Draw your own conclusions.”