In praise and defence of Sally Rooney

The acclaimed Irish author was right to not allow an Israeli publisher to translate her latest novel into Hebrew.

A merchandising display for copies of the new novel by Irish author Sally Rooney, titled Beautiful World, Where Are You, on display for sale at Waterstones book store in Piccadilly, London, UK, September 7, 2021 [File: Vickie Flores/EPA]

Asked what they should do with their lives, the radical American historian Howard Zinn had this advice for his students: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

Zinn, of course, spent an honourable lifetime putting his admonition into practice. He knew that injustice had to be confronted; that to remain still or silent meant accepting the often desecrating direction the turbulent train of humanity takes. Failing to resist is complicity.

Zinn also knew the poignancy of small acts; that resistance need not be grandiose to be potent. When one small act of resistance combines with another, then another and another, this people-propelled chain reaction can and does lead to epochal change.

Zinn and his wise, unflinching counsel immediately came to mind when I read of acclaimed Irish writer Sally Rooney’s decision not to allow an Israeli publisher to translate her latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, into Hebrew, citing her support for Palestinians “in their struggle for freedom, justice and equality”.

“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,” Rooney wrote.

As Rooney is, no doubt, well aware, the “present circumstances” endured by imprisoned Palestinians – day after grinding day – are as intolerable as they are a blatant affront to decency and humanity.

Those grim “present circumstances” are set out in distressing detail in reports published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, which conclude that Israel has long been guilty of committing apartheid – not as a handy rhetorical cudgel, but as an established matter of international law.

In announcing her important refusal to keep still or silent in the face of this demonstrable fact, Rooney made explicit reference to HRW’s persuasive findings. She also reiterated her support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement that – through small and large acts of resistance – works to end Israel’s documented oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply finally with international law.

For his part, Zinn was spied on, lost teaching jobs and was jailed for abiding by the simple principle that governed his work and actions: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

Zinn remained undeterred by his many indignant enemies who tried and failed to sully his name and silence him inside and outside his beloved classroom.

Rooney’s appreciation of the obligation to reject neutrality when the circumstances demand it has prompted her detractors to try, as well, to question or denigrate her motives, besmirch her reputation, and bully her into muteness.

I suspect that Rooney anticipated that the locusts would descend upon her in all their incoherent fury, and that, like Zinn, she will continue to insist that, indeed, you cannot be neutral on a moving train.

Still, it is, I believe, useful to address what Rooney’s critics have had to say in response – if only to expose how pedestrian and vacuous their rebuttals have been.

First, the ever deferential BBC quoted an unnamed “senior Israeli minister” as having said that “such boycotts were a form of anti-Semitism”.

The identity of the “senior Israeli minister” is irrelevant. By now, it should be plain that in the corrosive, parochial view of any Israeli government – and its apologists abroad – any act committed by anyone at any time that promotes or defends the Palestinian cause constitutes, de facto, anti-Semitism.

In this context, the serious charge of anti-Semitism loses its purpose and potency when it is reduced to a predictable smear repeated, again and again, like a blunt, but, ultimately meaningless, taunt.

In any event, given the cockeyed logic of the “senior Israeli minister”, I gather Rooney was not an anti-Semite when she permitted her previous works to be translated into Hebrew. Now she is, by virtue of a single, deliberate expression of solidarity with Palestinians.

Apparently, the metamorphosis from popular, best-selling author to unrepentant anti-Semite can take place suddenly and on the vacant whim of a “senior Israeli minister”.

I know this is unlikely to give that “senior Israeli minister” and his cabinet colleagues pause, but a columnist writing in The Independent felt obliged to assure readers that: “There is not a shred of evidence that Rooney is any such thing.”

I am sure Ms Rooney is not only grateful to read that she is not an anti-Semite, but relieved.

On expected cue, the equally deferential New York Times quoted a literary agent describing Rooney’s decision as “counterproductive”. (Unsurprisingly, no one applauding Rooney’s just stand was cited.) This limp line of reasoning, such as it is, was taken up in more fulsome measure by a novelist and translator on NBC News’s website.

In his polished missive, the “award-winning novelist”, translator and self-proclaimed “liberal Israeli Jew” lauded Rooney as a writer of “immense talent and insight”.

Sadly, Rooney’s “immense talent and insight” did not spare her from his condescending rod.

While admitting that the “state of Israel” has been “wrong” not only in “occupying the Palestinian territories”, but “in its treatment of the Palestinians inside Israel and in its territories” and “for causing the Jewish population to behave like colonizers”, “singling [Israelis] out for ostracization is both morally questionable and utterly counterproductive”, the novelist wrote.

Rooney should, instead, use her “voice” and “power” to “open doors” towards a possible rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians.

No, sir. The onus – moral, ethical or historical – to recognise belatedly, let alone address, the brutal colonisation and egregious treatment of Palestinians by an occupying army rests with Israel and Israelis, not an Irish novelist.

The prescriptions for Israel and Israelis to do that are laid out in detail in HRW’s report. Perhaps literary agents and award-winning novelists lecturing and chiding Rooney in the New York Times or on NBC News should read it.

Alas, the state of Israel instantly accused HRW of producing a “propaganda pamphlet”, consistent with its longstanding “anti-Israel agenda”.

Hardly constructive.

And what is this magical, constructive approach that Rooney and the BDS movement should adopt to convince intransigent demagogues like Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to end the occupation of Palestine and the litany of “wrongs” performed by the “state of Israel” to enforce it?

If the literary agent offered up any constructive advice, the Times chose, regrettably, not to include it. As for the award-winning novelist, he thinks “quiet diplomacy” and “gentle coercion” will do the elusive trick.

I suppose that “quiet diplomacy” and “gentle coercion” should not include having Israeli settlers attack Palestinian children while they brave military checkpoints on the way to school or beat up Palestinian farmers and destroy their olive trees during harvest season.

Then, a sorry gaggle of wannabe Oscar Wildes penned what their delinquent editors mistook for caustic, contrarian columns that put Rooney in her inconsequential place by hoping that publishers would agree not to sell her “bonkbusters” in Britain.

These paint-by-number epistles were so biting and original that near-verbatim facsimiles of this frat-boy-like drivel masquerading as pithy commentary appeared, almost simultaneously, in the shrivelling London “broadsheets”, The Telegraph and The Spectator.

How grating it must be to know that an accomplished 30-year-old fiction writer already occupies an established and vaunted berth in world literature, while these redundant Fleet Street hacks hack away in well deserved and fast-evaporating obscurity. (Happily, the energetic sales of Beautiful World, Where Are You, affirm this once more.)

What is instructive in all the banal diatribes aimed at Rooney is the absence of any mentioning of or outrage at the outrages that Palestinians have had to experience – yesterday, today or tomorrow.

For too many, that suffering is invisible. Rooney’s small, but admirable, gesture has made it visible. For so-called journalists to judge that her decision warrants their censure and not the cruelty and ugliness that precipitated it, is a sad reflection of how deep and disfiguring their cynicism and blindness have become.

I hope Rooney pays no mind to the dreck. I hope she remembers and is prideful of her homeland’s singular affinity for, and dedication to defending the humanity of Palestinians.

That Ms Rooney has confirmed that she is a friend, a defender, an ally of Palestinians and their righteous plight is testament to the imperative of an artist to acknowledge the suffering of others.

Not that it is necessary, but, I am convinced, Howard Zinn would have approved.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.