Here’s a funny one. In general, regimes of which liberals disapprove tend to try to get books banned; and liberal writers inside and outside those regimes try to get them published. This week we’ve seen the opposite: Sally Rooney has let it be known that she’s refusing to allow the Israeli publisher of her two previous novels to produce a Hebrew edition of her latest one in accordance with her support for a “cultural boycott” of Israel.
Rooney has written another novel about comfortable young westerners overthinking their love-lives. The Israeli state would welcome an edition, but she is withholding it from Israeli readers as a political gesture. Had she written a novel about the suffering of young Palestinians in the occupied territories, and the Israeli state sought to ban it, I imagine she would join all right-minded folk in pressing for a Hebrew edition to be produced.
Sally Rooney has not decided to boycott an entire language. Her decision to refuse the Israeli publisher Modan to publish a Hebrew edition of her latest novel is the refusal of a specific Israeli publisher rather than the refusal of a Jewish language. You may argue the two will add up to the same thing – which non-Israeli publisher is likely to want to produce a Hebrew edition? — but the distinction in principle is not meaningless, and it’s the distinction that she herself makes.
In a statement she said she refused to work with a publisher “that does not publicly distance itself from apartheid and support the UN-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people”, adding: “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.”
I think this is a silly move, but it’s not so obviously silly and/or malign as to be slam-dunked in 280 characters. We need to keep this a manageable length, though, so rather than start from 1967, or 1948, or 19th-century pogroms and the birth of Zionism, let’s start from Rooney’s position — which is that Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian population, and its illegal settlements, are illegitimate and deplorable. Let’s take that as a given, whether or not we agree with it. And let’s shelve, too, the argument that you’re only allowed to boycott Israel if you also boycott Russia, Saudi, China and any other countries whose human rights records bear similar challenge. It’s not necessarily a trivial objection — a key part of the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism is holding Israel to a double standard by “requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” — but it would be, if we’re to approach this issue (as I’m trying to) on Rooney’s terms, to make the perfect the enemy of the good.
Let’s take Rooney’s decision on its own terms. She sees Israel as a baddy. She supports the BDS movement, which holds it legitimate to punish Israel for its badness by economic sanctions and cultural boycotts – on an analogy with the isolation of apartheid-era South Africa. (Is Israel an “apartheid state”? Let’s shelve that one also.) So she won’t let Israel have Beautiful World, Where Are You? because, essentially, they are a baddy and so they Can’t Have Nice Things.
I’m trying to get to the nub of this, which is the question of what her decision achieves — or hopes to. Sanctions and boycotts are intended to strike a blow against a regime, not against its people. (I can’t speak for Rooney, but I’m presuming she deplores the Israeli state rather than its Jewish inhabitants.) The most powerful arguments against them have always been that in seeking to do the former, they achieve the latter. And, indeed, you can argue that thanks to the backfire effect, they sometimes help the regime by uniting its people in being pissed off about the sanctions.
Still, in economic terms, a successful boycott will seek to hurt a country’s GDP; it will discourage international investment; it may specifically prevent it buying weapons, energy and the other things that a regime needs to thrive. And in cultural terms, it will seek to damage its soft power, and the regime’s internal claim to legitimacy, by signalling its isolation from the international community.
So to take the example of apartheid South Africa, you could make a case for refusing to play international cricket there, or disapproving when major rock stars played Sun City. There’s propaganda value to hosting an international sporting tournament — those who blether on about sport being “above politics” haven’t been paying attention — or having Dolly Parton play your national stadium. It signals, soft-power-wise, that your country, and by extension its government, is a legitimate member of the great family of nations. Bad luck on innocent cricket fans of all ethnic and political stripes; but more infuriating, you’d hope, to the cricket-loving white supremacists in charge of the country who felt humiliated by the snub.
But books, I submit, are a totally different type of good from weapons, financial instruments, petroleum, sporting events or Dolly Parton concerts. They are no use to a regime; and they can sometimes be a nuisance to it. Reading is a private, rather than a communal event. Governments, as a rule, couldn’t give two hoots about what its citizens are reading at bedtime. You can’t hoist the flag over a scattered population of readers losing half an hour here or there, on a timetable of their own devising, in an imaginary world.
The reason that when states do take an interest in books it’s to ban them is precisely that they don’t fit into an authoritarian order (Israel, I should add, is not in that sense anything like an authoritarian regime). The widespread liberal enthusiasm for the free circulation of books links to this — as well as to the idea, though we shouldn’t push it too far, that fiction is in some way a moral agent. Here we get to George Eliot’s old line that “if Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally”. Books can change minds, spread ideas and, yes, enlarge sympathies.
So, to repeat, what does Rooney intend to achieve? She’s a bestseller, sure; but not to the extent, I imagine, that missing out on her new paperback will damage the Israeli economy. The publishing house is a private rather than a state concern. There’s no soft-power blow that withdrawing her book strikes to the prestige of the Israeli regime, either. As I say, they couldn’t give a toss which of their citizens get to read about the tangled love-lives and troubled consciences of Rooney’s protagonists.
And in deciding that ordinary Israeli citizens should not get to read her book (my guess, for what it’s worth, is that most of her Israeli readers will be of a liberal internationalist bent in any case) Rooney seems to sell her own work short by indicating that there’s nothing in it that might do the private and disaggregated good of enlarging sympathies, changing minds, expanding sensibilities. That it’s just product, like the tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream that you also can’t buy in Israeli occupied territories.
Perhaps, as with Ben & Jerry’s, an Israeli boycott will be good branding for that product in the liberal west. But it’s hard to imagine it will do a damn thing for the Palestinians.