Why Sally Rooney’s critics are wrong

Award-winning novelist Sally Rooney is under fire because she has listened to Palestinians. 

Henry Nicholls Reuters

Over the past few weeks, a slew of misconstructions, straw men and bad faith attacks have masqueraded as informed critique of Sally Rooney.

Those of us in support of the Palestinian liberation struggle who, like myself, recognize the importance of keeping up to date with the “logic” behind threadbare defenses of Israeli apartheid, settler-colonialism and genocide against the Palestinian people would do well to examine that “critique.”

The Irish novelist recently refused to allow her latest book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, to be sold to Modan, an Israeli firm seeking to translate it into Hebrew. In her statement clarifying the decision, Rooney specifically noted that the issue is not a Hebrew translation, but her determination to respect the Palestinian-led call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), which she acknowledged is modeled on the BDS campaign against South African apartheid.

Rooney also added that she would be happy to sell the manuscript rights for Hebrew-language translation should it be possible to find a company that does not violate the principles of the BDS call. Author Naomi Klein published The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism with an anti-occupation Israeli publisher more than a decade ago.

Predictably, however, the pro-apartheid misinformation campaign against Rooney was swift. As Tamara Nassar writes, “Pro-Israel media misconstrued her act of solidarity as a blanket prohibition on translating her work into Hebrew, rather than what it is: respect for the Palestinian call for BDS.”

Zionist critics of Rooney used this strategic misrepresentation to erase her history of support for the Palestinian cause and smear her as an anti-Semite.

Writing in The Intercept, Robert Mackey explores how the backlash against Rooney was characterized by juvenile whataboutism, as well as a staggering ignorance of Irish history and politics.

Mackey writes: “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 anti-Semitism – 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.”

David Lloyd writes of the clear historical and colonial-geographic parallels between the Irish and Palestinian liberation struggles: “The case of Northern Ireland has in general strong parallels with that of Palestine, both on account of the long-standing solidarity between the PLO and the Irish republican movement, as between Northern Irish Unionists and Zionism, and on account of their mutual historical relation to British colonial policy.”

He adds: “Like Palestine and Israel, Northern Ireland was created by one of those acts of partition so balefully characteristic of British responses to decolonizing struggles and to the legacies of its own policies of colonial management through exacerbating intercommunal divisions.”

These overlaps and histories of solidarity reveal the different ways in which Rooney’s decision is far from anomalous. It is rather the principled extension and continuation of an ethical devotion and commitment to freedom for all peoples in the face of colonial and settler-colonial oppression and subjugation.

Who defines?

But there is one manifestation of this misinformation campaign with which I take particular issue. I’m speaking about the contention that Rooney has violated some kind of “higher calling” as an artist through her decision.

This position was expressed in an article in The Forward by Gitit Levy-Paz, who writes: “Rooney has chosen a path that is anathema to the artistic essence of literature, which can serve as a portal for understanding different cultures, visiting new worlds and connecting to our own humanity. The very essence of literature, its power to bring a sense of coherence and order to the world, is negated by Rooney’s choice to exclude a group of readers because of their national identity.”

Gershom Gorenberg also took issue with Rooney’s decision. Writing in The Washington Post, Gorenberg asserted that Rooney’s decision to support BDS constituted a misdirection of her creative energies, which could have been better spent in allowing for her novel to be bought and translated by Modan, because “Beyond aesthetic pleasure, there’s a subtle political side to the transformative experience of reading fiction. The best novels do what manifestos and, alas, opinion articles cannot: They make us see people more fully, in all their contradictions and dimensions. They demand subversive empathy.”

For Levy-Paz, Rooney’s decision constitutes a betrayal of literary sensibilities, whereas for Gorenberg’s more “practical” argument, Rooney’s political goals are better served by working with Modan to expose moveable Israelis to alternative political views.

The former position disguises political disagreement with pseudo-intellectual mystification. It draws on hackneyed liberal anxieties to invoke a vapid, reactionary aestheticism that appraises literary worth based on a writer’s capitulation to an oppressive status quo.

The latter suggests that BDS is a distraction from what ought to be the ultimate goal of a politically conscious writer: to introduce swayable hearts and minds to different perspectives.

But it is not individual perspectives which are at issue. It is a settler-colonial state structured upon Palestinian dispossession and ethnic cleansing.

BDS is a long-overdue corrective to the colonial and racist impunity of the Zionist state’s structural oppression of the Palestinian people.

Meanwhile, as the op-ed columns of various major publications will show, Rooney’s decision has stirred dialogue.

Global audiences are now attuned to a single writer’s principled decision only to publish under conditions that do not violate the parameters of the BDS call. One would think that this is actually a wonderful opportunity for the hypothetically principled Israelis with whom Gorenberg seems so concerned to make materially anti-colonial publishing an actionable goal.

In the end, writers are, to quote the title of one of Sally Rooney’s novels, “normal people.” Normal people with an aptitude for written expression who can use that gift to advocate for justice, or be apologists for power.

Sally Rooney has made her choice, as have the apartheid apologists who pretend that she has betrayed her literary profession by doing so.

Omar Zahzah is the education and advocacy coordinator for Eyewitness Palestine, as well as being a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) and the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).