Billet de blog 28 oct. 2021

Sally Rooney and the Israel boycott

Irish author Sally Rooney has refused to allow her latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, to be translated into Hebrew in Israel, a state she intends to boycott for contravening international law in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Alessio Colonnelli, a translator and European affairs commentator, gives his view on Rooney's stand.

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The news is ten days old. There will be no Hebrew translation. Sally Rooney has decided. Her new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, published on September 7th in the United Kingdom, will be translated into many languages around globe, but not Abraham’s. No way. The London-based publisher Faber, consistent with the author’s wishes, won’t sell translation rights to any Israeli counterpart. This is a total ban; at least for the near future.

Why so much verbal rancor, thrown in everyone’s face, internationally, in such an unliterary way? Surprising, isn’t it? Well, yes, but up to a point. The Irish writer defines herself as a Marxist and adheres to BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), a large movement against the State of Israel in all its manifestations; Rooney’s is therefore a strong position bordering the theatrical.

Interpreting it, however, as open anti-Semitism could be misleading. Rooney stressed she has nothing against Hebrew and maintained she is ready to cede the translation rights to a non-Israeli publishing house printing in that language. Through Faber, she let it be known that “The Hebrew translation rights to my new novel are still available, and if I can find a way to sell these rights that conforms to the BDS movement’s institutional boycott guidelines, I will be very happy and proud to do so.”

Deceptive reasoning? Perhaps, but the writer with extreme left sympathies is adept with words; she leaves no room for other interpretations. Or almost. In any case, the Star of David is being questioned, that much is clear. And what about the sinister shadow looming large? The British media engulfed it and spun their yarns. All a publicity gimmick, in the end? Perhaps not, the author’s famous; works with the BBC; a talent, in short, that doesn’t need the aid of dodgy messages through loudspeakers. No dogwhistling here.

In the rest of Europe we’ve only vaguely heard of this story. In Italy, for example, the Lazio falconer with a real eagle on one outstretched arm and making the fascist salute with the other, addressing a motley crew of inebriated football fans, caused more of an uproar. This was a display of anti-Semitic hatred by far-right hooligans; it’s endemic and certainly not limited to Rome. Rooney is politically at the antipodes; but these, as we know, often have traits in common. In Antarctica and at the North Pole the cold is just as harsh. And that is perhaps what’s disturbing about this boycott.

We live in an era in which terrorists armed to their teeth shoot at synagogues or stab their worshippers in the street, as witnessed in Germany and France; thousands of hot-heads have fun in and out of stadiums insulting Israelites every single weekend; Western political leaders support Hamas and collaborate with Iranian media against Jerusalem (any reference to former British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his large court is purely intentional).

This is therefore an era in which anti-Semitism has flared up again; to take it lightly, to philosophise or minimise statements that are actually deeply anti-Semitic, systematically relativising them, seems frankly dangerous – irresponsible even. From words to actions is often a short step. Words, as we know, give a name to things; they make them real, tangible. For better or worse, as in the case of anti-Semitic attitudes, which have always been fertile with consequences. Anti-Semitism, we should remember, has been with us since the dawn of time. No, from the day before that.

You have to take the words of this well-known writer with great seriousness and ask yourself a couple of questions. Also because Rooney is not the first narrator to express herself in such terms. Kamila Shamsie did so in 2018. Others may soon imitate them, feeling legitimised by the words and gestures of more distinguished intellectuals.

That way, Israel’s many progressives, those who have always voted against the Likud party of the ultra-conservative Benjamin Netanyahu, now finally on the opposition, would have to content themselves with reading Rooney and colleagues in the original language. Those who know English well will have no problem. But the majority of readers? Moreover, the damage to Hebrew would be serious: in short, the more books translated in the target language, the stronger the language becomes.

Catalan is a case in point: since the end of Francoism, which forbade its use in public and almost decreed its extinction (Hebrew has risked the same fate over the past centuries), everything and anything has been translated in the Barcelona area, and Catalan has gained in visibility and importance in the eyes of both Catalan-speakers (including the region of Valencia and the Balearic Islands) and others, inside and outside of Spain. It should also be noted that Hebrew has fewer native speakers.

But beyond the purely linguistic discourse, however relevant, what we want to emphasize here is the anti-Semitic nature of a decision. At first glance – and as intended by those who made it (the author and the publisher) – it does not look anti-Semitic. Yet anti-Semitism is there. To better understand the essence of anti-Semitism, let’s turn things on their head. It’s a bit like saying: I don’t want my book to be published in Italian because all the Italian publishing houses are in cahoots with the Italian State; therefore, I’ll look for someone in Ticino or Grisons (Switzerland’s cantons where Italian’s an official language) who will publish the text in Dante’s language anyway. But the anti-Italian sentiment remains, it is inherent in the choice made; in the end, it is the Swiss who are printing, and not anyone else. The tongue detached from the rest of the body is perhaps an image that renders the argument better. I take the tongue but reject the other organs, vital and otherwise. What remains is a mutilated, violated body (anti-Semitism is an offence).

Wanting to publish elsewhere, but not in the State where the language springs forth and gurgles, smacks of ill-concealed racism. Nowadays, no one wants to be accused of being a racist. We see political parties Europe-wide trying to distance themselves from traditional conservative rhetoric: they put black senators and ministers in power in order to bury an uncomfortable truth of enduring racism. A case of two birds, one stone and a you know the rest. The extremist voters have heard the dog-whistle; the other party supporters, more moderate and naive, breathe a sigh of relief. Racism eschewed, they think. If only it were that simple. The bottom line is that, politically, racism doesn’t sell particularly well anymore, there’s always the risk of a boomerang effect. Some still go for it happily; but others have begun to turn up their noses. A step forward that should not go to waste.

Please note: all this is also true for many left-wingers, who are struggling with an onslaught of male chauvinism which, by the way, tends to go hand in hand with racism. Not to mention misogyny. But how many female party leaders on the left have you seen in the West? How many? There’s nothing more deceptive than such a sense of moral superiority; or immunity to anti-Semitism. Despite good intentions, we fall down at times. Hardly any of us is completely free of anti-Semitism. Let’s admit it and begin again from here: from books, especially.

Writing at a certain level, even more so if it’s literature, is to aim high; its intent is to raise the gaze of those who read, i.e. to inspire a wide-ranging reflection that can make us aware of the limits of our thought, and then tries to expand it.

I fear that with BDS we’ll never expand anything; we’ll only put up even higher walls to cover the view we’ve gained from reading. Only to find ourselves thinking: wonderful world, where are you?

And how do you say that in Hebrew?

(Originally written in Italian and translated by the author into English.)

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Alessio Colonnelli is an Italian freelance translator, writer and commentator on European political and social affairs, and a contributor to publications that include The New Statesman, The Independent, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post (UK), Foreign Policy and Politico Europe. His regularly updated blog, Thoughts on Europe, can be found here.

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