The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If Sally Rooney believes in her own writing, she should want Israelis to read it

People take part in the InDNegev Festival in the Negev desert, southern Israel, on Oct. 15. (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

The first I heard of Sally Rooney’s new novel, “Beautiful World, Where are You,” was in an interview with her in Hebrew, a translation from the original in English. The self-identified Marxist novelist weighed the ethics of writing fiction in “a time of enormous historic crises.” The interviewer, paraphrasing Rooney, concluded that “it comes down to … some inherent, transformative value in aesthetic experience.”

Then I read that readers of Hebrew might be denied the aesthetic experience of “Beautiful World.” Rooney’s previous books, “Conversations With Friends” and “Normal People,” were published by Modan, one of Israel’s largest publishers. A brief item in Haaretz reported that Modan had asked to follow with “Beautiful World.” Rooney’s agent responded that the author supported the boycott of Israel and wouldn’t approve a Hebrew edition.

The news sparked a minor media storm. Rooney issued a clarification meandering like an internal monologue. Apparently wishing to show that she has no prejudice against the ethnic-religious group that has historically used Hebrew, she said it “would be an honour” to have her book translated into that language. But, she added, she had decided not to sell rights to “an Israeli-based publishing house.” Then again, she would sell Hebrew rights if she could do so in a way that fit guidelines of the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement — that is, if the publisher would “publicly distance itself” from what she says is apartheid in Israel.

Practically speaking, this changed nothing. The audience that reads novels in Hebrew is almost entirely in Israel, as are publishers that serve it. The BDS website asserts that “virtually all Israeli companies are complicit” in what it calls apartheid. An ad spotted on a London street, saying “Normal People Boycott Israel,” accurately portrayed the position of the author. Rooney has banned her own book in my country.

Respectfully, this is a mistake. It reflects the larger strategic error of the BDS campaign, and in particular what's wrong with a cultural boycott of Israel.

Understand: The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza are indeed human rights disasters — even if the label of “apartheid” is a misleading historical analogy, a case of activists fighting a past battle instead of the current one. Palestinians deserve not just respect for their individual rights but national rights — an independent state.

The only feasible way to achieve this is a two-state agreement. This is also the only way for Israel to survive and flourish. Getting there requires convincing more Israelis that a historic compromise is necessary. BDS is accomplishing the opposite.

Rooney’s decision is a case in point. She does not object to a specific action of her previous publisher. It is not, for instance, located in a West Bank settlement, from which she wants it to move. The offense is being an Israeli entity, and that’s shared by other potential publishers. She might make an exception for a Hebrew publisher that publicly takes a political stance matching her own.

Rooney, it seems, has not required a public declaration from the publisher of “Normal People” in Chinese condemning the imprisonment of at least a million Uyghur people. Such a statement would be unlikely: The company is reportedly state-owned.

The responses that I've heard and seen from friends and colleagues in Israel, people with clear anti-occupation politics, have ranged from anger to apoplexy. Rooney's human rights concerns appear focused on one small country, where everyone is presumed guilty until proven innocent.

So a blanket boycott of Israel ends up being a gift to the country’s political right. See, say right-wing politicians, they object to Israel as a country, no matter what we do — and therefore, why do anything different? The economic impact of the boycott movement has been minimal, but the right exaggerates the threat to discredit any criticism of the occupation.

A cultural boycott makes even less sense than an economic one. 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.

A novel placed elsewhere and else-when may do this more effectively, because it lowers our defenses. Jane Austen’s world was utterly different from mine, but she pushes me to question my own pride and prejudice. The doomed lovers of Dorit Rabinyan’s “All the Rivers” are an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, but the book can make readers in faraway countries question belonging, enmity and boundaries. If Rooney believes in her own writing, she should want Israelis to read it.

One more plot twist is possible. Like any good character, Rooney can change her mind. She can approve an Israeli publisher. If she’d like, she can give the meager royalties from this small country to Palestinian and Israeli groups working for change.

She can give this story a better ending.