In October 2021, the Times of Israel reported that “Sally Rooney won’t let her new novel be published in Hebrew.” This would be a shocking move for a writer to make – if that simplistic title was actually reflective of the Normal People author’s decision. 

The Irish author’s new book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, has been long-awaited by fans of her work. What she refused was not a Hebrew language translation, but rather giving Modan, an Israeli company with public ties to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), publishing rights given her commitment to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. 

A Short History of Irish-Palestinian Solidarity 

This decision by the Irish novelist is not necessarily surprising when you take a look at the historically deep-rooted solidarity between the Irish and Palestinians. Though Ireland was initially sympathetic to the Zionist aspiration of forcibly creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine, this changed after 1948. When the Partition Plan was accepted, many Irish changed their stance from one of sympathy to one of resistance, as they saw the newly established state as a “colony illegitimately established by [the] British force of arms and intent on imposing itself on an indigenous population.” This reaction was reflective of the history of British imposition on Ireland, which has resulted in the partition of the Irish isle among other things. 

Today, the solidarity between Palestine and Ireland is clear as ever. Ireland was the first EU country to condemn Israel’s “de facto annexation” of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. For context, de facto annexation refers to “the adoption of a series of measures and actions on the ground that indicate the implied intention of the Occupying Power to permanently incorporate the occupied territory.” Sinn Fein, the Irish left-wing political party that tabled the motion, wants to do more. It supports the BDS movement and wants to expel the Israeli ambassador from Ireland. John Boyne, the foreign affairs speaker for Sinn Fein, believes that the Irish government, which is a significant player in the EU and currently sits on the UN Security Council, should use these positions of power to take a stand against Israeli apartheid and “set a course for other countries to follow suit.”

The BDS Movement

Ireland, in its support for Palestine, has in numerous ways endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which is regarded as one of the key ways to support the Palestinian people. The movement began in 2005 and is “a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality” that “upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.” It is inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement and calls for nonviolent pressure on Israel until it complies with international law. BDS has three demands:

  • [Israel] ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall 
  • Recognising the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinain citizens of Israel to full equality 
  • Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinain refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194

Today, BDS is supported by various unions, NGOs, and churches, as well as notable individuals such as Naomi Klein, Roger Waters, and Angela Davis. The BDS movement takes many different forms and is applied in practice in a variety of ways, but there are some notable examples. Boycotting involves withdrawing from relations with an organisation or country out of protest. This includes banning the import of products made in illegal settlements, as a bill introduced in Chile’s parliament did. Norway’s pension fund KLP made the decision to exclude “16 companies because of their links to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank” citing human rights violations as their reason to boycott.

Divestment, which refers to no longer investing money in something or someone, is another essential element of the movement. On many university campuses, students have been trying to force their universities to divest from companies complicit in apartheid, by organizing initiatives such as the Apartheid Off Campus campaign in the UK. In Canada, Simon Fraser University’s student union recently passed a motion in support of the BDS movement. 

Lastly, sanctions are the hardest way to put pressure on Israel but this may soon change. An organisation called Global South Response, which includes former presidents, over 700 cultural figures, academics, and many more from across Latin America, Asia, and Africa “called on the UN to recognise Israel as an apartheid state and to impose sanctions on it.” Though sanctions have yet to happen at a state level, it is significant that the suggestion of sanctions is even being entertained within the international community.

The BDS movement operates with those three main calls to action and has had many success stories; these are only a few from this year. 

Sally Rooney’s Move 

Rooney stated that she did not feel right accepting a contract with a company that “does not publicly distance itself from apartheid.” The company in question had previously translated her other two books but, as it also markets work produced by the IDF, Rooney took a stand. She cited a report by Human Rights Watch which accused Israel of practicing apartheid as a reason for her decision. Importantly, Rooney noted in her statement that the Hebrew language rights to Beautiful World, Where Are You are still available and would be proud to publish it if she could “find a way to sell these rights that is compliant with the BDS movement’s institutional boycott.”

Rooney’s move was hailed by the Palestinian community and allies, with the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel saying that they “warmly welcome” her decision. A few months prior to her decision, she signed onto A Letter Against Apartheid in support of the Palestinian liberation movement, which urged public figures to “come forward, speak up and take a clear public stand against this ongoing injustice in Palestine.” 

Although Israel and its supporters say that they do not support the BDS movement, in response to Rooney many Israeli bookstores chose to remove her books, essentially boycotting her themselves. It is almost as if they see this tactic as a good way to take a stance when you don’t agree with the actions of another party. 

BDS is working

Criticism of the BDS movement is rampant, yet most of it is absurd. When people commit to BDS, they are often slandered for supposedly singling out Israel. For example, a Washington Post opinion piece was titled “The BDS movement shows its hypocrisy by boycotting Israel but not China.” Rooney preemptively addressed this in her statement by writing “Of course, many states other than Israel are guilty of grievous human rights abuses… In this particular case, I am responding to the call from Palestinian civil society, including all major Palestinian trade and writers’ unions.” This criticism is very popular but doesn’t stand. There are countless activists who have organised boycotts similar to BDS against other countries and companies, including China. Rooney specified she was doing this as a response to calls from Palestinians, so naturally, this would be directed at the Palestinian’s aggressor – Israel. 

What Rooney’s decision and subsequent backlash showed was that BDS is effective. In 2013, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared BDS a “strategic threat” to Israel and that the country has allocated millions to combating it through the use of intelligence services. Prior to this, in 2011, the Israeli parliament passed a law that would punish Israeli citizens who supported a boycott of Israel or any Israeli companies and institutions, including those operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. BDS successes include artists refusing to perform in Israel, “a 46% drop in foreign direct investment in Israel in 2014”, and universities and student unions around the world passing divestment resolutions, among others

Rooney should be saluted for taking a principled stance in favour of Palestinians. Hopefully, this is the start of a trend. To reaffirm what was written in A Letter Against Apartheid, “come forward, speak up and take a clear public stand against this ongoing injustice in Palestine. Apartheid must be dismantled. No one is free until we are all free.”