Sally Rooney ignited the latest hasbara tempest-in-a-teapot with her announcement that she would not be translating her latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You? into Hebrew with her current Israeli publisher:
The statement expressed her desire to support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS), a campaign that works to “end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law”.
“Earlier this year, the international campaign group Human Rights Watch published a report entitled A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution. That report, coming on the heels of a similarly damning report by Israel’s most prominent human rights organization B’Tselem, confirmed what Palestinian human rights groups have long been saying: Israel’s system of racial domination and segregation against Palestinians meets the definition of apartheid under international law,” Rooney’s statement read.
“Of course, many states other than Israel are guilty of grievous human rights abuses. This was also true of South Africa during the campaign against apartheid there. In this particular case, I am responding to the call from Palestinian civil society, including all major Palestinian trade unions and writers’ unions.”
She followed up with a subsequent statement that she would consider publication in Israel if she could find a BDS-compliant publisher:
…She did not feel it would be right to collaborate with an Israeli company “that does not publicly distance itself from apartheid and support the UN-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people.
“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. In the meantime I would like to express once again my solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom, justice and equality”, she said.
The immediate visceral response of the Hasbara World was that Rooney was, in claiming to honor BDS, actually assaulting not only Israel, but Hebrew, its national language. This was offered as proof positive that Rooney was a raving anti-Semite.
But the author’s subsequent clarifying statement made clear that for her the issue was not publishing her book in Hebrew, but who published it. But then the attackers, some of them liberal Zionists like Anshel Pfeffer and Todd Gitlin (among others), averred that Rooney was being disingenuous since there was no way in which her book could be published in Hebrew in a manner that was BDS compliant. The Forward added insult to injury by publishing this ill-informed story on the controversy.
But this claim is patently false. Though I am not privy to Rooney’s personal views on this matter, there are quite a few ways she could publish the novel in Hebrew. First, there might be an Israeli publisher who does not accept government subsidies and is known for publishing left-wing titles. Such a publisher might even pledge to donate some of the proceeds of sales to the BDS movement.
My friend, Shir Hever, offers another example:
Naomi Klein wanted to publish her book The Shock Doctrine in Hebrew while respecting BDS, so she made a deal with Andalus Publishing (Yael Lerer)…She also made an agreement that she will not profit from royalties for the Hebrew version and that all the money will go to some good cause. The book sold very well in Hebrew, by the way.
In fact, Andalus would appear to be a perfect partner for Rooney. This is how it describes its mission:
Andalus Publishing is a progressive and independent Israeli publishing house dedicated to the translation of Arabic literature and prose into Hebrew.
…Despite Israel’s location in the heart of the Arab world, Hebrew-reading Israelis remain…unexposed to Arabic culture in general, and Arabic literature and thought in particular. It is nearly impossible to find translations of narratives that might enable the Hebrew reader to understand Arab societies and the various, complex experiences that shape the lives of the people who comprise them. The quantity and variety of existing translations is insufficient, especially as compared with the wealth of works translated into Hebrew from European languages. Andalus Publishing seeks to fill this vacuum by translating books that will cover social, cultural, and political issues as expressed through Arabic literary, poetic, and expository writings.
Another publisher I immediately thought of was Ibis Editions, founded by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole. They published the first English translation of S. Yizhar’s masterful anti-war polemic, Hirbet Hiza. But alas, Ibis does not seem to exist any longer.
There are Palestinian book publishers in the West Bank and even Israeli Palestinian NGOs which publish textbooks and educational materials. Though it may be unusual for one of them to publish a book in Hebrew, there is no reason this shouldn’t be possible. Some Palestinian publishers translate English-language, and even Hebrew titles. There is no reason why such a Palestinian publisher could not arrange for the book to be translated into Hebrew, published in Palestine, and sold in Israel. This might require entering into a joint distribution agreement with an Israeli publisher.
Of course, authors own their own works. They are under no obligation to publish their novels in any particular language. In fact, Rooney is by no means the first artist to take such a stance. Alice Walker has refused to have her works published in Israel as have Henning Mankell, China Miéville, and most recently Kamila Shamsie. I am certain there are Israeli authors or Holocaust survivors who refused bringing out their works in German.
On a related subject, why is Rooney tarred with the anti-Semitism brush for not publishing her novel in Hebrew, when for decades it has been an unwritten rule that the works of Wagner may not be played in an Israeli concert hall or aired on the radio or TV? Admittedly, it is understandable for Israelis to have such a visceral response to the composer favored by the Nazis. But Rooney feels a similar sense of moral outrage at the crimes and injustices of Israeli apartheid. If she feels a Hebrew language edition of her work would be a collaboration with such crimes, she is entitled to act accordingly.
Language as Accessory to Evil
Another theme that exercised the hasbara crowd was the suspicion that Rooney considered not just Israel, but the Hebrew language itself to be implicated in the nation’s criminal behavior. BDS is known to target Israeli trade, commerce, academia and culture. But it is rarely claimed that the very language Israelis speak is a tool of apartheid. To Israel’s supporters this seems even more disturbing than merely boycotting Israel.
But is it? Language is not an empty vessel. It is not neutral. It is an expression of a nation or a people. It can be a sublime expression or a malign one. German was the language of Schiller, Goethe and Heine. But it was also the language of Hitler and Goebbels.
In fact, the German-Jewish academic, Victor Klemperer, chronicled the debasement of German under the Nazis in a voluminous diary which eventually became Lingua Terti Imperii (The Language of the Third Reich). In it, he documented the ways in which the Nazis hijacked the German language on behalf of their barbaric regime.
Like German, Hebrew is the language of the most brilliant poets, philosophers, and prophets. Jeremiah, Isaiah and Amos exhorted their fellow Israelites to follow the path of righteousness. The Song of Songs features gorgeous flights of passion and poetry. Yehuda HaLevi wrote of his longing for Zion in this same beautiful language.
In fact, the language of the Jewish liturgy is called lashon kodesh, the sacred tongue. Even the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are endowed with divine spirit. As Rabbi Chananya Ben Teradyon faces execution at the hands of the Romans, they wrap him in a Torah scroll and set it alight. As the flames consume him, his disciples ask him what he sees: “I see the parchment burning, but its letters are flying to the heavens.” In other words, evil deeds may destroy the material world, consuming it with fire, but the divine power of the sacred text cannot be destroyed.
Language Inciting Violence
However today, Hebrew has been harnessed to the interests of politicians and extremists who use it to debase other humans; to exhort their followers to hatred and violence. A current example is this Nuremberg-like rant by MK Betzalel Smotrich, once charged with planning a terror attack, in the well of the Knesset.
MK Betzalel Smotrich, accused Jewish terrorist screaming in Knesset at Palestinian MKs: “You are here in error. Because Ben Gurion never finished the job and threw U out in ’48. I want nothing to do with you.” Kahane lives! https://t.co/kVwXS3Q7ZD
— Tikun Olam (@richards1052) October 14, 2021
He bellows with Hitlerian fervor:
“With you I will never speak! You anti-Zionists! Supporters of terror! Enemies! You are here [in this country] by mistake. Because Ben Gurion never finished the job and threw you out in ’48. This is the truth. The truth. I want nothing to do with you.”
This is language in service to fascism. Is it any wonder Rooney hesitates before allowing her work to be tainted by such vileness?
The renowned Israeli dissident, Uri Avnery, also documented the abuse of language in service to state interests:
One should notice the use of the word “terror”. It has turned into an adjective attached to everything. There are not just tunnels – they are all always “terror-tunnels”. There are “terror-activists”. There is “the Hamas terror-regime” and there are “terror-bases”. Now there are “terror-kites”.
Notice: not just “incendiary kites”, or “destruction-kites”, only “terror-kites”. The same every day in all media…Of course, everyone who has the word “terror” attached to his name is “a son of death”, as you say in biblical Hebrew. Another proud term of the brainwashing.
Third Reich/Israeli Reich
In the same vein an anonymous Israeli published a Hebrew language website that mirrored Klemperer’s Lingua Terti Imperii. It was named, Lingua Imperii Israel (“Langauge of the Israeli Reich”). From 2012-2014 s/he wrote a series of thirty blog posts each analyzing Hebrew phrases which were used in service to the Israeli ultra-nationalist state.
I’ve translated some of the entries here:
Administrative Detention: Unrestricted detention of an individual–without need for evidence–who is disliked by the authorities
Return Fire: Contrary to what this implies, soldiers don’t always face incoming fire before they open fire at a target. The purpose of the phrase is to soothe the collective conscience that soldiers of the most moral army in the world would never fire without reason, but only when in real danger of their lives. Reality, it seems, shows that soldiers fire at old men who are unarmed…
Incitement to Violence: An organization or participant in a non-violent protest against the theft of lands which even the Supreme Court has ruled is illegal and ordered to cease.
Targeted Killing: The method Israel utilizes to kill without trial those suspected of subversive activity. Assassinations conducted in many cases which cause widespread injury to innocent bystanders. That includes firing powerful missiles whose kill radius is far larger than a single individual.
Voluntary Repatriation: According to international law it is forbidden to force refugees from Sudan and Eritrea to return to their war-torn lands. The legal loophole Israel uses is–if the refugee requests to return to his country. Who are we to stand in his way? In order to achieve this result, Israel does everything possible to embitter their lives: work is prohibited, causing poverty and hunger; detention in “open” camps where minimal food is offered to detainees; refusal of medical care, even to victims of torture; and other methods designed to bring refugees to the point where they will beg to leave…
Buffer Zone: an undefined area, or one deliberately vaguely defined, within which military forces are permitted to fire in order to kill any non-Jew found there. Sometimes it [the buffer zone] is 100 meters from the fence, sometimes 300 meters…
Anti-Zionist: The word “Zionism” was expropriated by the far-right back in 1967 with the founding of the first settlements, as a way to whitewash the conquest [of the West Bank] and to make it appear to be a continuation of the process of Jewish domination of Israel within 1948 borders. The word “anti” is intended to discredit those who oppose the settlements and Jewish supremacy in Israel…Today, anyone who opposes the existence of the Israeli apartheid regime is an “anti-Zionist.”
Surgical operation: When the IDF fires into a population center it is not firing into residential areas, but conducting a ‘surgical operation’–targeted killing of terrorists. Because bombs have no eyes, the description of a surgical operation is for propaganda purposes alone, and innocent bystanders become collateral damage.
So the notion that language is implicated in the crimes of such states should come as no shock to anyone.