On authors, Israel and boycotts

Author Sally Rooney has announced that she will not allow her most recent novel to be published in Hebrew through an Israeli publishing house. She claims that this is part of the BDS action to campaign against Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank.

I’ve not read her work but my wife’s immediate response was that this might actually be a blessing to Israelis and another person on twitter who has read the book in question said

So I expect that there won’t be demonstrations in Tel Aviv this week demanding:

What do we want?

The right to be bored and disappointed

When do we want it?


Rooney’s decision raised two questions. The first was about her own individual decision. Why choose to boycott now. It’s been pointed out that she has been happy for the publishers to translate her previous works.   What has changed in the last three to four years? The Palestinian occupation has been going on for many years and Israel has been subjected to significant criticism over the years. In fact the only thing that has changed was that in June this year the Netanyahu administration was replaced with a new coalition government which was meant to be a positive step given his particularly hard-line stance.

So, if the only real change has been something that should be considered positive, then what exactly is Rooney seeking to achieve.  I doubt that the absence of her book is going to change minds in Israel. Indeed, you would expect authors to have confidence in the power of their written word to change minds more than its absence.  Am I cynical to think that the decision has more to do with her publicity here than the politics there? It’s about virtue signalling. The absence of her novels won’t save one Palestinian life, stop a single bomb from falling or change one line of legislation. It will however signal to potential readers here that she is the right kind of author.

The other issue is whether or not the BDS approach of boycotts and sanctions is the right thing to do. Now I’m not going to rehearse the case for and against Israel here. My question is purely about the rights and wrongs of such a strategy.  I seem unable to get people supporting it to engage on this point. Their reasoning seems to stop at “sanctions work.” And that misses the point that the means does not necessary justify the ends.

The situation in the middle-east is that a conflict is going on with Israel on one side and a variety of Islamic based states and entities on the other side. Lasting peace then will mean that either one side wins or that there is a multi-lateral agreement.  If your strategy  is to see one or the other side defeated then you are in the business of wat.  War involves the use of force to deprive people of life and livelihood.  Terrorism and genocide are seen as unethical because it uses those means against civilian populations to cause terror amongst them and a means towards forcing the compliance of the state,

It is generally agreed that it is never acceptable, justifiable or excusable to attack and cause harm to civilian populations.

Yet that is exactly what we are seeing here.  BDS is about an attack on the civilian population of Israel because of their ethnicity.  And the justification is the same used by terrorists and dictators everywhere.

  1. It will work
  2. The civilians are complicit in the evil we are opposing

See for example these tweets.

Again, we have the problem there that the end justifies the means but also we have people setting themselves up as judge, jury and enforcer against civilian peoples (and note the problem with a fallible person seeking to be judge and jury with his personal, wrong assumptions about my position on various things). That’s a dangerous route to go down and even more dangerous when those judgements are made on ethnic lines. That’s why we recognise that conflating disagreement with the Israeli government’s actions with hostility towards Israelis -and often more generally with Jews everywhere is a form of antisemitism. Hence the ICHR definition of antisemitism includes this example

“Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.”


Therefore, it is vital that where Israel is in the wrong that her government is challenged and held to account. Christians should continue to pray for peace in the middle=east and I am personally convinced that urgent progress towards a genuine two state solution is needed. However we should never fall into the trap of assuming that we can justify or excuse harm done to civilians in the name of a cause.

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