As I wrote in my Snapshot this week, I’m an avid hold placer. That is, I check out what new books are on the horizon and then I request them from the library — even if it means I’m 200th on the list.
One book that kept popping up over the past months was Sally Rooney’s anticipated novel Beautiful World, Where Are You. I know she’s a celebrated contemporary author, but I hadn’t read anything of hers. The summary of her newest didn’t speak to me, so no hold placed.
Fast forward a few months and I’m glad she’s not on my hold list, not one of the authors I’m anticipating reading. The Irish author recently announced that she would not publish her book with an Israeli publishing house and that she supports a boycott — cultural boycott included — of Israel.
There are so many issues to unpack here. First, her conclusion — seemingly based not on her research of the facts but only on statements made by NGOs — that Israel is an apartheid state, is false. At minimum, this accusation fails to distinguish between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. There is no apartheid in the State of Israel. Whether discrimination exists in the Territories is a far more complex issue as Israel is an occupying force and different rules apply. The governing body for most of the West Bank is the Palestinian Authority, rife with its own issues of corruption and discrimination. But there is a discussion to be had about difficulties West Bank Palestinians encounter in every day life due to the complexity of the governing structure there. But then one must also be willing to discuss and understand why Israel has remained — though to a much smaller extent — an occupying force.
Then there is the issue of boycott itself. While boycott is a legitimate form of protest, cultural boycotts to my mind are a whole different animal. Culture is where change often occurs. If one boycotts culture, one boycotts the segment of society that often grapples with the hardest questions and is unafraid to confront them. By alienating or ignoring people engaged in or with cultural pursuits, one belies a true interest in fomenting change. At that point, boycott becomes reactionary.
But what I really thought of when I read of Rooney’s decision was my experience the last time I visited Ireland. It was during the last Gaza war, in 2014. I first traveled to Northern Ireland, where in the sectarian areas the Israeli-Palestinian has become a proxy war, with Catholics supporting Palestinians and Protestants supporting Israel. It was bizarre to see Israeli and Palestinian flags in the street, not to mention the massive Palestinian flag draped across a mountain that backdrops the famous Falls Road area of Belfast.
When I left the North and traveled to the Republican of Ireland, the anti-Israel sentiment was tangible. I could literally hear it in the air. The war seemed to be a regular topic of conversation and sitting in parks and cafés I overheard venomous anti-Israel, anti-Zionist speech. It put me off visiting the Republic of Ireland again.
This outsized interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Ireland is certainly due to the country’s own history of violent, sectarian conflict. While I intellectually understand where it comes from, it’s made the country one I no longer wish to support, at least for now. Yes, I realize that makes me a “boycotter” to some degree, though I have no current plans to travel abroad and it’s unlikely I would have returned there so soon anyway. What I would not do, or even think of doing, would be to stop reading Irish authors, watching Irish films or looking at Irish art. In fact I wouldn’t even not purposefully read Rooney — if I had wanted to read her novel that is. Luckily for me, it hadn’t made my reading list.