13 October 2021

Why is Israel the only country Sally Rooney is boycotting?


On Sunday at 4.30pm, Newcastle are due to play Tottenham Hotspur at St James’ Park in their first match since being bought by Saudi Arabia.

The purchase has been met with widespread condemnation as a form of ‘sportswashing’ – allowing a brutal state to present a positive image to the world – and, as a result, a group of leading cultural figures, including the Irish writer Sally Rooney, will be protesting outside the stadium. It is understood that Ms Rooney has told her publishers that her books cannot be sold inside Saudi Arabia, in solidarity with women there who are denied basic rights. In addition, she has refused permission for her books to be translated into Russian and Chinese, so determined is she to use her fame and soft-power to make a point.

None of that is true, of course, as I am sure you realise – apart from the Saudis buying Newcastle.

Ms Rooney, whose new book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, has just been published, seemingly has no qualms about Saudi publishers profiting from her work, let alone Russian or Chinese ones. You will search in vain online for a word of criticism from her of any of these nations, each of which treats human life with contempt – let alone a demand for them to be boycotted.

In fact, there is only one state which you will find Ms Rooney protesting about: the world’s only Jewish state. Ms Rooney has refused to sell the rights to translate her work into Hebrew on the grounds that her Israeli publisher ‘does not publicly distance itself from apartheid and support the UN-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people.’

Of all the nations in the world, of all those nations with whose behaviour she disagrees (I am assuming she is not a Putin supporter, although there is no evidence to suggest either way), of all those people in the world, Ms Rooney has fixed on only one nation and only one people: Israel, the home of the Jewish people.

Let’s look at this from the opposite end of the prism. Assume that as a public figure you were genuinely interested in doing something to stand up for the ideals you believe in. Assume further that you think, for whatever reason, the most problematic region in the world is the Middle East (as if the Chinese treatment of the Uighurs was not even worth considering).

Where would your attention focus on?

Would it be Qatar, which is in the forefront of sportswashing, hosting next year’s World Cup, but which is widely regarded as one of the worst human rights abusers in the world, where homosexuality is a crime, flogging is a standard punishment and slavery is a de facto reality?

Would it be Egypt, where people are locked up for their views, where protestors are killed in the street and the president is a military dictator?

Perhaps it would be the aforementioned new owner of Newcastle, Saudi Arabia, where torture is common, there is no freedom of speech, women are denied basic rights and where the murder of opponents of the regime is normal?

Or would it be Israel, where a democratic parliament is supreme, with all minorities represented (with an Islamist party currently in government) – subject only to the decrees of the Supreme Court (which has Arab judges), which is praised worldwide for the quality of its rulings, where no one is judged on, let alone discriminated against, for their sexuality, where there is a rampant free press and where the political class is subject to the rule of law, and where presidents have been imprisoned and the last prime minister is currently undergoing trial?

You might think it would be any one of Israel’s neighbours which would attract your focus. And you would, of course, be wrong. Because Israel has one unique feature which none of the other states in the region, or anywhere else on the planet, possess. It is the world’s only Jewish state.

Let’s cut through the cant here. I’m sure you agree with me that the reason so many so-called progressives focus on the world’s only Jewish state and demand it alone is the subject of a boycott is precisely because it is the world’s only Jewish state.

This isn’t complicated or difficult to understand. Jews have been the subject of boycott demands throughout history.

It is, I contend, the same demand as medieval calls for Jews to be boycotted because they eat the blood of babies, or for whatever other reason you choose that has been given over the centuries. This time it is dressed up in the language of  BDS – Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions.

But BDS is merely a variation on the same age old theme, just as is the more general concept of ‘anti-Zionism’, which supposedly provides a rational basis for the Jew hate seen on the streets earlier this year when Israel was defending itself from rocket attacks.

BDS, anti-Zionism, antisemitism, Jew hate. Call it what you will, it is in my view one and the same – always and everywhere. That is its point.

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Stephen Pollard is Editor of the Jewish Chronicle.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.