If Only Sally Rooney Understood How Israeli Publishing Works

The Irish novelist's decision not to publish her latest novel with an Israeli publisher reveals her fundamental ignorance about the actual relationship between Israeli literature, the Israeli establishment, and the Occupation.

Reading about Sally Rooney’s decision not to publish her latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You?, with an Israeli publisher, I was reminded of something that happened to me a few years ago. I was sitting with a few friends in the Sira Pub in Jerusalem when a swarm of Birthright participants invaded the venue, and began to instruct everyone on how to behave. They told the barman how to pull a pint, the DJ what music to play. One told me that, as a man, I was only allowed to use the urinal and not the toilet. It was sad, this lack of understanding from a group of young people who had come from the West to explain things to us. The barman already knew how to pull the perfect pint, and the DJ continued playing the weird music that the pub is famous for. As for the urinal I had been dispatched to: it was, in fact, a flower pot.

While Sally Rooney wouldn’t identify herself with the Birthright participants, I think they share a similar mindset. Even in the best possible reading of the situation, her criticism, like theirs, comes from ignorance. She doesn’t understand the way Hebrew literature works; nor does she have a real sense of the relationship between Israeli literature, the Israeli establishment, and the Occupation.

It’s important to emphasize that writing this piece is a little strange for me. I consider myself left-wing, and have opposed the Occupation since my youth. Nor do I have particularly strong opinions about BDS and the cultural boycott of Israel. However, besides the fact that I am a writer, my doctoral research was on Hebrew literature and the connection between poetics and the book market. So I do have some knowledge about the industry that Sally Rooney has decided to boycott.

In considering Rooney’s boycott, it’s important to understand the gap between the image of Israel as a global literary power and the reality on the ground. This image, which hangs on both the reputation of Jews as the People of the Book and the success of a small number of Israeli authors, has convinced many people that Israel is an empire of reading and writing. The truth, though, is quite different.

Hebrew is spoken by very few people. Even if we assume that every person who lives in Israel reads Hebrew (incorrect) and that there are Israelis and Jews elsewhere who can read Hebrew, the total number of Hebrew readers around the world would be no more than 15 million people.

In a survey that was carried out in 1970, 66 percent of Israelis reported reading at least one book a week and only 22 percent didn’t read at all. In a survey that was carried out in 2015 the percentage of Israelis who said they read one book a week dropped to 40 percent and 29 percent said that they didn’t read at all. Nor has the amount that Israelis spend on books increased, despite the rise in GNP. In 2000, Israeli households spent one percent of their expenses on books and newspapers. By 2016, this had declined to 0.3 percent of monthly household expenses.

The data on the size of the book industry in Israel is somewhat contradictory. A decade ago, it made one billion shekels a year from the sale of between 11 and 15 million books. There is less data available today, but the indicators suggest that the market has shrunk even as the population has grown from nearly eight million to over nine million.

The main problems faced by the Israeli book industry aren’t connected to Rooney or cultural boycotts, but rather to the fact that fewer people are reading and buying books—while more people are writing them. Around 8,000 books are published in Israel each year. The money feeding the publication of all these new books doesn’t come from sales, but rather from full or partial funding by authors and sponsors. Thus, ironically, the book industry’s main customers are the writers and not the readers.

This distorted system has created what I call in my doctorate the “productive mode.” In a situation where there are too many books, the market depends on constant production, allowing publishers to replace the books in bookstores every few weeks. The market is built on turnover and constant production.

Regarding Sally Rooney, the competition from other noted books in translation is such that, if it weren’t for the hysteria attached to the boycott issue, I doubt anyone would have noticed that her book wasn’t available to buy in Hebrew. This crazy market has enough problems of its own. In any case, Israel is a marginal country for successful international authors like Rooney. Advance payments in exchange for publication rights are marginal compared to other language territories; even if her book was bought by 10 percent of all Israeli book buyers (unlikely), only 20,000 people would have purchased it.

Justifying Rooney’s decision, some commentators have noted the relationship between Modan Publishing House (publishers of Rooney’s two earlier novels) and Israel’s Ministry of Defense. This argument is partially justified. But it’s also amusing. Once upon a time the Ministry of Defense had a publishing arm, which was extremely active during the first few decades of Israel’s existence. Over time, however, it incurred a deficit of close to twenty million shekels and was eventually closed by the government. Modan Publishing House subsequently won the tender to market its back catalogue, and to occasionally produce books on behalf of the Ministry.

The books currently published by the Ministry of Defense imprint are mostly university textbooks. One of their bestselling books is by the late philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz—ironically a fierce critic in his lifetime of Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories, going so far as to describe settlers in the West Bank and (at the time) the Gaza Strip as Judeo-Nazis.

Technically, one could argue that this link means that Modan tacitly supports Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. But the fact is of no particular significance. Just as nobody would notice if Rooney’s books went missing from an Israeli bookstore, nobody would notice if Modan stopped publishing Ministry of Defense publications.

Another irony is that Israel’s government offers its local book industry significantly less support than is the case many other countries. Over the last few years, the national outlay on Israeli literature has remained the same, while investment in other cultural activities, like sport and cinema, has increased. The government-funded Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature does good work, as does the People of the Book Foundation. But this support is marginal. Direct government support for publishing doesn’t come from tax money but from lottery funds, and is directed in the main to reference books and poetry.

A final example of how little Israel invests in its writers can be found in the story of the libraries. Until recently, many libraries lent books to the public without paying any royalties to authors beyond the initial (and subsidized) purchase of the book. Following protests from writers, the government decided to allocate two million shekels from the state budget for library lending royalties. In order to ensure that as little money as possible would reach the actual authors, the government issued a tender for a survey of library lending (ignoring the fact that libraries can easily generate these figures themselves), the winning company receiving between 10 and 30 percent of the amount to be awarded to the writers for their troubles. Like most of my colleagues, I found that my books were not borrowed in sufficient quantities as to qualify for royalties. The lucky ones who cleared the threshold received a maximum of ₪ 18,000, about $6,000. I don’t know if Sally Rooney asked to participate in the survey (in principle, foreign authors were welcome to do so), but I suspect that she will survive very well without it.
One can’t discuss the issue of boycotting Israel without also mentioning censorship in Israel itself. In the last few years, several writers have found themselves the target of opprobrium for taking a leftist political stance. After Alon Hilu’s The House of Rajani was awarded the Sapir Prize for Fiction, Israel’s largest book prize, in 2009, the author and the book were both targeted by right-wing organizations. The prize for that year was eventually cancelled, not—as some people believe—because of the political content of the winning book, but on the grounds of potential bias in the judging process.

A novel that was censored for its content is All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan. Depicting a romantic relationship between an Israeli and a Palestinian (mirroring events in the author’s life), it was removed from the school curriculum by Naftali Bennett (at the time Minister of Education), following a claim that it encouraged assimilation.

These, though, are exceptional events. I don’t know of a single case in which a book was less successful because it, or its author, embraced a specific political position. Right-wing groups protesting a book tend to do it a favor. The truth is that, in Israel, there are too many books and too few readers. The moment a book finds itself at the center of a storm, it receives attention that it probably wouldn’t receive otherwise, and becomes a hit in the process.

One reason for this is that most book buyers in Israel identify with the Left. Because Israel’s book-buying public is relatively small and consistent, one can assess its socioeconomic profile of people and compare this with research data about the political views of people who fit this demographic. In short, we can state with a reasonable degree of certainty that many book buyers belong to the Left, and so authors who take left-wing position won’t be harmed by negative publicity from the political Right. Once, one of the biggest and most well-known publicists in Israel told me sadly: All my authors ask me to send their books to right-wing figures, in the hope that they will become angry, but the right-wingers are not very cooperative.

I don’t want to idealize the world of Israeli literature. It also has problems in the political arena: the Israeli literary arena is still not as diverse as it could be. But ironically, the other problems are bigger, and these are what turns the world of Israeli literature into a space that rewards left-wing positions. In other words: if Sally Rooney were to criticize what Israel does in the Occupied Territories even more sharply, and agree for her book to be translated, it is reasonable to assume that she would find favor among book-buying Israelis.
One final point, probably irrelevant to supporters of the cultural boycott of Israel, but nevertheless important to note. In Israel, literature is one of the only arenas where Palestinians can receive a receptive audience from Israeli Jews. There are many examples of this. Writers like S. Yizhar and A.B. Yehoshua insisted on bringing the Nakba into the Israeli consciousness. Palestinian writers who write in Hebrew, like Anton Shammas and Sayed Kashua, are successful with readers and critics alike. (The cinematic adaptation of Kashua’s second novel, Let It Be Morning, won this year’s Ophir Prize for Best Film, and will represent Israel in the 2022 Oscars.) When Israeli-Bedouin writer Sheikha Helawy won the most prestigious literary prize in the Arab world, the editor of Haaretz’s literary section—a known right-winger—devoted the literary supplement to her. And a few years ago, the sociologist Yehouda Shenhav, together with the Van Leer Institute, established Maktoob, the Arabic-Hebrew Translator’s Forum—a group of Arabic translators, Palestinians and Israeli Jews, working together to bring contemporary Arab literature to Hebrew readers.

On a personal level, together with a Palestinian partner I have this year facilitated Ono Academic College’s Pen of Peace project, a writing workshop for Jewish and Palestinian students writing together in Hebrew and Arabic, established in honor of Amos Oz. The last workshop took place in May, immediately following the “Guardian of the Walls” operation and the conflict in Jerusalem. While the pro-BDS crowd would no doubt dismiss this as “normalization,” and it is true that participants in the workshop were not required to hold particular political positions, it would be wrong to underestimate its importance. Only through encounters like this can students really understand one another’s experiences, whether it be fear of policemen, terror attacks, or discussions of other issues like the right of women. These encounters make an end to the conflict far more likely than if they were never able to meet in the first place.

Finally, Israel’s National Library, which has recently completed a project to make a significant proportion of its material accessible to Arabic readers, reported recently that its website had more than seven million visitors from Arab countries over the past year.

The situation isn’t ideal, clearly, and I’m not claiming that Israeli literature is free of violence and racism. But Rooney’s decision to boycott precisely this space does not indicate great literary sensitivity on her part. There are any number of constructive ways of addressing the problems in the Israeli literary and political space. She is entitled to her views and she is entitled to answer the call of Palestinians who want to boycott Israel. But, as a novelist, she should surely also have the curiosity to understand why Israelis take the positions they do rather than cutting off all possible means of communication with them, particularly when her decision not to publish her latest novel with an Israeli publisher will have such a negligible impact on the Israeli book industry, or indeed on the ongoing Occupation.

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