Sally Rooney’s decision not to have her latest book translated into Hebrew by an Israeli publishing house has been widely celebrated by the Boycott, Disinvest, Sanction Movement (BDS).

Rooney has made it clear that she would be delighted to have Beautiful World, Where Are You translated into Hebrew, but does not wish to sell the rights to an Israeli firm at this time. This detail has done little to deflect the inevitable accusations of anti-Semitism that have been levelled at her as a result.


Boycotting South Africa’s White Minority

BDS is a movement committed to ending what they believe is an apartheid state in Palestine by boycotting Israeli products and culture, disinvesting in the Israeli economy, and sanctioning individuals within the Israeli state. These tactics were developed in opposition to apartheid South Africa in the final decades of the last century.

The belief is that an indiscriminate embargo on Israel will force the Israeli people to decide between being part of the global community and oppressing the Palestinians. These tactics were reasonably successful in South Africa. However, whilst boycotting food produced in the occupied territories and sanctioning Israeli officials may prove effective, a cultural boycott of Israel may do more harm than good.

In South Africa, the white minority were facing a timebomb. The county was increasingly convulsed by ethnic violence and the whites were a shrinking minority. They had witnessed the overthrow of the white regime in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe at the start of the ’80, and there was a growing fear that something similar could happen in The Cape.

Apartheid had been tolerated by the west during the Cold War, as Pretoria’s virulent anti-communism was a welcome bulwark against Soviet influence in the region. As such, white South Africans were accustomed to a degree of integration in the international community. When this began to change, a cultural boycott was an effective means of furthering a sense of precarious isolation. It globalised the domestic feeling that white South Africa was a shrinking island, beset by a hostile sea.

Some artists like Paul Simon did break the boycott to work with black artists, initiating a debate around the ethics of indiscriminate sanctions. But overall, crumbling belief in the durability of apartheid, coupled with existential isolation, was effectively exploited by the BDS campaign. It is inarguable that the movement helped to end white minority rule in South Africa.

Israel is not South Africa

The situation in Israel is simply not the same. To begin with, the ratio of Jews to Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories is roughly equal. In comparison, whites constituted just 13 per cent of the population in South Africa by 1990. If Israel is sitting on a demographic timebomb, it is one with a very slow fuse. As such, Israelis do not generally feel like a dwindling minority within their own country.

Israel has also survived a series of existential threats throughout its history. It has been invaded by all of its neighbours simultaneously and emerged victorious. When the extirpation of the Jewish population in Palestine was attempted, the Zionists survived. Israelis, and Jews more generally, are therefore deeply familiar with existential threats. Rooney’s qualms about selling the publication rights to her book to an Israeli firm are barely enough to produce a ripple. This is simply not the ‘boycott’ with which to threaten the State of Israel the way that white South Africans were once challenged.

What’s more, an ‘us against the world’ narrative is a core tenant of Israeli mythology. The Jews are probably the most persecuted people in history, and this history of near-universal animosity is what lead to the creation of Israel. A cultural boycott that endeavours to exclude Israel from the global community is unlikely to get compliance. Israel is a country that was created in response to the worldwide rejection of its people. A cultural boycott only validates those Israeli hardliners who argue that Israel must be strong because she will always be alone.

Backed into a corner, but without the physical threat of being overrun, Israelis are only going to become more supportive of the Zionist right. Whipping up fear and intensifying a sense of fortified isolation was an integral part of Netanyahu’s electoral success. Bibi might be gone, but a cultural boycott only validates the hardliners in the Knesset.

Art, music and literature are all avenues through which opinions can be changed and bridges built. Whether Israel is an apartheid state or not, the BDS Movement needs to recognise that this is a profoundly different situation to South Africa. This risks making the lives of Palestine’s five million-plus people worse, not better.