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Sally Rooney’s Word Games

Novelist Sally Rooney, author of the critically acclaimed “Normal People,” has refused to allow her most recent book to be published in Hebrew.

When I was a kid, I loved riddles. At summer camp, after lights out, we would play word games, trying to guess, for example, how two men perished in a small cabin in the woods. The forest around the cabin was burned to cinders but the men didn’t die from the fire. (It was an airplane crash.)

This week I read about a word game that’s just plain silly. Novelist Sally Rooney, author of the critically acclaimed “Normal People,” which was made into a Hulu series, has refused to allow her most recent book to be published in Hebrew. She claims that she’d be happy to have it published in Hebrew as long as it can be done so in a way that adheres to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) guidelines. This would require finding a company that does no business with Israeli-owned firms that would be willing to publish the book in Hebrew, which is quite a tall order and certainly calls into question the sincerity of her claim.

As Deborah Harris, an Israel-based literary agent, put it: “When it’s ice cream or when it’s cement, or whatever else it is, it’s one thing, but when it comes to culture, I just have a very, very hard time seeing how this can be productive in changing anything. What literature is supposed to do is reach into the hearts and minds of people.”

This seems to be precisely the point. Rooney is trying to reach into the hearts and minds of people she influences in a way that demonizes Israel and, more broadly, Jews. Imagine an author painting with as broad a stroke around a translation of her latest book into Mandarin, for example. The Chinese government is guilty of grave human rights abuses including ethnic cleansing and genocide against the mostly Muslim Uyghurs. An author’s refusal to publish a book in Mandarin, preventing its more than one billion speakers from accessing the work, would be seen as a strong statement of rebuke not just against the Chinese government responsible for the reprehensible policies but against the Chinese people as well. In this case, Rooney’s action can be viewed as one aimed not just at Israelis, but, because of our People’s deep and abiding connection to the Hebrew language, also at Jews.

Rooney is trying to reach into the hearts and minds of people she influences in a way that demonizes Israel and, more broadly, Jews.

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’cha, Avram is called “Avram the Hebrew.” It cannot be lost on Rooney that Jews collectively have been known as “Hebrews” and that we have used that word to describe communal institutions particularly at times when virulent antisemitism has transformed the very word “Jew” into a slur (i.e., the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Hebrew Union College, and the Young Men’s Hebrew Associations). Eventually, of course, the more refined “Hebrew” was also transformed into a slur that was later reclaimed by the Jewish-themed magazine Heeb.

Rooney’s repudiation of Hebrew and the disingenuous cloaking of it in a way that suggests that she’d be delighted to make the novel available in Hebrew were it not for her devotion to the higher value of BDS is antisemitism pure and simple.

What’s particularly insidious and problematic about this incident is the way such things normalize Jew hatred. To be clear, I am not in any way suggesting that criticism of Israeli governmental policies is off limits. But when Israel is held to a double-standard and demonized, it’s no longer legitimate criticism; it’s antisemitism, arguably the only form of racism that seems to be widely tolerated today.

There’s a Hebrew word for this and it’s no game: sinah (hatred).


Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is the Senior Rabbi of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, California.

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