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Why Sally Rooney Was Right to Stand with Palestinians

Sally Rooney's decision to stand with Palestinians against decades of occupation and apartheid was always likely to prompt a smear campaign – but meaningful solidarity is never easy.

Sally Rooney's support for Palestinian human rights has drawn predictable criticism from Israel's defenders. Credit: Getty Images

Two weeks ago I was in the South Hebron Hills when settlers attacked. T-shirts wrapped around their faces, holding wooden planks  and hurling rocks the size of bowling balls, they destroyed the Palestinian village of al-Mufaqara, overturning cars, smashing solar panels and windows, and splashing water tanks. A three-year-old boy ended up in hospital with a cracked skull. 

I was in the South as part of a sustained solidarity project between Palestinian, Israeli, and international Jewish activists. As someone who has spent most of my childhood and adult life in organised Jewish community, and the last decade campaigning for an end to the occupation, I’ll admit that when I saw initial tweets about Sally Rooney not wanting her books to be published in Hebrew, my first thoughts were, ‘Here we go again, another distraction.’

Sally Rooney’s decision to not work with an Israeli publisher generated uproar on social media and the press. Initially wrongly reported as her ‘boycotting the Hebrew language’, this resulted in countless accusations of antisemitism levelled at Rooney. 

It is a credit to her integrity that when addressing these accusations, Rooney chose to de-centre herself from the discussion and instead focus onto the issue of Palestinian rights. In a context in which the Right are ramping up their attempts to smear any public discussion of Palestinian advocacy or material consequences for Israel’s decades-long occupation as an attack on Jews, Rooney’s actions must be seen as legitimate objection to Israeli policies. Her argument was concise, clear, and rooted in solidarity and justice.  

Putting to one side the alarming lack of contrition the media showed for their total willingness to generate a pile-on without any sort of professional due diligence, the Sally Rooney saga is revealing because it shows the effectiveness of the Right’s desire to conflate any meaningful criticism of Israel’s actions with antisemitism. This is not new; labelling anyone advocating for Palestinian rights antisemitic is an effective tool for shutting down any scrutiny or accountability for Israel’s occupation. The chilling effect of this, whereby those who want to be vocal critics Israel’s actions are silenced for fear of being labelled antisemitic, should act as an alarm bell for progressives. 

Indeed, the modus operandi of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition on antisemitism is to silence criticism of Israel under the guise of fighting antisemitism. This definition, pushed by lobby groups and both the British and Israeli governments, is now the litmus test in the UK for ‘supporting the Jewish community’. It is spreading across Europe and the United States as well. 

Many Palestinian groups (plus plenty of Israeli and Jewish progressives) have criticised the definition for how it intentionally misuses the issue of antisemitism to silence Palestinian advocacy. It is not surprising that these kinds of strategies are gaining ground at a time when public support for Palestinian human rights is becoming part of a mainstream political progressive agenda – particularly after the escalation in Gaza in May, which left over 250 Palestinians dead. 

After half a century of Israeli rule over Palestinians, Israel is losing the moral argument; the next best thing they can hope for is to shut down the conversation entirely. Initiatives like the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism offer a refreshing alternative to the failures of the IHRA – ensuring that the important and necessary struggle against antisemitism is not instrumentalised to undermine Palestinian rights and solidarity.

These tactics are also just as pronounced in the US: websites like Canary Mission publish information on anti-occupation and Palestine solidarity activists, in order to intimate and damage their professional or academic careers. In the UK, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which likes to claim investment in ‘a peaceful solution to the conflict’, routinely releases statements chastising any meaningful act of solidarity with Palestinians. They even released a statement about Rooney’s decision, calling her disingenuous and alluding to underlying antisemitic intentions.

Those hellbent on silencing criticism of the Israeli occupation thrive on these moments of chaos and uncertainty about the difference between antisemitism and legitimate criticism. They can then rely on making anodyne statements about the conflict that carry with them no meaningful action to end the occupation and ensure freedom and dignity for all in Israel-Palestine. 

The controversy generated by this non-story shows that even an entirely false situation allows the Right to gain ground. By redirecting the conversation towards whether criticism of Israel is or isn’t antisemitic, or how it makes the Jewish community feel, we are yet again shifting attention away from the core issues of oppression, occupation, and human rights violations at the hands of the Israeli government and its army. 

Meanwhile, state-sanctioned violence towards Palestinian communities remains constant, with attacks coming from settlers, the army, and the border police. Just last night, settlers set fire to a Palestinian cemetery in East Jerusalem; olive trees were uprooted in the South Hebron hills in the middle of planting season. There are almost daily attacks on shepherds in the Jordan Valley.

As someone currently living on the ground, it is enraging that more people in my community care more about whether they can buy Beautiful World, Where Are You in Jerusalem bookstores than the devastation that occupation rains down on a daily basis. 

There are a few ways that progressive can address this. The first is to notice when this is happening and shut it down before it can gain traction. The second is for Jewish progressives like myself to speak out in solidarity with Palestinians and stop the Right from framing this issue as one in which supporting Jewish safety and Palestinian freedom are mutually exclusive.

The third, and most important, is to build vital solidarity with Palestinians, both within the Jewish community and outside it – a solidarity based on principles of liberation, equality, and justice.

The best thing we can hope for is that the Right’s attempt to frame Rooney as antisemitic backfires and instead the movement for a just peace in Israel-Palestine based in equality, human rights and freedom for all, only grows.

About the Author

Em Hilton is a Jewish leftist activist and writer living between Tel Aviv and London. She is the co-founder of Na’amod, British Jews Against Occupation, and sits on the steering committee of the Centre for Jewish Non-Violence.