July 18, 2018
Western authors take stand in Israel/Palestine conflict by refusing to be published in Israel
by Alex Primiani
An Israeli publisher is finding it increasingly difficult to acquire translation rights to some of the year’s most important novels, mostly due to the reinvigorated support many writers are feeling for Palestine and the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Movement. Haaretz contributor Gili Izikovich reports on the matter.
While many authors from around the world have spoken out against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, a few renowned writers—like Henning Mankell, China Miéville, and most recently Kamila Shamsie—are refusing to have their works translated into Hebrew and distributed by Israeli publishers.
Shamsie, an award-winning British novelist of Pakistani descent, clarified in an email to an Israel publisher why she would not accept a contract:
“I would be very happy to be published in Hebrew, but I don’t know of any (fiction) publisher of Hebrew who is not Israeli, and I understand that there is no Israeli publisher who is completely unentangled from the state. I do not want to cross the picket line formed by Palestinian civil society, which has asked everyone who wants to change the situation to not cooperate with organizations that are in any way complicit with the Israeli state.”
It’s important to distinguish here that Shamsie’s real issue is with the Israeli state, and companies that benefit, however indirectly, from the occupation, and not the Hebrew language.
Izikovich spoke with Ornit Cohen-Barak, an editor at the successful literary and commercial hosue Modan Publishers. For Cohen-Barak, this refusal to work with Israeli publishers is not new — and it’s changed how she works with authors. After a few book deals came apart, she says, “whenever people recommend writers from Arab countries I try to ascertain with them that they’re willing to be published in Israel, because I don’t have time to read books and arrange contracts that won’t happen.”
Izikovich also interviewed Ziv Lewis, who is in charge of translation rights for the publisher Kinneret Zmora Bitan. He mentions at least one workaround he’s found for an international writer resistant to Israeli publishing: by partnering with a foreign house that also puts out books in Hebrew.
Authors who refuse to be translated into Hebrew, or published by Modan in Israel, aren’t just concerned with the country’s human rights record. Many authors from Arab countries, says Cohen-Barak, are afraid for their own safety.
The number of Western writers refusing to be published in Israel was once small, but it’s growing. Cohen-Barak notes, “It’s existed since I’ve been in the field. But in cases of a Western writer who’s unwilling to be translated into Hebrew, I think that here it comes from a lack of understanding. After all, culture is the place that can bridge gaps, so what good are they doing by refusing?”
Today, many of us are reevaluating our roles in these larger conflicts. It’s no longer as simple as having the conversations or representing your ideals through your work — authors feel encouraged to become active in the distribution and representation of that work. Cohen-Barak is right that translated fiction can help bridge gaps, but what is the cost when nothing changes?
Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.