Over a year ago, in June 2014, I was offered a contract by an Israeli publishing house for both Mornings in Jenin and The Blue Between Sky and Water. As a firm supporter of both the economic and cultural boycotts of Israel, I refused. I did not make my decision public at the time, but had planned to write about it eventually. Then time passed too quickly, as time tends to do. So rather than write an essay, I’ll just share the full correspondence here. My decision and reasons for it are evident. I decided to redact names, because they’re not really relevant.
The offer came to me via my agent. The following is the relevant portion of my response to her:
As for Israeli publishers, that is not an option. When we Palestinians are free to live in [our] own homeland as equal citizens of the state, I’ll be happy to sign a contract for Hebrew translation. But until this Apartheid system falls, I will not have business dealings with Israelis.
My agent must have shared that letter with the Israeli publisher because the following was then forwarded to me:
Please be so kind as to convey my words to Susan Abulhawa:
We at [company name redacted] Publishers share your hope for the fall of the Apartheid system. Our greatest joy would be to live to see the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. Since our profession concerns books, our way to help realize this dream is by trying to widen the horizon of our readers. We are constantly looking for interesting voices from the Arab and Muslim world. I personally initiated the publication of [name of author and book redacted] a few years ago and have edited Iranian author [name of author and book redacted], that we published last year to wide public interest. I thought your voice might be of importance to our readers. Dialogue still seems to me the only way.
In the hope for future days of dialogue and peace.
My very best wishes,
I responded to her directly:
I hope you don’t mind that I’m writing to you directly. It seems easier this way.
I respect what you’re trying to do. While I believe that efforts should be made to engage the Israeli public in the indigenous non-Jewish Palestinian life being crushed by the state, I do not believe that is the task of Palestinians. I further do not believe that dialogue is something that can happen when there is such gross imbalance of power. There may be other words for such an exchange, but “dialogue” is not the right one.
It is not an easy decision to refuse to have my work translated into Hebrew, principally because Hebrew, like Arabic, is a language that is native to Palestine, spoken there by Palestinian Jews long before the establishment of Israel. But the existence now of a supremacist state, which subverts the rights of millions of non-Jewish natives, both there and in exile, is the reason I cannot in good conscience participate in any capacity (except where I have no choice, like border crossing etc.) that might normalize exclusion and ethno-religious privilege.
There may come a time when I might see things differently, perhaps more like my friend [redacted name of author], whom I love, respect and admire, regardless of whether we agree or disagree. But until then, I must respectfully decline your kind offer and hope that you understand.
And here, her response was the last in that correspondence:
Thank you very much for writing. The imbalance of power requires an asymmetry in the speech act. I feel that my task is to listen. “I fully understand” would be a cliche,.To be more precise – I can tell you that I feel completely ok about your refusal.
My very very best,
I believe that engaging with Israeli institutions or companies lends legitimacy to an ethnocratic state whose founding principles are those of ethno-religious entitlement, privilege, and supremacy. Celebrity names, of course, have a greater impact. But the only real legitimacy Israel can ever truly have, must come from the indigenous population. That’s the reason they are constantly demanding that Palestinians recognize their right to exist as an exclusively Jewish nation. It is only when recognition by the legal, historic, and cultural heirs who have belonged to that land for centuries (at least), can Israel claim the legitimacy chase. Their claim of Palestine, of our homes and history and heritage, of our culture and food, native songs and stories, was laid by the force of arms and terror, as all settler colonial enterprises do.
How could I sell my novel rights to a people who have been destroying our society? To a people who have barred me from so much as visiting my country? To those who speak so confidently of a right to possess a land that has been nurtured by the bodies of our ancestors?