Disempowering voices of propaganda: The BDS movement in books
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a Palestine-led non-violent campaign, has been in the limelight lately, with the recent escalation of Israeli aggression triggering a surge of supporters. Aimed at promoting economic sanctions to pressure Israel into complying with international laws and bringing an end to its oppression of Palestine, the BDS movement targets major institutions, entities, and brands for boycotting. The rising momentum of the movement has expanded the scope of the boycotts from only prominent companies to works by pro-Zionist celebrities and artists. This includes calls to boycott books written by authors known for supporting Zionism, the ideology of Israel to establish a single state for Jews.
The ongoing siege of Gaza is not the first time Israel has exercised what it refers to as "mowing the land", or to put it bluntly, ethnic cleansing of Palestinian civilians. What sets this genocidal campaign apart from previous instances, however, is not the increased brutality of the occupation or the indifference of Western governments, but rather the consequent public reaction. The tenacious insistence of Palestinians to document their tragedy, enabled by social media, has allowed images and stories of their inhumane suffering to reach millions across the world. This has resulted in a heightened awareness about the history and nature of the Palestinian crisis among global citizens, triggering historic protests and demonstrations all over the world.
Activists and civilians alike are taking to social media platforms like Tiktok, Twitter, and Instagram to bust fake stories and narratives being circulated by the Israeli propaganda machine. Demonstrations and marches are accompanied by petitions and calls to government offices, with activists disrupting the operations of weapons factories and shipping companies identified as arming the Israeli occupation forces. Organised boycotts are being called under the BDS movement against celebrities and artists for using their platforms to support the genocide or oppose a ceasefire, and also for benefitting the Israeli establishment through business deals.
Authors who recently came into attention for openly supporting Zionism include Sarah J Mass, Rebecca Yarros, Jeffrey Archer, Rachel Lynn Solomon, Monica Murphy, Alice Osman, Michelle Hodkin, Taylor Jenkins Reid, J K Rowling, Christina Lauren, Carrissa Broadbent, L J Shen, among others. While the majority of these authors have shown their sympathy and support to the Zionist cause through media interviews and social media, others have sold their book rights to Israeli publishers. Some, like Archer, have also shown Zionism in a positive light in their books, with a few having more direct engagement in the Israeli cause—Hodkin, for instance, represented Israel in lawsuits against Arabs and Shen's husband served in the Israeli forces.
A significant number of readers have shown defiance towards these boycotts, mostly from the fanbases of these authors. They echo the sentiments of Rebecca Yarros, who recently spoke up in self-defence after receiving flak for not only selling rights of her books to Israeli publishers but also for glorifying the military in her books. She posted on her Instagram account, ahead of her new fantasy release Fourth Wing, denying accusations that she supports genocide. She also explained her stance against book banning, and how refusing translations is a form of it. This defence mollified her fanbase who disregarded her expression of sympathy for the Israeli cause in the same post, essentially invalidating her so-called solidarity with the "Palestinian innocents".
Opponents of boycotting pro-Zionist books, who form significant fanbases of popular authors, persistently call for separating the art from the artist and fail to acknowledge the nuances of boycotting and pressurising establishments responsible for ethnic cleansing and apartheid. They also disregard the power of voices and language in the age of information, where every crisis is fueled by mainstream propaganda narratives.
Language and literature are an integral tool for fueling both revolutions and warfare, through mainstream media and propaganda, to shift public narratives and mass perception. The Israeli oppression of Palestine is not an exception, with the establishment's long standing right-wing strategy of labelling anti-Israeli sentiments antisemitic. This tactic has long been used to invalidate demonstrations for a ceasefire. Such labelling is rather ironic as a large number of Jews, including holocaust survivors joined in during recent demonstrations. It has also been used to censure pro-Palestinian political voices like that of former British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib.
Once phrases like "From the river to the sea"—an expression used since the 1960s after being introduced by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO)—recently started gaining mass recognition as a call for Palestinian freedom, saw similar attempts at invalidation through labelling the slogan a call for Jewish genocide. The phrase, when used in a speech by Tlaib, the lone Palestinian voice in the US congress, led to a bill being passed at congress to censure her, with many Democrats reportedly being funded by the Israeli lobby AIPAC voting against her. Twitter owner Elon Musk also recently announced the suspension of users using this phrase.
Language is not only censured but also twisted to dehumanise the oppressed. Mainstream media indiscriminately uses words like "Hamas" and "terrorists" to refer to the casualties of Israeli bombings. Parallelly, these casualties are always reported by major news outlets in passive language, with the context and cause rarely included in titles. The "Israel-Gaza conflict" is widely used instead of terms like the "Israeli Occupation of Palestine", "genocide", or "ethnic cleansing". Netanyahu recently referred to Palestinian children as "children of darkness".
The censure and silencing of pro-Palestinian voices extends most ruthlessly to writers and authors. Renowned author Sally Rooney was subjected to boycotts and pressure from lobbyists for openly refusing offers from Israeli publishers to translate her books. The repercussions are worse for writers with Palestinian roots. Celebrated author and poet Mosab Abu Toha was kidnapped by Israel while leaving Gaza during the latest attacks and tortured before release. Hiba Abu Nada and Yousef Dawas, also popular Palestinian writers, lost their lives from Israeli airstrikes targeted at their homes. The painter Heba Zagout was also killed during the same attacks.
However, the most resonant and celebrated voice of Palestine to have been killed by Israel remains Ghassan Kanafani. His political affiliation and influential voice led to his assassination by the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence, with claims of his involvement in a terrorist attack. His works of literature, poignantly capturing the plight of Palestinian survivors, continue to fuel Palestinian resilience.
When the stakes are so immensely high for voices speaking up for Palestinians, with even civilians reportedly losing jobs and opportunities for posting in favour of Palestine on social media, any support of writers using their platforms to back the oppressors is unjustifiable. In a propaganda war, it becomes just as important to disempower voices that fuel propaganda, as it is to empower voices calling for justice.
Widely read authors like Sarah J Mass, with fanbases of millions, also subtly influence the minds of their readers to be more accepting of propaganda by glorifying nationalistic and Zionist themes in their books. Similarly, when authors like Rowling, Archer, Reid, and Yarros—who openly endorse the Zionist cause with utter disregard for Palestinian lives—are enabled, it empowers them to influence the young and undiscerning minds to sympathise with oppressors.
The advocates of BDS, a movement which also allows its supporters to choose who to boycott, urges readers to at the very least not promote or increase engagement with these authors. That is why, instead of calls for directly boycotting massive conglomerates like Disney, also known for its Israeli affiliations, the target is simply pirated consumption of such media. Similarly, if any reader is unable to resist the temptation of reading books by pro-Zionist authors, they are being urged to read pirated versions and, more importantly, to not promote them in any media. The BookTok community has recently been criticised for promoting and hyping up such authors by unboxing and reviewing their books.
When millions of lives are at stake and indiscriminate violations of human rights are perpetuated, there is no longer space to entertain the debate on whether the art should be separated from the artist. When pro-Palestinian voices are deprived of their freedom of speech, risking their jobs and even lives, trivialising the BDS movement and its influence is no longer acceptable. The least readers can do, at this point, is refuse to platform artists supporting oppression and ethnic cleansing.
Towrin Zaman is a climate researcher and an eclectic reader.