Prolific “subvertising agency” Protest Stencil unveiled its latest mainstream discourse-disrupting advert at the weekend. The posters, flyposted on London bus stops, read, “Normal people boycott Israel” and featured an image of a sardine tin, mirroring the cover of Rooney’s best-selling 2018 novel ‘Normal People’. The book was adapted for television in 2020, garnering popular and critical acclaim.
The Irish writer recently made headlines for refusing to sell the Hebrew translation rights to her latest novel, ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’, because of her stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Inside the poster’s open sardine tin is the pattern of the keffiyeh, the iconic Palestinian chequered black-and-white scarf that has long served as a symbol of Arab nationalism. The pattern is said to symbolize fishing nets and, in recent times, particularly the empty fishing nets of Gaza’s fishermen, whom Israel has denied full access to the sea.
In an Instagram post, Protest Stencil said the subversive advert had been created to offer its “respect to Sally Rooney for her principled stand in support of Palestinians”, and opined that you can tell a lot about people by whether they stand with “the coloniser or the colonised”.
The guerilla artists went on to contend that “normal people” around the world, including “the colonised, the exploited [and] the marginalised,” had “an instinctive solidarity with Palestinians resisting the theft of their homeland”. They added that all arguments against the campaign to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure it to comply with international law were built on a “shaky base”.
Unsurprisingly, Protest Stencil’s foray into the often-divisive topic of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories sparked fierce debate on social media, with many accusing the group of promoting anti-Semitism.
“Let’s be clear: Antisemites, haters & extremists boycott Israel,” wrote David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, who added that “normal people” learn, engage and visit Israel as well as benefit from the country’s innovations.
Journalist James McMahon concurred, adding that “normal people” do not have an “unhealthy obsession with 0.2% of the world’s population” – an apparent reference to Jews.
Others took aim at Sally Rooney. Israeli-Arab correspondent Yoseph Haddad stated that one could read a translation of ‘Normal People’ in Iran and China because the author didn’t care about human-rights violations there – only in Israel and Palestine. “Normal people boycott Israel? No, antisemites like Sally do,” he wrote.
One commenter questioned why “normal people” wanted to “normalize Jew hatred and the destruction of Israel”. He said the poster campaign had no other objective than to “boycott”, “demonise” and “erase”.
Another Twitter user replied with a photo of Yahya Sinwar, the leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza, posing with a child armed with a gun, adding the words “normal people.”
Some said they supported the aims of the poster. One person tweeted, “Well said. Much respect to Sally Rooney”, while another said, “The one and only @protestencil has outdone themselves with this”.
In a further twist, JCDecaux, the company that owns the illuminated advertising space at bus stops, took to Twitter to say that, after one of its representative had visited the location, it was of the view that the photos of the flyposted adverts had either been faked or Photoshopped. However, the tweet was later deleted, although the firm still contends it found no evidence of the posters in question. US organization StopAntisemitism.org called on it to get to the bottom of the issue and to find out exactly who had “authorized” them.
Rooney was heavily criticized last week for refusing to sell the translation rights to her latest novel to Israel’s Modan Publishing House, which had translated her previous two books. She is a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to put economic and moral pressure on Tel Aviv to change its policies toward Palestinians. The author later said she’d be happy for the book to be available in Hebrew if the translation were boycott-compliant.
BDS is considered a national threat by the Israeli government, which claims its supporters are attempting to deny Israel’s right to exist.