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The New York Times | February 9, 2008

Book Fair’s Plans to Honor Israel Lead to Protests

ROME — The selection of Israel as guest of honor at this spring’s International Book Fair in Turin has set off a furious debate among Italian, Israeli and Arab authors and intellectuals, including calls to boycott the event, Italy’s largest annual gathering of the publishing world.

Those opposed to the decision say that offering such an honor at a fair opening in May, when Israel will celebrate its 60th anniversary as a nation, is to ignore its policies toward Palestinians.

“A prestigious event like the book fair can’t pretend it doesn’t know what’s happening in that part of the Middle East,” said Vincenzo Chieppa, a local leader of the Italian Communist Party, who was one of the first to raise objections to the selection of Israel.

Subsequent calls to boycott the fair — coming both from extreme-left-wing Italian political activists and prominent Italian and Arab intellectuals and authors — have prompted a wave of newspaper articles, some raising concerns about censorship and others extolling the need to place art above politics.

“The aim of culture and literature is not to build barriers among people, but to open up to others,” the novelist and playwright A. B. Yehoshua wrote on Monday in an op-ed article in the Turin daily La Stampa.

On Thursday some three dozen Italian intellectuals and artists sent a letter to the Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, asking him to preside over the opening of the fair, which runs May 8 to 12, and to speak out “against any discrimination and blind intolerance towards the citizens and culture of Israel.”

The book fair, now in its 21st year, is not usually the setting for geopolitical strife.

“We’ve never had polemics before,” said Rolando Picchioni, president of Foundation for the Book, Music and Culture, which runs the fair. “Some years ago we honored Catalonian writers, and they essentially presented themselves as an independent state, but Spain didn’t protest.”

But it took little to fuel the controversy here, plunging the Middle East conflict into the Italian political debate, and splitting moderate and far-left political parties.

On Tuesday, for instance, a small group of protesters associated with a local pro-Palestinian group stormed the book fair offices in Turin, demanding that the invitation to Israel be rescinded.

“We are appalled to see the world of culture take the side of those who methodically operate to annihilate Palestine and the Palestinians,” read a pamphlet distributed during the demonstration.

The protesters say they are planning more demonstrations in the weeks leading up to the fair, as well as a “counterfair featuring editors open to the Palestinian struggle” and “acts of disturbance at the fair.”

Mr. Chieppa’s suggestion was to ask the Palestinian Authority to send some authors, and become a second special guest. “It would be good to use the fair as a moment of dialogue and reconciliation between the culture of Israel and Palestine,” Mr. Chieppa said.

Organizers, however, say they will not be cowed. “A country has to be able to come to the fair without being counterbalanced by another country,” Mr. Picchioni said. “What’s next? If we honor Russia, do we also have to invite Chechnya? Or what about China? Do we bring in Tibet?”

Similar protests have yet to spread to Paris, which is also honoring Israel at its book fair, March 14 to 19.

Those opposed to the honor, though, are not only in Italy.

Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim scholar and advocate, and the Anglo-Pakistani writer Tariq Ali are among those endorsing the boycott. Last week Mohamed Salmawy, president of the Egyptian Writers Union, wrote to the Italian writers union that “writers all over the Arab world” had been “shocked” by the fair’s decision and that the writers’ unions in Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt had officially condemned the choice. The book fair’s decision, Mr. Salmawy wrote, “has antagonized Arab public opinion.”

The author and columnist Meir Shalev, who was in Italy this week promoting the Italian translation of his novel “A Pigeon and a Boy,” said: “I know there are hostilities against Israel, but I never thought it would come down to a boycott of art and literature. I am also critical of the policies of my government, but a boycott is wrong to begin with.”

Israel’s literature is popular in Italy, and about 70 Israeli authors are translated into Italian. Some two dozen are expected to attend the fair, which will also feature other forms of Israeli culture, including music, architecture and cuisine.

With the threat of more protests, some concerns have been raised about security. But the Turin mayor, Sergio Chiamparino, said there was no cause for alarm. “We guaranteed security for the 2006 Olympics; we can handle the book fair,” he said.

Mr. Shalev said he had been having second thoughts about traveling to Turin in May, fearing that the fair “could become a political instead of a literary event.”

“I don’t want any part of that,” he continued.

He said he was also concerned that protests could spread to next month’s fair in Paris. “These sorts of things can be contagious,” he said.

Posted on 09-02-2008

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