Israel’s 60th Birthday

Book fair in Italy thrown into emotional debate over Israel’s role at event by Dave

Fury over plans to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in Italy.  The Italian Government has now felt the need to write and appologise to Israel.

ROME: The decision to select 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.

Critics of the choice say that offering such an honor at the opening of the fair in May, when Israel will celebrate its 60th anniversary as a nation, ignores its policies toward the 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 the first to raise objections.

The calls to boycott the fair – coming both from far leftist political activists and prominent Italian and Arab intellectuals and authors – have produced a wave of newspaper articles, some raising concerns about censorship, 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,” wrote the novelist and playwright A. B. Yehoshua in the Turin daily newspaper La Stampa.

On Thursday, three dozen members of the Italian Parliament drafted a letter of apology to the state of Israel, and invited Israeli authors to visit Turin, “a tolerant and open city.” President Giorgio Napolitano of Italy is scheduled to inaugurate the fair on May 8.

On Thursday, Mercedes Bresso, president of the Piedmont region, whose capital is Turin, said that Napolitano’s presence “puts an end to the polemics.”

“It’s not about foreign policy,” she said. “It’s about inviting the literary world.”

Now in its 21st year, the fair is not usually the setting for strife.

“We’ve never had polemics before,” said Rolando Picchioni, president of the foundation that 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. Last week, for instance, a small group of demonstrators 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, associated with a local pro-Palestinian group, say they plan further demonstration as well as a “counter-fair featuring editors open to the Palestinian struggle,” and “acts of disturbance at the fair.” Last week, anti-Israeli graffiti was spray-painted on the walls of the fair site and in a Turin tunnel.

Chieppa’s suggestion: Why not 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,” Chieppa said.

But organizers say they will not be swayed.

“A country has to be able to come to the fair without being counterbalanced by another country,” said Picchioni. “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 appear in Paris, which is also honoring Israel at its book fair, which runs March 14 to 19.

In the Arab world, though, the reaction has been strong.

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

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

Israeli literature is popular in Italy, and about 70 Israeli authors are translated into Italian. Two dozen writers are expected to attend the fair, which will also feature Israeli music, architecture and cuisine.

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

Shalev said he had been having second thoughts about coming to Turin, fearing that the fair “could become a political instead of a literary event. I don’t want any part of that.”


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