Italian President Giorgio Napolitano opened the prestigious Turin book fair Thursday amid opposition from Muslims and the Italian Left over the choice of Israel as the event's guest of honor.
"No dialogue is possible if there is a refusal to recognize Israel," Napolitano said at Israel's stand at the fair, the European Jewish Press reported. Napolitano added that there can be no "rejection of the reasons for [Israel's] birth or of its right to exist in peace and security."
Like the Paris book fair in March, the Turin fair is honoring the modern state of Israel on the 60th anniversary of its creation. Israel's stand was swamped by hundreds of people, many draped in the Israeli flag, with one group holding a banner that read: "I feel Jewish today."
"A special thank-you, with all my heart, goes to President Napolitano for his strong position this year, after the calls over recent months to boycott the Book Fair because of Israel's presence," Israel’s new ambassador to Italy, Gideon Meir, said at the fair's opening. Meir said the calls for a boycott were “an attempt to undermine the state of Israel.”
"No dialogue is possible if there is a refusal to recognize Israel," President Napolitano said at Israel's stand at the fair.
"The President's choice of inaugurating the book fair dedicated to Israel represents a very important moral position to left and right wing extremists that come to Turin to boycott the fair and want to de-legitimize Israel," Meir told Italian daily La Repubblica.
Islamic voices mixed
Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan said Napolitano's decision to open the fair would make it "a political and not a cultural event." Ramadan, who is backing the boycott calls, is the grandson of Hassan El-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ahead of the five-day expo, several Muslim writers, intellectuals and artists as well as the Free Palestine Association staged a two-day protest seminar at the University of Turin titled "Western Democracies and Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine."
But Yahya Pallavicini, vice-president of the Italian Islamic religious community, expressed his “complete solidarity” with the Italian president’s decision to inaugurate the fair.
Rabbi cites 'great courage'
Napolitano arrived at the fair by helicopter, along with Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua, and cut the inaugural ribbon. David Grossman, Amos Oz, Aaron Appelfeld and Meir Shalev will be among the other featured Israeli authors.
In a statement released earlier this week, Napolitano’s office said: "Criticism of the policies adopted by the Israeli government is quite legitimate, especially within Israel. What is inadmissible is any position that tends to deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel, which was established by the will of the United Nations in 1948, and its right to existence in peace and security".
Turin's Chief Rabbi, Alberto Moshe Somekh, said Wednesday that the city had shown "great courage" in deciding to honor Israel. At a special service in Turin's main synagogue, he said the tribute marked not only the state of Israel's 60 years but also "4,000 years of our presence on the world stage as the 'People of the Book'."
Security has been tightened for this year's event in Turin, coming two months after the Paris book fair which was inaugurated by Israeli President Shimon Peres. A bomb threat to the Paris fair forced an hour-long evacuation of the venue.
The Turin fair, which is now in its 21st year, will be attended by some 1,400 publishers this year.
EJP also reported that Israel's current relations with the European Union are the warmest they have ever been.