In recognition of its 60th year of independence, the State of Israel will be the "guest of honor" at two of Europe's largest book fairs this year. Dozens of Israeli authors have been invited to France and Italy for the events. The two fairs, each of which regularly draws upwards of 200,000 people, will feature displays and activities about Hebrew
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are expected to open the five-day Paris Book Fair on March 14. According to organizers, 39 Israeli authors have been invited to France by the National Book Center and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The central Pavilion of Honor at the book festival is to be draped in the colors of Israel's national flag - blue and white. Within the pavilion, there will be debates, panel discussions, lectures, activities for youth, musical and theatrical performances, and film screenings. Of course, the fair will also feature a wide range of books for sale in French and Hebrew.
Recognition of Israel at the Paris Book Fair was long in coming. The State of Israel first offered itself and its Hebrew literature for consideration by the French organizers in 1998. After a decade of rejections, this year's decision was apparently reached both in recognition of Israeli literature, which has earned a positive global reputation, and in honor of Israel's 60th year.
Italy's largest book exhibition, the Turin International Book Fair, will also be honoring Israel this year. The event will open in the northern Italian city on May 8, which is the equivalent of the Hebrew date of Israel's Independence Day (Iyar 5).
In the promotional material for the fair, Israeli literature is described as having been received with "high favor" for many years. Specifically, the organizers cite four well-known Israeli novelists - David Grossman, Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua and Etgar Keret - for their contributions to contemporary culture. "But the cultural background of the country is obviously much more rich...." than any selection of its authors, they note.
"The 2008 fair will be an opportunity to get to know the culture of this country through historians, essayists, artists, musicians and scientists," according to the Turin Book Fair's promotional material. It will be "an opportunity for dialogue with the contribution of disparate voices to discuss and to focus on a possible model of coexistence."
During the fair, the Italian National Cinema Museum will be showing ten films about Israel and hosting
Far-Leftist and Islamic Groups Plan to Boycott
An event honoring Israel in Europe can apparently not go by without a boycott, however. Calls to boycott the Turin Book Fair have been issued by far-left Italian and Arab political activists, as well as by prominent Italian intellectuals and Arab authors. Calls have come from European Arab activists to boycott the Paris Book Fair as well.
In January, the Union of Arab Writers wrote a letter of protest to the event organizers over Israel's invitation as "guest of honor," which was termed a "provocation" by the union's chairman. The organization also demanded that the Union of Italian Writers take an explicit position on the matter.
In response to the mounting criticism, the Director of the Turin Book Fair, Ernesto Ferrero said, "This is a book fair, this is not the United Nations... The Israeli writers that we invited are usually critical toward their government." He also expressed his exasperation that "other writers are talking about their freedom of expression," calling it "incredible."
The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, also commented on the growing calls for a boycott of the fair. "I am very concerned that this is a genuine process of systematic delegitimization of the State of Israel, which goes beyond any political criticism and that is part of a broader effort," he said, adding that it appears to be "a new aspect of an ancient hatred and it is very disturbing." The problem, as explained by Rabbi Di Segni, is that anything done in the name of Israel engenders a reaction of hate.
Grossman, one of the Turin invitees, told the La Repubblica newspaper that he is "opposed to the culture of boycotts, because the essence of culture is dialogue."