When the prestigious annual Turin Book Fair opens today, it will be amid a cavalcade of fanfare that organizers could not possibly have wanted.
Riot police will guard the event. Rival demonstrators will make their stand. Boycotts, diplomatic incidents and mutually recriminating outrage swirl in the background.
How did a mild-mannered book festival become the focus of such impassioned attention? It began with the decision by organizers to honor Israeli writers at this year’s fair, which coincides with the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Jewish state.
That unleashed cries of protest from a number of Arab and Italian intellectuals and left-wing activists, who charged that celebrating Israeli letters ignores the plight of the Palestinians.
Sponsors of the 21-year-old fair, the second largest in Europe with more than 300,000 visitors last year, reacted angrily, saying that their motives were being misconstrued. They received the backing of several Italian leaders, including President Giorgio Napolitano, a former communist, who will inaugurate the five-day exposition featuring traders, writers and more than 1,400 publishers from all over the world.
Dario Fo, the Italian Nobel laureate in literature, joined the fray Wednesday. He said he will not obey a boycott that some anti-Israel groups have called. But instead of reading from his new book, “The Apocalypse Postponed,” he plans to use his appearance to talk about the Palestinian cause.
“Many have chosen to forfeit the fair, but I think it is necessary to attend and to raise a taboo theme: Palestine,” Fo told the leading daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.
He said the fair should be dedicated “to two peoples, the Israeli and the Palestinian, united at least this once, under the auspices of the best of their intellectuals.”
A similar controversy clouded the March book fair in Paris, which also honored Israeli writers. Among the Israeli participants there, and the invitees in Turin, were David Grossman, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and Aharon Appelfeld -- some of whom have been quite critical of their government’s policies.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators burned a couple of Israeli flags in a Turin piazza last week and held a two-day “seminar” at the University of Turin dedicated to what they termed the Israeli government’s abuse of Palestinians.
The vociferous Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan, in Turin to galvanize protests against the fair, said it was a political event in cultural trappings that only boosted Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territories. He was especially critical of Napolitano for lending his support to the fair.
The president hit back.
“Criticism of the Israeli government’s policies is entirely legitimate, particularly its actions within Israel,” Napolitano said in a note released by his office. “What is not acceptable is any position that denies the legitimacy of the state of Israel . . . and its right to exist in peace and security.”
A group sympathetic to Israel wants to demonstrate outside the fair waving Israeli flags. A group sympathetic to the Palestinians wants to march through Turin on Saturday and may end up outside the fair. Hundreds of police officers will be on hand.
As it happens, the book imbroglio is taking place as a new, right-wing Italian government forms. Some of its key figures, who are members of a former fascist party, are eager to curry favor with Israel. They have jumped into the debate, fanning the flames as they go.
Israel’s ambassador to Italy, meanwhile, says he is not too worried about all the fuss. The proposed boycott and other protests are the work of “extremists,” Gideon Meir said.
The festival’s organizers are exasperated, noting the irony that a book fair is meant to broaden horizons, not build barriers.
Their feelings were perhaps captured in a front page editorial cartoon in Corriere della Sera that showed books forming a Star of David, each with the slogan, “Reading is Freedom.”