Italian President Defends Turin Book Fair Honoring Israeli Writers

Arab, Italian intellectuals called for boycott of fair, saying it's meant to celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary.

Italy's president on Monday defended his decision to open a book fair in Turin honoring Israeli writers, despite calls for a boycott by some Arab and Italian intellectuals angered by the event.

President Giorgio Napolitano's planned appearance at Thursday's inauguration of the fair is in line with his participation in many cultural events, his office said in a statement.

Controversy has been brewing for months over the event, mirroring similar protests against the Paris Book Fair in March, which also showcased works by Israelis.

Italy's presidency was reacting mainly to the Italian media quoting Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan as saying Monday that Napolitano's plan to open the Turin fair is a mistake.

"His presence shows that this is a political event, and not only a cultural event," the ANSA news agency quoted Ramadan as saying at a news conference in Turin.

Ramadan also accused Napolitano of labeling as anti-Semites all those who criticize Israel, ANSA reported.

The presidency's statement rejected as false Ramadan's assertion.

"Criticizing Israel's policies is completely legitimate, it said. What is unacceptable is any position that denies the legitimacy of the state of Israel... and its right to exist in peace and security."

Ramadan, a Swiss academic, was in Turin to participate in a series of protests against the fair. Opponents plan to demonstrate on Saturday in the streets of the northern Italian city, contending that the fair is a political event that celebrates Israel's 60th anniversary.

Organizers have said the fair invites a different country each year and the move was merely intended to honor the nation's writers, many of whom have been critical of their government's policies. The organizers also said that invitations to noted critics of Israel, including Ramadan, had been turned down.

The fair runs through May 12, featuring book presentations and debates with top Israeli writers, including A.B. Yehoshua and Aharon Appelfeld.