Israel's Peres opens Paris book fair

March 13, 2008 12:48:42 PM PDT
Opening the Paris Book Fair sounds like an innocent cultural stop on Israeli President Shimon Peres' state visit to France. Instead, it is charged with Mideast tensions.

Several Arab countries are boycotting the prestigious annual fair, where Peres was speaking Thursday, because it honors Israeli writers.

The Nobel laureate's appearance at the book fair comes near the end of his five-day state visit to France - a sign of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's effort to rebuild frayed ties with Israel.

Sarkozy's spokesman called for calm. "It is not books that we should fear," David Martinon said Thursday at a news conference.

The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization urged its 50 member nations to boycott the fair, saying Israel should not be honored at a time of "siege" against the Palestinian people.

Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia were among those heeding the boycott call, though some writers, publishers and booksellers from those countries were expected to attend, according to fair organizer Serge Eyrolles.

Peres said earlier this week that anyone who would boycott the literary event "is punishing himself."

Each year the international fair puts the spotlight on one country. This year it is inviting 39 writers from Israel, including David Grossman, Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua and Aharon Appelfeld. A similar controversy is brewing about the May book fair in Turin, Italy, which is also highlighting Israeli works.

"It's sad and a shame. ... We're not talking about Kalashnikovs here. We're talking about books, the language, words," said Martine Heissler, referring to the Russian-made rifles.

Heissler, who was helping run a stand at the fair for Tribune Juive, a monthly for the French Jewish community, said the 39 Israeli writers being honored are mainly from the political left and support Palestinian statehood.

Security officers filled the streets and the exhibition hall on Paris' southern edge Thursday. The central Israeli stand, labeled with a black tree whose leaves consisted of Hebrew lettering, stood next to Germany's stand, and near those of Romania and Brittany.

The fair opens to the public Friday and runs through March 19.

Critics argued that it celebrates the 60th anniversary of Israel, though organizers said it was coincidence, and that Israel has asked to be honored for five years in a row but there was a waiting list.

As with the Middle East conflict, dissident voices have spoken out on both sides - Israeli writers who oppose the recognition of Israel at the fair, and Arabs who say the boycott is nonsense.