In the News

From the Fair to the Frontier: The Turin Book Fair and the Changing European Position Towards Israel

May 21, 2008
Piero Maestri, Alternative Information Center (AIC): The Turin Book Fair is over, luckily without any “victims” on the field of battle. Maybe the term “victims” is overdone, perhaps even tasteless considering that there are real victims—men and women—every day in Palestine/Israel.

Piero Maestri, Alternative Information Center (AIC): The Turin Book Fair is over, luckily without any “victims” on the field of battle. Maybe the term “victims” is overdone, perhaps even tasteless considering that there are real victims—men and women—every day in Palestine/Israel. Still, maybe not too far off the mark if one thinks of the ruckus raised by the newspapers and politicians on the Right, Left, and Center in the days leading up to the demonstration protesting the book fair and its honoring of Israel, something that bore a certain resemblance to the days before the anti-G8 protests in Genoa: once again there was talk of a “red zone,” the danger of violence, and it was in just those days that the new Berlusconi government was born.

A victim there was though, at least metaphorically speaking: the sense of proportion. Clearly the one who most widely overshot the mark was the newly named President of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini, who went so far as to consider the protest demonstrations and the burning of a couple of Israeli flags to be worse than the killing of Nicola in Verona by a pack of Neo-Nazis.

However, albeit on quite a different level, we found the headline in the Communist Refoundation Party newspaper Liberazione of 8 May inappropriate with its reference to “the risk of opposite extremisms,” harking back to the Christian-Democrat theory from the 1970s, which already then was wrong-headed and provocateur.

The series of demonstrations during the fair marked an interesting and important moment: if we, at least, can just get beyond the aesthetics—futile even if given too much importance by protagonists and onlookers alike—of the flag burning and the generic ringing in of the resistance, we may realize that the 10 May march, and especially the meetings during the previous days, allowed for a fruitful encounter among different and differing positions and points of view held by Italians, Palestinians, and Israelis.

To be in the demonstration was especially important for Palestinians who live in Italy, as it was a unique moment to show their solidarity and their struggle for their land.

To have chosen which side we were on—not prejudiciously, but in the specific context of the permanent occupation and colonizing of the Palestinian territories by Israel—was necessary to be able to forcibly denounce what is going on in Palestine, how the fair has sought to misrepresent reality, and to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who struggle for a different prospect, both Palestinians and Israelis (a far cry from the hypocritical, complicit “equi-closeness policy” called for by Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Massimo D’Alema).

The Book Fair was not and was not intended to be a neutral place, nor a place of reflection, but the celebration of an event. The organizers of the fair and the Israeli guests (especially the Israeli Minister of Culture, who made sure it was an invitation to a celebration) saw to it that it was a celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the birth of Israel, with the a priori exclusion of the voice of any Palestinian or truly critical Israeli intellectual (because the much celebrated Amos Oz and A.B. Yeoshua could not be thought of as such—they, who accused the Palestinians of having destroyed any chance for peace by demanding “justice”; they who have justified the Wall in the name of a necessary “separation”—as if Palestinians did not live in Israel, albeit as second-rate citizens).

What was planned in Turin was not an encounter of cultures but a definitive normalization of relations with the Israeli state as it is. This must move us to reflect more deeply on the whole affair and what it has represented. During those days, I happened to discuss at length with a “1948 Palestinian” comrade, and she asked me why even (or indeed above all) leftist journalists and political figures were so favorable to Israel’s “reasons.” I believe that Yitzhak Laor gave the best answer to this in his open letter published in Il Manifesto on 9 May, in which he wrote that “it is not the occupation that has changed its nature. It is Western Europe that has changed, turning back to its old way of looking at non-Europeans with hatred and contempt. In the imagination of the Italian Left, the Palestinians have lost the symbolic “status” they once enjoyed (for instance, thousands of young Italians used to sport a kefiah) and have passed into the European hinterland, where the Americans can do whatever they want, and, as usual, Europe avidly sides with the strongest. Europe is expanding so far as to include Israel, seen as an “island of democracy and human rights.” We must not forget that the Italian Left has never gone through a post-colonial process. It mouthed anti-colonialist rhetoric from the 1970s all the way down to the present colonial anguishing over the plight of “our Jewish brothers down there in the jungle, in the midst of savages.” “Mamma, the Turks are coming!”

This is what Michael Warshawski meant when he maintained that what is being built inside Palestine is just part of a “global apartheid wall.” So the question which side are we on takes on a more precise focus: we today find ourselves living in the part of the world that builds these walls, on the side of governments and exponents of Western “culture” who promote and justify walls, exclusion, war. Our task—of course: Work daily to denounce the Israeli occupation and European complicity with it—is similar to what Warshawski described in his important book On the Border, in which he tells of the experiences of his group of militant Israeli anti-Zionists: “The acknowledgment of the other, the non-Jew, as a possible victim represents the first break with the Zionist narrative; another may be the admission that he might be our victim. On that condition, there can then be achieved a distancing from the tribe, the national collectivity, and an approach to the frontier that separates our tribe from the rest of mankind. The acknowledgment takes the name of solidarity when it becomes willing to sustain the other in the conflict with one’s own national collectivity. […] Solidarity is, by definition, a ‘frontier’ attitude.”

This is the side to be on, this is where to place oneself, today in Europe and in Italy, in the face of global apartheid (and its wars).

However one may feel about the boycott campaign, it has opened a space for discourse, although that space was rejected by the choice of how to organize the celebration of the Fair: many different points of view have taken position in this space, joining in the search for something more than a generic dialogue, a possible on the frontier relationship.

Piero Maestri is a member of the Sinistra Critica (Critical Left) Italian political movement and a writer for the magazine Guerre&Pace.

May 21, 2008


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