Maya Sela
February 24, 2011 - 1:00am

Celebrated Italian novelist Umberto Eco yesterday challenged those who advocate cultural boycotts and said that censuring artists because of actions committed by their governments was akin to racism.

Last week, British writers called on prominent British novelist Ian McEwan to reject an Israeli literary prize in protest at Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

McEwan, whose 11 novels include "Atonement" and "Amsterdam," accepted the prestigious Jerusalem Prize at the opening ceremony of the book fair earlier this week. His acceptance speech was peppered with tough criticism of Israeli policy toward Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Eco told reporters that unlike McEwan, he faced no pressure from colleagues to stay away from the Israeli book fair and that he opposes boycotts. "I consider it absolutely crazy and fundamentally racist to identify a scholar, a private citizen, with the politics of his government," Eco said.

Asked about his opinion of the Israeli government, Eco would only comment that he has too much to say against the Italian government to speak about the Israeli government.

Eco, 79, the author of "The Name of the Rose" and "Foucault's Pendulum," is one of Italy's most popular novelists. His most recent historical novel, "The Cemetery of Prague," has attracted criticism from both the Vatican and the chief rabbi of Rome, for what some argued was an overly convincing presentation of the arguments of modern anti-Semitism - though the author clearly had the opposite intention.

At the press conference, Eco said he had a very Talmudic mind and once even suspected he was of Jewish heritage, since his grandfather was adopted, although his grandmother was Christian, which by Jewish religious law makes him a Christian. He said his fascination with Jewish culture is evident in his books, and when asked to name his favorite Israeli authors, he said he particularly enjoys reading A.B. Yehoshua.

Even before becoming acquainted with Israeli literature, Eco said, he had ties to the country. In this connection, he mentioned his relationship with Professor Moshe Idel, whom Eco described as "my personal kabbalist."


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