Novelist Umberto Eco opposes boycotts of Israel

Renowned Italian writer Umberto Eco said at an Israeli book fair Wednesday that boycotting scholars for their governments' policies is akin to racism.

It was his response to British writers who called on prominent British novelist Ian McEwan to reject an Israeli literary prize this week as a way of protesting Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

McEwan, who wrote the celebrated 2001 novel "Atonement," accepted the Jerusalem Prize at the book fair's opening ceremony earlier this week but peppered his acceptance speech with tough criticism of Israeli policies 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 he does not support boycotts.

"I consider it absolutely crazy" and "fundamentally racist to identify a scholar, a private citizen, with the politics of his government," Eco said.

Eco, 79, is the author of best-selling books including "The Name of the Rose" and "Foucault's Pendulum." He is one of Italy's most widely read novelists.

Eco has stirred controversy in the past. The Chief Rabbi of Rome criticized his latest book, "The Cemetery of Prague," a work of historical fiction about a 19th century document forger who writes the fake, anti-Semitic tract "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." The Chief Rabbi said the book could ignite anti-Semitism among readers.

Eco countered that the fictional character is purposely depicted in a negative light.

The author said he has a "very Talmudic mind" and once suspected he was of Jewish heritage. He said his fascination with Jewish culture is evident in his books.

Gingerly answering questions about his opinion of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, Eco joked, "I have so much to say against the Italian government that I have no time to speak about the Israeli government."

Still, Eco acknowledged the political complexities of the city he is visiting. Jerusalem is "obliged to be the city of three religions" and "the grandeur of Jerusalem is also ... its problem," he said.

"Jerusalem is not yours," Eco told the local audience. "It's something that belongs to mankind."