Out to support Israel

Italian bookseller and gay rights activist Angelo Pezzana talks about his longtime interest in Israeli affairs.

Book 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Book 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Despite rumblings to the contrary, Angelo Pezzana refuses to be pessimistic about the future of the printed word. “I’m not necessarily an optimist; who knows what will happen tomorrow?” he says, speaking on the telephone from his Turin home, “But like the spoon and the wheel, I think the book will remain forever.”
Pezzana, a guest of the 25th Jerusalem International Book Fair this month, will be speaking twice at the event. His first talk at the five-day fair will be “Il Futuro del Libro” (“The Future of the Book), a title perhaps suggestive of incipient gloom. This is not entirely unfounded; the book industry has been consumed by uncertainty over the last couple of years, the general economic downturn exacerbated – according to conventional wisdom – by the challenge of digital technology, drawing readers away from the book toward other, more transient forms of entertainment.
But Pezzana is in an excellent position to judge the health of the industry: Owner of Turin’s best-known bookshop, he cofounded the city’s international book fair, the Salone Internazionale del Libro di Torino. So when he says he does not necessarily consider the digital world a threat to the republic of letters, one ought to take notice.
“In Italy, for example, the industry relies on a core of strong readers,” he observes. “About 50 percent of the population are not readers. But even so, sales have continued to increase in recent years, even though one cannot not consider a book to be an essential for everyday life, like food or shelter.”
Or perhaps the book is an essential; Pezzana has an interesting theory about the enduring appeal of the book. “Reading is a unique, solitary pleasure. The truth is that one can try to invent a replacement, but the traditional mode will always remain... like sex, actually!” He laughs.
Pezzana argues that ultimately technology will complement rather than replace the book. “Of course the use of new tools will increase – for information, professional consultation...” He points out that in his work as a bookseller, new technology is an invaluable aid. “Still, to read a book for personal pleasure is one of those things that will never change; it is an integral part of our civilization.”
Born in 1940, literary culture has always been at the center of Pezzana’s life. Luxembourg Bookshop, which he founded in 1963, is the largest in Turin, with 40,000 volumes spread out over three floors. He was a friend of Primo Levi – and in fact introduced the late memoirist and novelist to Philip Roth, later instrumental in championing Levi’s works to an American audience. But books and the book world have also provided a secure base for Pezzana to nurture an impressively eclectic portfolio of associated interests: as a pioneering gay rights activist, politician, journalist, writer and lately as a prominent defender of Israel.
He is modest enough to suggest it all came about by chance. “I actually wanted to be a publisher,” he explains, casting his mind back half a century, “but it was too expensive. I didn’t have enough capital.
So I started off as a bookseller, intending to make enough money to establish myself as a publisher.”
In retrospect, one can discern from his experiences as a fledgling bookseller the beginnings of Pezzana’s first public role, as a gay rights activist. “You must remember that Italy in the 1960s was still a provincial country,” he says. “There was no right of abortion, no divorce. The social atmosphere was very heavy, and the influence of the Catholic Church was very strong. One did not talk about these things.”
This contrasted unfavorably with the democratic and liberal world of selling, talking about, living books; the social suppression, in practice if not in principle – Pezzana notes that homosexual conduct has never been officially outlawed in Italy – sat uneasily with him. “I reached the age of reason and I asked myself, why should I hide my sexuality?” IN 1970, Pezzana and other activists founded FUORI (“OUT”), the first gay liberation movement in Italy, and also edited a journal of the same name. The fledgling movement drew inspiration from across the Atlantic, where the recent Stonewall riots in the US had marked the first step in the gradual process of challenging institutionalized prejudice toward the gay community.
“The attitude in Italy was a form of quasi-fascism,” Pezzana recalls. “The only real possibility for a homosexual was a hidden life, the life of a B citizen.”
In 1972, he and his fellow activists at FUORI held the first homosexual demonstration in Italy, at the congress of sexology at San Remo, to challenge the psychiatric condemnation of homosexual conduct and the use of aversion therapy to “convert” homosexuals. Following this, FUORI formed an alliance with the Radical Party, and in 1976 Pezzana became the first openly gay member of the Italian parliament.
The Radical Party was concerned with instigating wholesale legislative reform and overturning the cultural hegemony of the Catholic Church, which dominated the political spectrum. Pezzana, while acknowledging his totemic position, did not wish to “make his homosexuality a profession.” So, even while continuing to campaign in an individual capacity for the rights of homosexuals – in 1977, he staged a one-man protest in Moscow in support of the Russian director Sergei Paradzanov, who had been imprisoned for being homosexual – he gradually eased himself from the political scene.
But the experience of political activity proved useful. By the early 1980s, Pezzana had started to engage with Israeli affairs. “I was already writing as a journalist, and it was impossible to ignore that public information was full of bias against Israel.”
The Radical Party had been among the first organized groups in Italy to engage positively with Israel – Pezzana cites its support of the refuseniks of the former Soviet Union as an example. “I was able to draw on my experiences in the gay liberation movement to establish pro-Israel groups in Italy.”
Today, Pezzana contributes op-eds to the Milan newspaper Libero, and is editor- in-chief of the influential website informazionecorretta.com, a daily newsletter that monitors reporting in the Italian media about Israel and the Middle East.
While Pezzana emphasizes that attitudes toward Italy’s Jewish population are generally “very good,” he sets this against what he sees as a generally hostile attitude toward Israel and Zionism.
He himself has been at the receiving end of this antipathy; in 1988, the Luxembourg Bookshop was firebombed by anti-Israel activists, following a week of demonstrations.
“Opposition to Israel’s supporters is almost traditional in certain circles,” he explains wearily.
Pezzana acknowledges that the attitude of the current center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi (“whatever else you may say about it”) toward Israel is on the whole positive. But he fears that the innate conservatism of the Catholic Church and what he describes as an institutional hostility toward Israel remains in place, strengthened by what he terms as the “Eurabization” of Europe, an issue that has increasingly engaged him in recent years.
“Catholicism is not a modern religion – and neither is Islam,” Pezzana asserts. “We need them to learn from our lifestyles, from our civilization – but their religion is a political ideology.”
Aside from bookselling and campaigning, Pezzana has also written a number of well received books. Dentro & Fuori (“Inside and Out – A Homosexual Autobiography”), published in 1995, intertwines his personal biography with the history of the gay liberation movement in Italy. Published in 2008, Quest’anno a Gerusalamme (“This Year in Jerusalem”) explores the subject of aliya through interviews with a range of former Italians who immigrated to Israel.
“There are many explanations, obviously,” he notes. “Some obviously do so for religious reasons, to live a fully Jewish life.”
Others do so out of a belief in Zionism. “They see themselves like the pioneers, exchanging a normal, even a comfortable life to help reestablish the state.”
Pezzana has also edited an anthology of homosexual humor. The subject matter strikes one as perhaps paradoxical, given the battles that homosexuals have fought – and continue to fight – for mainstream acceptance in Italy.
Pezzana acknowledges the point. “They are jokes, but also stories imbued with irony,” he explains. “I learned about irony from reading Freud. Freud wrote about it, exploring jokes from a psychoanalytical perspective. Editing the anthology taught me to understand gay jokes, to interpret them but with irony, to appreciate how and why gay people laugh at themselves. Like with Jews, humor comes from personal experience. I think that humor must always play a big part in our lives – without it, we lose our intelligence.”