By: Joseph Dana
Jerusalem’s National Library is housed in a surprisingly modest building considering its provenance. From pre-state beginnings in the 1920s, the library has grown to hold the largest collection of Hebraica and Judaica in the world. Its microfilm department is rumoured to have copies of 95 per cent of the known documents relating to the Jewish People.
When access to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus was cut following the 1948 war, the National Library found a new home on the university’s Givat Ram campus in West Jerusalem, just a stone’s throw away from the Israeli parliament. The campus is tucked neatly into a soft bluff surrounded by gardens and jogging paths. It is a rare slice of tranquillity in an otherwise frantic city.
These days, the library is the regular hangout for a small coterie of academics and students. This even includes Ultra-Orthodox men, who have likely come to the library secretly to pursue study in topics considered unsavoury by their very strictly insular communities. The coffee is bad and the librarians don’t go out of their way to help lost researchers. Yet, with a bit of skill and a little luck, you can essentially find any document in the world relating to the Jews. The unity that only a love of books can instil flows freely in the stuffy air of the reading room.
But there is a darker history to this space of intellectual pursuit. Hidden deep in the poorly lit and increasingly mouldy corridors of the library are thousands of books owned by Palestinians and looted in 1948 by Israeli soldiers. The story of these books, untold until now, is the latest piece of an increasingly complex and frank discussion about the events that created Israel and dispossessed the Palestinians in 1948.
Due to the exhaustive work of Israeli historians like Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe, dubbed The New Historians for their groundbreaking research into the formation of Israel, we know that Israeli forces began creating the boundaries of the newly forming Israeli state well before 1948, the year in which the United Nations recognized Israel. Both Pappe and Morris have shown through Israeli state documents that a plan, known as Plan Dalet, was initiated to carve out borders by the Israeli high leadership and the nascent forces, which became the Israeli military.
Morris has gone so far to say that Plan Dalet gave regional commanders carte blanche to occupy or destroy Arab villages but he doesn’t believe the plan was a blueprint for wholesale ethnic cleansing.
They believed that the UN would grant them statehood and therefore found it necessary to create defensible positions with the least amount of Palestinians as possible. This meant the removal of inhabitants of certain Palestinian villages, towns and cities. Deir Yassin, a small village near Jerusalem which is now home to an Israeli psychiatric facility, is a perfect example of this plan in action.
Israeli forces entered Deir Yassin informing Palestinian villagers in Arabic that they must leave the village for the eastern part of Jerusalem. Through a series of mis-communications, the historical merit of which remains debated, Israeli forces opened fire on the village killing between tens and hundreds. The official number is a matter of great controversy, like many facts about 1948.
Deir Yassin was an extremely violent example of the trend of Israeli removal of Palestinians from their historic homeland. The exact circumstances are still debated but the majority of historians believe that roughly 700,000 fled or were forcibly expelled in 1948. Palestine was lost along with untold amounts of personal wealth, property and books.
Until now, the debate about the Nakba has centred on the loss of land, but a new group of journalists and intellectuals are looking deeper into the destruction of the Palestinian cultural and urban environment. The latest addition to the debate is a documentary film by Israeli-Dutch director Benny Brunner called The Great Book Robbery.
The era immediately preceding the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 is regarded by many Palestinians as the height of their cultural and intellectual prowess. Through rail links created by the British, Palestine was connected to Beirut, Cairo and Damascus. Information flowed freely and given the increasing wealth of Palestinians, private libraries flourished. But what happened to these books in 1948?
This question has, until now, been strangely absent in the annals of mainstream discussion about the Nakba. Brunner, a self-avowed veteran leftist, who has been working on the issue of the Nakba for a large chunk of his career, had never thought of it until a chance encounter. About six years ago, Brunner came across an article in an old Israeli literature journal written by a PhD student. The student detailed how Palestinian books were looted by Israeli soldiers in 1948 and handed over to the Hebrew University and ultimately the National Library.
“The story was the missing link in the narrative of the Nakba,” Brunner told me. “Most of the literature is about the refugees and the villages but nobody has really looked at the cultural destruction of Palestine.”
The story Brunner uncovered is an intricate one. In the course of the 1948 war, Israeli soldiers entered freshly abandoned Palestinians villages, towns and neighbourhoods and found a strange stillness. Homes which were so recently full of life stood empty with nothing but physical possessions. At first, the furniture, musical instruments and even the water pipes were taken by the state in a programme of mass looting. Palestinian wealth was taken as well, as Israel emptied the natives of historic Palestine of every worldly possession they held. In the course of the looting, soldiers quickly realised that houses were not just full of furniture but books as well.
Given the fluidity of the situation, a spontaneous intelligence alliance was established between Israeli soldiers and the Hebrew University to transfer the books to the National Library. According to official Israeli state documents, uncovered by Brunner in the film, many books were simply lost in the haze of war, never to be returned to their owners.
Between April 1948 and February 1949, librarians from the National Library rounded up more than 30,000 books from abandoned Palestinian houses in West Jerusalem. According to the film, the collection was a joint operation between the Hebrew University and the Israeli army. All of the collected books were transferred to the National Library at the Givat Ram campus and given special index coding. Each of the books were assigned the letters “AP” for “Abandoned Property” and placed in the bowels of the National Library. Today, only 6,000 remain.
The books that were found and transferred contained entire lives. Rasha Barghouti, the granddaughter of a Palestinian lawyer who lost his library in 1948, told the AFP: “He used to write a lot – his diaries, the history of Palestine, of Palestinian families, the Jordanian regime, the tribal law. He explained when you lose your furniture, household items, you can replace them. But with his books, it was really as if he lost the woman he loved most in his life.”
The aftermath of the book looting is perhaps the intriguing plotline of the film. Uri Palit, a former librarian at the National Library who became involved in the cataloguing process in 1963, forcefully articulates the Israeli position. The books were a temporary deposit to be used for research until they were returned, Palit tells the camera. The books were kept separate from the main collection at the National Library and by all accounts have been cared for to the highest levels. Yet, the issue at the heart of the film is why Israel still holds on to these books.
Implicit in the film’s argument is the demonstration of a form of Israeli Orientalism. Gish Amit, an Israeli PhD student who has been researching the books and appears in the film, recently told the AFP: “They said we are saving these books, but at the same time they said we want these books, we need these books, we will look after them better than the Palestinians … so it has a lot to do with colonial attitudes.”
More than 60 years on and the books remain at the National Library and the probability of return grows slimmer by the day. According to the Israeli Ministry of Justice, the books are considered to be abandoned property and thus the rightful owners need to simply prove ownership. Some Palestinians, including Barghouti, have pointed out that many of the books have carefully selected inscriptions inside the front cover clearly indicating ownership, but this has not changed Israeli minds.
Israel’s insistence on retaining the books hasn’t stopped Palestinian-Israeli politicians such as parliamentarian Jamal Zahalka from requesting the transfer of the entire collection to Palestinian hands in Ramallah. So far, all requests have been denied. Like most issues connected to the Nakba, Israel has demonstrated a general reticence to resolve them or even to openly discuss them.
When I contacted the National Library for an interview about the books and to view them, they failed to respond to repeated requests.
Benny Brunner has been working on the issue of the Nakba since the 1980s. After reading Morris’s work on Palestinian refugees he set out to make a film bringing the material to life. Al-Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe 1948 was released in 1996. In Israel, there exists a small intellectual space where research and discussion of the Nakba remains strong. Academics and civil society groups continue to focus on the historical unpacking of the issues at a time when the Israeli parliament has debated banning public commemoration of the Nakba. Israeli Groups such as Zochrot – which means remembering in Hebrew – have collected large amounts of research about Palestinian villages and towns which have been destroyed. Most of Israeli society, however, has suppressed and radicalised all conversation of the Nakba.
“The Nakba is a major event that shaped the lives of everyone who lived in Palestine in the late 1940s and has continued to affect the lives of those people’s descendants,” Former Bar Ilan professor Ariella Azoulay, now at Brown University, told me. “The repression and disavowal of the Nakba by Israeli Jews is a denial of a constitutive element of their experience. Israeli academia took part in this denial and the work of the New Historians and other post-Zionist scholars is just the beginning of an attempt to overcome a series of political-epistemic obstacles that have made us blind to the conditions of our own existence as Israeli Jews, let alone to the conditions of our Palestinian fellows.”
Brunner’s film is a part of the unfolding drama of Nakba research. To his surprise, the film was warmly welcomed in Israel and Palestine. “The impact on the younger generation has been enormous. During the screenings in East and West Jerusalem, younger people were moved by a thirst for knowledge of what was here before 1948,” he said.
The film took more than five years to complete and, given its warm reaction, Brunner is currently raising money to create a series of moveable art installations. He plans to create a replica of the bookshelves in the National Library that can hold 70,000 books. The bookshelves would tour around the world, along with the film, to raise awareness of the destruction of culture during the Nakba. There is also talk of replicating five of the stolen books and selling them internationally.
According to Brunner, Palestinians should find renewed strength to explore, recreate and engage with their cultural and urban history before 1948. In Ramallah, initiatives, independent of the film are already under way. Last autumn, one of the first conferences on Palestinian urbanism and urban history was held in Ramallah as part of the Qalandiya International festival, featuring speakers from across the world. Palestine’s rich urban historical mosaic was debated.
“The tragedy of Palestinians losing their urban centres is that many were forced to the margins of other people’s urban centres as refugees,” Brunner said.
Despite the success of Brunner’s film and the renewed interest in the historiography of 1948, an inclusive picture of Palestine before the state of Israel remains elusive. Recent surveys of primary school textbooks on both sides have found large gaps in historical accuracy. But the tone is slightly different in Israel. Adi Ophir, a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University, has argued along with Ariella Azoulay that the debate about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands in 1967 serves as a “Freud Trauma Concept” which distances Israeli society from dealing with the Nakba issue.
I asked Ophir to elaborate on the concept in 2011. “Trauma, for Freud, is the association of a first violent event that is imprinted in the psyche but remains unarticulated and incomprehensible, and a later event that is interpreted retrospectively as a repetition of the first. In this structure of experience it is the latter event which endows the former event with its meaning. The Palestinian experience of the Nakba was not structured in this way; the event was understood and experienced from the beginning for what it was – a national disaster – and no repetition has been involved in its conceptualisation.”
But Brunner believes that more attention needs to be placed on the cultural and urban destruction of Palestine in 1948 to undermine Israeli historiography. Not enough attention is placed on the urbanism of pre-Israeli Palestinian cities. Further research would demonstrate how untrue the axiom, “a land without a people for a people without a land”, really is.
The Great Book Robbery is a film about the slow strangulation of a culture and the subsequent cultural isolation of those Palestinians that remained in the state of Israel. In the most touching scenes of the film, a young Palestinian intellectual in Haifa describes his isolation in Israeli society and the greater Middle East. Given his Israeli citizenship, he is not allowed to travel to Beirut or Damascus to refresh his cultural connections to the region.
Unlike an Israeli who can find a stimulating and rich Hebrew climate in Tel Aviv, Palestinian citizens of Israel are cut off, isolated, as if living on an island in a sea of their own people. The books, which collect dust in the basement of Israel’s National Library, are another source of cultural cohesion denied to Palestinians.
The books are like the Hebrew cafes of Tel Aviv for Israelis – they are the places from which the intellectual can find substance for future growth. The books are important roots that connect Palestinians to their land through shared history and knowledge accumulated over centuries. It is no wonder that Israel won’t part with them. The books, like all traces of Palestinian existence and culture serve as permanent reminders of the process by which the inhabitants of historic Palestine were removed from the land to allow for the creation of the state of Israel.