The Great Book Robbery [en]

Some 70,000 books were seized from homes left empty by Palestinians who fled in 1948. The books, some of which are now in Israel’s National Library, attest to an attempt at the destruction of an entire culture.

By Karina Goulordava

June 1948: Israeli soldiers advance in an affluent Arab neighborhood, now almost deserted, in western Jerusalem. The soldiers are followed by several librarians from the national library. Sporadic gunfire is heard. The men cling against the walls as they arrive in a street lined with empty, affluent houses, their occupants having left in haste. Breaking into house after house, the librarians “collect” entire libraries into boxes that are loaded onto trucks. Similar scenes are repeated throughout the Arab neighborhoods of western Jerusalem, and later on in Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth and elsewhere. In total, 70,000 Palestinian books were “collected” in this manner.

In 1948, after the Arab rejection of the UN partition resolution of November 1947, the new state of Israel used its military power to conquer as much land – initially designated for an Arab state –  as it could, and to cleanse the newly occupied territories of their Arabs inhabitants. At the time, the book plunder was a mere sideshow of the main events of the war. But seen through a wider historical perspective, the looting of the books, together with the destruction of Palestinian urban centers, constitute the destruction of an entire culture and an important outcome of the 1948 war.

Thousands of the books were recycled into paper while others were absorbed into the National Library of Israel’s general collection, making it impossible to trace them today. Some 6,000 of these books were eventually categorized as foreign and placed in the Eastern Studies Department of the National Library, although they are technically still owned by the Custodian of Absentee Property. The fate of these books is much like that of the Palestinian people: unlawfully removed from their homes, expelled and made foreign in their own land. Each book bears the label “AP” (abandoned property).

These books are the focal point of the multifaceted project, “The Great Book Robbery.” In 1997, Benny Brunner became the first director to produce a documentary unveiling the story of the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe” – the word used to describe the destruction and exile Palestinians experienced in 1948. Today, he is the first to make a documentary about the systematic looting of 70,000 Palestinian books during the war of 1948. Just as the Nakba became part of the international discourse on Palestine, the importance of Palestinian cultural preservation is also crucial to the discussion. In the film’s teaser, Nasser Eddin Nashashibi, one of the rightful owners of the books, describes what the loss meant to him. “I witnessed this with great…grief. A piece of poetry, a painting, a rare copy of the Koran, written by hand, decorated by gold. How could you bring these back?!”

Nashashibi’s personal inscriptions can still be found in a book that today sits on one of the cold, sterile shelves in the National Library. The digital library is a translation of the “collected” Palestinian books as they appear in the National Library online catalog. It documents 500 books with their titles, authors and owners’ names translated from Arabic into English. The ultimate goal is to list all 6,000 books, in an effort to acknowledge and record their true origins. Finally, the website serves as a space for information and discussion; its “Forum” offers a space for academics, librarians, students, journalists, filmmakers and others to share views on cultural preservation.

In 2006, PhD student Gish Amit was the first to discover documents attesting to the looting of the books. Amit researched the 6,000 AP books and their placement in the Eastern Studies Department of the National Library. Drawing on Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, Gish writes that these books were “orientalized,” forced into the constructed notion of the orient. This project aims to reveal not only the plunder that took place, but the true identity of the books. By exposing this narrative, the project reveals a new aspect of the Nakba.

In the summers of 2010 and 2011, I traveled to Palestine and Israel, hoping to learn about the conflict first hand. Driving through Israel, I saw the hidden village ruins that are remnants of the Nakba. Walking through Jaffa, I noticed buildings with arched windows, a sign of Arab architecture, now Israeli homes. Similar events repeated themselves in Jerusalem. However, having always focusing on the reoccupation of homes and the displacement of people, I hadn’t been aware of the looting of tens of thousands of books that took place here nor considered the importance of preserving Palestinian national culture in the face of Israel’s occupation. The Great Book Robbery attempts to do just that.

Karina Goulordava is the Communications Manager for The Great Book Robbery project, which directed by Benny Brunner. The film The Great Book Robbery is due to be released in May 2012. Aljazeera English Network will broadcast the film.