February 28, 2013

Vast library of books confiscated from Palestinians resides in basement of Israeli National Library


Israel’s National Library

An Agence France Presse story speaks to the lasting meaning of print books. According to the story, Israel confiscated all the books they could find in private Palestinian homes in Jerusalem and its suburbs during the 1948 war when the country was first established

Israel says it was just cataloging the books for Palestinians who fled the war; it planned to return them. “But,” as the AFP story notes, “for the Palestinians, it was theft.”

A Christian Science Monitor story about the report notes that,

Uri Palit, an Israeli involved with the cataloging process told the AFP, “We wrote the name of the owner in pencil on the books … because we wanted to return it someday when there is peace.”

However, the library requires any Palestinian descendants requesting the books back to provide proof of ownership. For many Palestinians, such proof was destroyed as they fled their Jerusalem homes nearly 60 years ago.

Gish Amit, an Israeli who came across the collection while looking for a PhD topic in the National Library, told the AFP, “The worst thing is the library’s refusal to acknowledge the injustice that was done to the Palestinians…. When I talked to the librarians there, they kept telling me that this was an act of rescue, even today. This I cannot accept.”

In the AFP report Amit says further that various documents show  Israeli researchers “considered these books to be very valuable, and they really wanted them.” He explains, “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.”

In all, the books in question total some 30,000 volumes, all currently in the basement of Israel’s National Library. Anyone trying to stake a claim to the books has to prove they owned them … circa 1948.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.