Looting books from Palestinian libraries

Dark stories

IN THE dark rooftop viewing space of the Khalil Al Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah, the air was heavy with sighs. Occasionally the faint sound of a whimper could be heard. The screen flickered with images of Palestinians forced out of their homes in the 1948 war. On camera, refugees recounted their ordeals and lamented the loss of something precious: their books.

This was the Ramallah debut of “The Great Book Robbery“, a 2012 documentary about the looting of some 70,000 books from private Palestinian libraries during the 1948 war. It vividly chronicles the large-scale cultural pillage and dispossession of Palestinian literary archives. Directed by Benny Brunner, a Dutch-Israeli immigrant and self-described former Zionist, the film left the 40 or so attendees in awe. Adding to the poignance, the audience was gathered in a centre named for a famous Palestinian poet and scholar whose own book collection had been looted.

“Farewell, my books! How much midnight oil did I burn with you…” Al Sakakini wrote these words shortly after Jewish soldiers swept through Jerusalem’s affluent Arab neighbourhoods of Qatamon, Musrara and Baq’a, “collecting” 30,000 books, newspapers and documents. The haul included works of immeasurable historical or religious significance, such as hand-written copies of the Koran and Hadith, emblazoned with gold leaf. Some 40,000 other books were seized from abandoned homes in urban centres such as Nazareth, Jaffa and Haifa. In writing, Al Sakakini wonders if his treasured possessions were looted or burnt. “Were you transferred, with due respect, to a private or public library?” he asks, or “did you find your way to the grocer, your pages wrapping onions?”

The theft took place largely unnoticed amidst the tragedy and chaos of the war. Ilan Pappé, an Israeli historian who features prominently in the documentary, says the looters were either individual thieves who took their spoils home, or official operatives who took the books to Israel’s National Library, where at least 6,000 of remain today. Many of the books were recycled as paper; others were marked “AP” for abandoned property. Part of the tragedy, the documentary reveals, is that Palestinian prisoners were forced to pillage books from each other’s homes. In one especially moving scene a Palestinian named Mohammad Batrawi recalled being forced to loot his own home. “The appropriation…of the spiritual essence of the Palestinians is…no different than the appropriation of the land,” observes Mr Pappé. The film ends with Batrawi calling for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The documentary showcases a vibrant pre-1948 Middle East: one where Haifa had a rail link to Cairo and Damascus, and the Palestinian cultural scene was abuzz with literary cafes, cinemas and theatres. In lieu of tests or graded assignments, students and teachers discussed politics and philosophy under trees. It is this storied legacy of Arab culture and intelligentsia that “The Great Book Robbery” pays tribute to.


an excerpt from
Overdue Books: Returning Palestine’s “Abandoned Property” of 1948
Hannah Mermelstein, The Jerusalem Quarterly, 2011, #47

For approximately the past hundred years, the Zionist movement has been engaged in an intense process of nation building in the land of historic Palestine. The problem, from the Zionist perspective, was the existence of a predominantly non-Jewish Palestinian population in the very area slated to become a Jewish state. The solution, from the Zionist perspective, was the disappearance of the Palestinian people.

For more than sixty years, the attempt to disappear Palestine has taken three primary forms: the physical destruction of Palestinian property and expulsion of people from their homes, the legally enshrined discrimination against Palestinian people both inside and outside Palestine, and the ongoing process of cultural genocide that threatens Palestinian identity at its core. These processes are inherently intertwined, but the first two are often given more attention than the last. This study will briefly touch upon physical destruction and legal discrimination to provide a framework for understanding the primary topic of the study: an example of the ongoing process of cultural theft and destruction.

In 1948, much of the wealthy and formally educated Palestinian population was concentrated in Jerusalem and other urban centers. When Zionist militias swept through these neighborhoods, they physically pushed thousands of people from their homes and caused tens of thousands more to flee in fear. Many Palestinians left in haste, grabbing only what they could carry as they ran. Others thought they would return a few weeks later, once the fighting died down. In many cases, members of the educated class left behind some of their most prized possessions: books.

The soldiers raiding these West Jerusalem neighborhoods were closely followed by teams of librarians from the Jewish National and University Library at Hebrew University (later referred to as National Jewish Library or simply the National Library). They gathered approximately 30,000 books from private Palestinian libraries and, according to testimonies from those involved in the project, began to catalog books by subject and often by owners’ names. In the early 1960s, however, close to 6,000 of the books were revisited and labeled with the letters “AP” for “abandoned property”.2 The library catalog shows no information on provenance, or former ownership. If that information had formerly been recorded, it seems to have been erased or at least carefully concealed.

To this day, the books’ call numbers begin with the letters “AP.” The National Library has thus maintained a likely unintentional collection of looted Palestinian books, easily identifiable to those who understand what “AP” means. It remains unclear why certain books were labeled “AP” and others were not. Indeed, the remainder of the 30,000 plundered books, which were embedded into the library’s general catalog and are also still housed there, are much more difficult to identify.

see the full article:  http://www.jerusalemquarterly.org/ViewArticle.aspx?id=386

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s