How Jewish and Palestinian cultural artifacts became Israeli property

A new book looks at the ways in which ancient religious manuscripts belonging to Yemenite Jews, as well as thousands of books owned by Palestinians and Holocaust survivors became part of Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem.

By Gish Amit (Translated by Shaked Spier)

The reading room in Israel's National Library in Jerusalem. (photo: Assaf Pinchuk/CC BY 3.0)
The reading room in Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem. (photo: Assaf Pinchuk/CC BY 3.0)

The book “Ex Libris: History of Robbery, Preservation, and Appropriation in the National Library in Jerusalem,” addresses three affairs that took place within the walls of the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem: the robbery of Yemenite Jews’ manuscripts, which migrated to Israel during the 1940’s and 50’s; the collection of many thousands of book owned by Palestinians, which became part of the library’s collection; and the political struggles surrounding the redistribution of books belonging to Holocaust victims after World War II.

I argue that these three events are deeply intertwined in the way they reveal the manner by which Zionism has separated between people and their culture and heritage as part of the formation of national identity. The book’s epilogue, which is published here, aspires to think about the relationship between literature and socio-political violence. By doing so, it paints a new portrait of the National Library: not a site of secluded history, which is permanently decided and determined, but rather a continuous present tangled up with its own past — a space of injustice that also enables processes such as reparation, recognition and forgiveness.

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Mary Douglas wrote that objects are always encoded signs of social meanings. As a site of power creation and identity formation, the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem isn’t a place of knowledge, which is chosen in a naïve manner and free from hidden agenda, but rather a plac, in which knowledge is created, organized and sorted along the lines of ethnic, class, and national categories; a space that transforms objects into an inseparable part of a social reality that provides them with value according to its standards and needs. The three affairs described in the book “Ex Libris” couldn’t have happened unless Zionism had portrayed itself as the voice of the secret wishes of individuals and their communities, under the ethos of denial of (Jewish) exile; unless individuals had been transformed into objects serving a nation in its constituting phase, a nation that has left its mark on individuals and communities while claiming to speak in their name and redeem their culture, while at the same time giving objects human, national, and social value.

These affairs are a testimony to the modern Jewish settlement in Palestine/Israel, along with the Hebrew culture that developed alongside it, are first and foremost a chapter in modern European history. In all three affairs, intellectuals and bureaucrats whom acted out of a commitment — complex as it was — to the Zionist project had taken the right of representation from those who could not speak up or were denied of representation in history. These three affairs were articulated and described in terms of rescue and salvation, and those who took part in them truly believed in the nobility of their cause. In all three affairs the National Library has acted as a shelter to histories, which were deliberately forgotten.

The colonial imagination played a central role in these affairs: the collection of Palestinian and Yemenite-Jewish manuscripts and books was based on an Orientalist perspective that holds that only he can speak (from a paternalistic position) in the name of the indigenous communities that he studies; he was influenced by a long history of colonial bureaucracy that used census, ethnographic research, cartography and the deciphering of indigenous culture to sort individuals; and he is led by the view according to which the European colonies will help the natives achieve a “civilized way of life.” However, the “Diaspora Treasures” project grew out of orientalism (among other things) as a centuries-old European — partly anti-Semitic discourse — as well as the wish of the intellectuals in Jerusalem to extricate themselves from being the object of orientalism. In order to finally be European, they had to leave Europe.

Yemenite Jews walking to a ‘reception camp’ near Aden, 1949. (Photo by Kluger Zoltan/Israel National Archive)
Yemenite Jews walking to a ‘reception camp’ near Aden, 1949. (Photo by Kluger Zoltan/Israel National Archive)

Nevertheless, the National Library isn’t a place of sealed history, but rather of a continuous present that is tangled up in its own past: vast research works in the past two decades have deconstructed the archive’s innocent image as the carrier of the past and its memory, uncovering its role in the creation of legislation and social order — in the regulation of the political relationship between memory and forgetfulness. According to Jacques Derrida, the word archive comes from the Greek word Arkhe, which combines two principles: a natural or historical one — physical, historical or ontological — as well as the principle of law; there were people and gods who ruled, there was authority, social orders were practiced by which order was set.

Procedures of collection, politics of storage, and policies of cataloging became the alpha and omega of anthropologists, historians, and sociologists, which — as Michel de Certeau invited them to do — searched for new locales in historical research, while redefining both the kind of knowledge that has created the archive as well as their own position in relation to it. The archive, the argument goes, isn’t documenting historical experience but first and foremost its absence, while constantly reminding us that the thing we have lost was never in our possession to begin with. It isn’t a source of concluded knowledge or the objective messenger of history, but rather it is subjective and divided; a place that documents injustice and enables us to investigate it; a place in which authority, knowledge, and domination are the other side of that collection of documents and certificates that paves the way to forgotten histories and can, one day, convict their owners.

Like the symptom — a formation of the unknown, a compromise between two opposite desires and “a truth taking form” — the material structure of the archive reveals what the tongue doesn’t always explicitly articulate. Therefore, it also bears the potential to pave the way for processes of coping, recognition, and reparation.

What relevance has, for example, the fact that the gathering of cultural and spiritual objects from Europe was accurately documented — that culminated in an archive within the National Library’s archive — while documents and certificates that relate to the other two affairs were (deliberately, it seems) arbitrarily scattered, and, in the case of the Yemenite Jews, even disappeared? What significance does it have that only the Palestinian books can be found in the library’s storerooms (since they were marked and grouped together), while the books and manuscripts of European, and to a certain extent Yemenite Jews, were dispersed among the holdings of the the Library’s without a trace?

Read: Yemenite Children Affair — Families of the kidnapped speak out

I believe that procedures of documentation, indexing, and storing enable us to investigate the events while at the same time ponder not only the similarities, but also the differences between the three affairs. They reveal foundations of embarrassment and doubt; they keep the actions, hopes, believes, embarrassments and decisions of the individuals that built and formed the archive under lock and key. They may tell us more thea the documents themselves can, while at the same time undermining the archive’s image as the absolute expression of sovereign power. Furthermore, these procedures indicate the quality and quasi-futuristic nature of the past, its open and undecided nature, and offer a new comprehension of the library as a vulnerable fragile space that carries the memory of disaster, that preserves the traces of disaster and its remains. It is not a site of secluded history, which is permanently decided and determined, but rather a site that subverts the concept of past and gives the past lively, unsealed dimensions; a space that isn’t a past, but rather, in Derrida’s words: “an answer, promise, and responsibility toward the future.”

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The “Diaspora Treasures” project was based, first and foremost, on a deep personal commitment. For the Hebrew University’s employees, the efforts to deposit the books and manuscripts in the hands of the National Library in Jerusalem were inseparable from the Jewish struggle for collective recognition as the sole proprietors of the cultural possessions that were robbed by the Nazis in the absence of a Jewish nation-state. Therefore, they served as the crucial means for the rescue of Jewish culture after the Holocaust. Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s words, as he articulated the Hebrew University’s task in face of National Socialism in 1934, echo in their actions:

“[…] And for such times we have one way here: to concentrate our lives, to rescue the surviving remnant, to rescue those who escape destruction, give them another chance to connect the Jewish brain, the Jewish experience, the Jewish instinct, and the Jewish feeling to concrete creations […] The Hebrew University should accept this role. That is, it has to set an example of the idea of the concentration and gathering in its field, but also to serve as a mentor for the entire nation […] Of all the ups and downs of our lives, now we can hear the voice of history that tells us: gather now! And woe unto those, who will not listen to this voice and will seek salvation in a new diaspora! […]”

The “Diaspora Treasures” project was an act of rescue and an antidote to the Nazi’s efforts to bring Jewish culture in Europe to extinction. However, the collection of the books in Jerusalem contains contradicting, dialectic elements: it was a testimony to the existence and prosperity of Jewish culture in diaspora, while at the same time a monument for its destruction; it was a counterweight to the Zionist movement’s tendency to deny the diasporic Jewish past, while at the same time constituted a part of the Zionist demand for exclusive ownership over the Jewish past; it was meant to remind us of victims who were violently separated from their culture, while at the same time taking part in the nationalization of the Holocaust by the State of Israel.

The other two affairs discussed in “Ex Libris” — the collection of entire Palestinian libraries during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the collection of the cultural and spiritual assets belonging to Yeminite Jews) were described by their perpetrators in terms of grace and salvation. The former was done under the assumption that the collection of cultural assets in circumstances of war and chaos will save them from loss; the latter followed the doctrine that viewed the return of Yemenite Jews to their homeland as both a physical and spiritual salvation — a salvation that threatened their cultural and spiritual assets with extinction, and therefore required they be placed in the hands of national institutions. In both cases, the concepts of rescue and salvation were not without entirely baseless, since the collection of cultural assets apparently prevented their loss and allowed a broad audience to access to them.

"Palestinian-owned books at Israel's National Library, marked 'AP' for 'abandoned property. (Screenshot from 'The Great Book Robbery')
“Palestinian-owned books at Israel’s National Library, marked ‘AP’ for ‘abandoned property. (Screenshot from ‘The Great Book Robbery’)

Nevertheless in both cases the practices of collection and appropriation were based on Eurocentric and orientalist views — both Palestinians and Yemenite Jews were viewed as unable to fully grasp the value and significance of their own cultural assets. Another important difference between the “Diaspora Treasures” project and the collection of Palestinian and Yemenite Jews’ cultural assets is the presence, even if banished and denied,of the assets’ rightful owners. The fact that for over 60 years no effort was made to return the Palestinian books to their rightful owners or legal successors; the continuous denial of the injustices perpetrated against Yemenite Jews; the refusal to become accustomed to individuals’ right to posses the cultural assets that they themselves created and owned; and the fact that in both cases the books were not remnants of the past, but rather part of the contemporary life — all these, in their refusal to confront what happened, turn these two affairs into acts of injustice.

The three affairs were also part of a continuous process of constructing and adopting an imaginary identity — one that is bound to contradictory processes of the internalization and rejection of Christian orientalist discourse. As other scholars have noted, Jews were almost always present when Westerners spoke of “the East” and reacted to the anti-Semitic orientalism in three major ways: rejecting themselves as being the objects of orientalism; idealization and romanticization of the Orient and of themselves as its representatives; as well as the image of traditional and ultra-Orthodox Jews as “oriental” in contrast to their own self-representation as “Western.”

Each of the affairs was meant to establish the identity of Jerusalem intellectuals as Western, while helping them escape the embarrassment they experienced as a result of the images of the European Christianity and Orientalism. The embarrassment, however, refused to fade away. The longing for Europe has both made clear and reinforced the distance from Europe, while turning Westernization is a self-defeating, Sisyphean task. In other words, all three affairs not only grew out of the proximity between Zionism, the West and Western Colonialism, but also out of the passion to lend the Hebrew University a Western image, thus presenting its leaders as part of the European Enlightenment project.

The roots and motives behind the events do not lie in a stable, Western identity, but rather in its absence and the efforts to establish such an identity. They are not the outcome, but rather the cause and reason, and they are tied to the manner in which the white powers construct the meaning of “blackness,” which then creates the meaning behind whiteness. They are an inseparable part of the “white material” that colonial nationalism should continue to grapple with, in the hopeless attempt to wash its hands clean.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.

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