'The great book robbery'

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

The Israeli army’s "looting" of books belonging to Palestinian intellectuals is the subject of a documentary being made by Dutch-Israeli film maker Benny Brunner. He claims as many as 30,000 Arabic books and manuscripts, some of them rare and valuable, ended up in Israel’s National Library after the 1948 war.

Brunner’s interest in the story was sparked by an article written by young Israeli academic Gish Amit who stumbled across books while researching his Ph.D. According to Mr Amit, the library "collected" the books from the private collections of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in 1948.

Benny Brunner is now recreating what he calls the "looting" of the books in a documentary, The Great Book Robbery. He hopes eventually to locate the original owners of the books. One witness he has spoken to is Nasser Eldin Al Nashashibi, a member of a well-known family of intellectuals in Jerusalem, who was in his 20s in 1948:

"Our books were stolen from my house here. They were looted by Jews. I saw that with my own eyes".

According to Brunner, employees of the National Library coordinated with the Israeli military, moving in after Palestinians had been evicted by force from their homes. Sometimes, he says, books were collected while the fighting was still going on.

Israel’s National Library denies the charge of looting. Spokesperson Oren Weinberg says in a written statement that the library is only managing the books on behalf of the abandoned property department of the Israeli ministry of finance.

In a brief response, a finance ministry official has confirmed that the library manages the collection. According to the ministry, however, the books were collected in 1948 by a third party, the Hebrew University. Under what circumstances the books were collected or how they became the property of the ministry is not made clear. The original owners of the books are said to be unknown.

Brunner has discovered witnesses on both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides, including one person who worked on the indexing process. Aziz Shehadah, an Arab-Israeli lawyer from Nazareth, was a student at the Hebrew University in the 1960s and worked part-time at the National Library. "Some were rare old Arabic books on Islam,” he says. “Everyone knew they came from Arab towns, some were even still in sacks".

Signs of Ownership
Brunner says that many of the people he tracked down were involved in what happened to the books but refused to meet him or be filmed for the documentary. One former library employee even “reacted very aggressively and it turned out that he was in charge of the indexing process".

Others were more cooperative, and one former worker described how library employees removed signs of Arab ownership from most of the books. That, says Brunner, “explains why only 6,000 books are registered as abandoned property, while original documents mention 30,000".

In another twist, Brunner discovered a Palestinian-Israeli who bought books in the 1960s from the custodian of the abandoned property only to find out they belonged to a friend who had moved to Lebanon. "When books did not interest the library, like school books, they sold them again. Imagine selling stolen property to the people you stole it from!"

Together with Dutch Green Left MP Arjan El Fassed, who is of Palestinian descent, Brunner has launched an online campaign to locate people who were either directly involved, or heard about events from parents and grandparents. This information will be used in the documentary.