The Great Book Robbery

International project seeks to reclaim lost books, educate public

Sujaya Balachandran Jan 30, 2012

“Farewell, my library! Farewell, the house of wisdom, the abode of philosophers, a house and witness for literature! How many sleepless nights I spent there, reading and writing, the night is silent and the people asleep. Goodbye, my books! I know not what has become of you after we left: Were you looted? Burnt? Have you been ceremonially transferred to a private or public library? Did you end up on the shelves of grocery stores with your pages used to wrap onions?”

In this excerpt from That’s the Way I Am, Gentlemen: From the Diary of Khalil al-Sakakini, the late Palestinian poet Khalil al-Sakakini mourns the loss of his priceless books. Al-Sakakini had fled his home in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, leaving behind a vast trove of Palestinian literature. He settled in Cairo two months later, never to see his beloved books again.

Israelis consider 1948 as the year they fought for independence. Meanwhile, Palestinians consider 1948 as the year of al-Nakba, a mass exodus of 711,000 to 750,000 Palestinians from their homes.

Al-Sakakini’s story was not unique. Between May 1948 and February 1949, the nascent state of Israel seized approximately 70,000 books belonging to Palestinians as the exodus was occurring. To many scholars of the Israel-Palestine conflict, this initiative was not merely a collection of books, but a systematic looting — one that represented the theft of Palestinian culture as well.

“What is important about the looting of the books [is that] it is part of the appropriation of the cultural essence of this land [Palestine], which is not different from the appropriation of the territories, the houses, the natural resources, and everything that Palestine had — even its history — could be and should have been part of the new Jewish state,” said Israeli-Jewish historian Ilan Pappé in the trailer for a film documenting al-Nakba.

A new project titled The Great Book Robbery, described as a “multifaceted cultural heritage project” on its website, aims to bring the story of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and al-Nakba to light, while identifying the books’ rightful owners. The project includes the production of a documentary film and the creation of a virtual library for the books.

The Great Book Robbery began with an accidental discovery. In 2006, while searching for reference material at the Jewish National and University Library at Hebrew University, Israeli graduate student Gish Amit stumbled upon documents detailing the plunder of books from Palestinian homes. In an article in The Jerusalem Quarterly, Amit detailed the transfer of books that took place between 1948 and 1949 by the staff of the National Library of Israel.

These librarians collected 30,000 books, manuscripts, and newspapers from western Jerusalem that were left behind by Palestinian denizens during the course of the war and after the depopulation of Palestinian villages. They then transferred approximately 6,000 of those books to the National Library’s Eastern Studies Department and deemed them “abandoned property.” In 1948 and subsequent years, employees of the Custodian of Absentee Property gathered an additional 40,000 to 50,000 books from other cities in historic Palestine, including Jaffa, Haifa, Tiberias, and Nazareth.

Some 26,000 books, however, fared worse: In 1957, the Israeli government deemed that these books “contained inciting materials against the State [of Israel]” and recycled them as paper waste.

Members of The Great Book Robbery — which include historians, filmmakers, students, journalists, and many others who advocate on behalf of Palestinian causes — seek to take stock of the remaining books and identify their owners through a massive digital library, which contains 500 of the original 6,000 books labeled as “abandoned property.” The Great Book Robbery’s other primary objective is education.

Israeli-Dutch filmmaker Benny Brunner, a member of The Great Book Robbery’s staff who is based in Amsterdam, has made a documentary titled The Great Book Robbery, which recounts the looting of Palestinian books. The film, which is finished and currently undergoing editing, will be released in May 2012.

The website for The Great Book Robbery includes a forum section, which provides a space for those interested in the project to discuss the events of 1948 and to contribute to the discourse concerning a wide spectrum of issues pertaining to Palestinian identity and culture.

To many Palestinians, especially those who bore witness to the events of 1948, The Great Book Robbery is also an effort to reclaim Palestinian cultural and ethnic identity. Amit asserted that the collection of Palestinian books by Israelis constitutes a theft of Palestinian culture. In The Jerusalem Quarterly, he wrote, “This untold story of the fate of Palestinian ‘abandoned’ books clearly demonstrates how occupation and colonization is not limited to the taking over of physical space. Rather, it achieves its fulfillment by occupying cultural space as well, and by turning the cultural artifacts of the victims into ownerless objects with no past.”

The Great Book Robbery allows for communication and interaction among a wide array of individuals interested in the preservation of Palestinian culture. As such, its staff, contributors, and supporters hail from across the globe. Here in Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh student Karina Goulordava, vice president of the university’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, is lending her efforts to The Great Book Robbery.

As part of its staff, Goulordava — graduating this year with a bachelor of arts in Spanish, communication-rhetoric, and Arabic — plays an important role in disseminating media regarding The Great Book Robbery and garnering publicity for the project.

“I’m the communication manager. My primary task is to get publicity for the project. On a daily basis, I run our Facebook and Twitter,” Goulordava said. “I also scan the internet every once in a while to see if any new press has been written about us.”

Goulordava also contacts writers to contribute to the website’s forum. She explained the significance of the section: “We contact professors, scholars, students, filmmakers, journalists, authors, and librarians — anyone who has an opinion about The Great Book Robbery. They write a piece for us and we publish it on the forum. [For] something this important, you don’t want to just put the information out there. You want to create a discussion about this, and you want to talk about why it is important.”

Individuals here in Pittsburgh have contributed to the discourse, thanks to Goulordava’s efforts. Tom Twiss, a librarian from the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library, wrote an article for the forum titled “The Destruction of Palestinian Library and Cultural Resources in 2002.” Goulordava has booked interviews published on The Great Book Robbery’s website with Pappé and Palestinian academic Ghada Karmi from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

The Great Book Robbery does more than illuminate a new aspect of a fraught subject; it demonstrates that the events of al-Nakba had other consequences than the physical displacement of Palestinians. To the members of The Great Book Robbery, Israel uprooted the heart of Palestinian academic and intellectual culture. This comprehensive initiative pieces together a fragmented history of two nations.