Surroundings / A library is the best welcome
At the height of the Immigration Authority's hunting season, a multicultural public library for foreign workers is being established in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv's Neve Sha'anan neighborhood. It opens in September and hopes to serve a population that Israeli society does not usually beckon, let alone open its gates for, and which no doubt feels persecuted. People may not think of this population in terms of reading books, another stereotype the library's founders wish to refute.
The library is the initiative of the nonprofit Artim, an interdisciplinary group promoting volunteer art, education and community projects. Its membership includes artists Hadas Efrat, Romi Achituv and Marit Ben Israel, curator Tali Tamir and the architect Yoav Meiri, who planned and designed the library.
Among the institutional partners to the project (for whom the word optimistic is too narrow for their wealth of good intentions) are the municipal aid organization Mesilla, the Tel Aviv centennial administration and the Mifal Hapais national lottery.
Meiri, an architect and social activist, welcomed the institutional involvement, including that of the Tel Aviv municipality, "which is really helping us a lot."
This kind of action does not have to be conducted underground, Meiri says, "but rather may exist in the open and be recognized."
The idea touched many in the Israeli mainstream who are not usually involved in volunteer activity. Various professionals helping to build the library have lowered their rates. Foreign Ministry staffers have helped in obtaining books from abroad. More than anything else the library idea neutralizes aggression.
Meiri says he may be naive but he believes "that when people come to exchange books at the library, they won't be persecuted. I have become acquainted with many police in the neighborhood, just as I know many of those whom they hunt. I know that no one is born a monster."
The Levinsky library is not exactly a building but rather a structure that has been planned with great simplicity and great care. Its two recently-completed wooden and metal bookcases, one for adults and one for children, will be installed on the outer walls of the public shelter adjacent to the park, on either side of a paved outdoor space, which is to serve as an "open study hall." You need to see it to be convinced these are not empty words.
"Our public space includes the entire park," Meiri says with unsuppressed optimism, enough to imagine an adult reading club and a children's story hour, because "when we offer books, we offer society a world."
Meiri and his wife, architect Tali Hatuka, have lived in Neve Sha'anan for years. "I don't feel I live in some heart of darkness," he says. He is involved in community projects with neighborhood residents, many of them "at various stages of citizenship" - immigrant workers, temporary residents dependent on work permits, illegals, refugees.
Meiri realizes there was no public library in the neighborhood because on an official level "there is no public in Neve Sha'anan," as a one city librarian told him.
"We view the right of anyone at all to a book as a basic human right," he says. And clearly there had to be books in the residents' mother tongues - "a primary element of identity," he says.
A list of book preferences was drawn up with local cooperation. South Americans, for example, asked for nonfiction books about Israel to learn about the place where they lived.
The library collection numbers 2,500 books in Nepalese, Thai, Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, Tagalog, Arabic, French, Romanian, Spanish and Hebrew. They were collected or donated from many sources. An Israeli who owns a factory in Thailand sent books. The owner of a Spanish-language bookstore in Tel Aviv contacted customers to contribute books. Various embassy employees helped by bringing books from overseas via incoming foreign workers.
The library will be computerized and catalogued by the standard methods and by readers' response about interest, excitement and level of sadness - with color-coding indicating response. A Web site will be launched with the library opening.
That the library would be in south Tel Aviv was taken for granted, as most foreign worker communities are concentrated there. "It was important to us that the library come to the people, and not that they would have to come to it in a different place," says Meiri.
While several existing buildings were offered, the library founders preferred the open Levinksy Park, which is the social heart of Neve Sha'anan and of immigrant workers in Israel. Its open space, where people already congregate, grants the library an unconcealed presence and provides unmediated access. It was important, says Meiri there would be no door and no guard, no one examining anyone at the entrance and no one asking questions. "Enough doors are shut to them," he says. "It is important there be at least a sense that here there is no supervision, and they are free."
Cards will be issued cards for a deposit. Book wear and tear is expected to greater than in "regular" libraries , but this is seen as a worthwhile risk. Members of Artim and other volunteers will run things at first but the goal is to have another organization take over. Some that agreed to take part begged off in the current financial climate.
Two-thirds of the 400,000 foreigners who live here are believed to be illegal immigrant workers. Levinisky Park is pleasant, spacious and well-maintained. A quick visit allows the momentary illusion of the world as a good place. Can one small, lovely library and the attempt to save architecture from itself save the world? Meiri says that until a perfect world is achieved, the ethical obligation is to accomplish what can be accomplished, "to live the situation and not to live with it."