Netanyahu lobbies Russians for ancient Hebrew texts
Russian officials will 'positively consider' returning Guenzberg collection with over 16,000 items.
Israel's desire to retrieve the historic Guenzberg collection of ancient Jewish manuscripts from Russia was discussed during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's meeting on Monday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Israeli officials said afterward that due to the improved relations between Jerusalem and Moscow, Russian officials will "positively consider" Israel's request.
Netanyahu personally raised the subject of the collection, which is thought to be the world's second-largest anthology of ancient Hebrew literature, after the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Aides to the prime minister also presented the Russians with documents proving ownership of the collection, Haaretz has learned.
The Guenzbergs, a Russian-Jewish noble family, acquired their collection over three generations beginning in the 1840s.
The collection includes 14,000 books, 45 incunabula (books published in the 14th century, at the start of the printing era), more than 2,000 Hebrew manuscripts and 1,000 Arabic manuscripts.
Following the death of Baron David Guenzberg in 1910, Zionist activists, among them Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, sought to retrieve the collection and arrange for its relocation to prestate Israel. In May 1917, the Russians agreed to sell the collection to the Jewish National and University Library for a sum of half a million rubles.
The purchase was made possible by contributions from Russian Zionists.
But after the money had already been paid and the collection was packaged and ready for shipment, World War I erupted, delaying the shipment.
Shortly afterward, the Bolshevik Revolution engulfed Russia. The newly installed Soviet authorities then expropriated the collection and placed it on display at the V.I. Lenin State Library in Moscow.
Two years ago, the issue was revisited mainly because negotiations over the Sergei building in Jerusalem, which was built circa 1890 adjacent to the Russian Compound, were in an advanced stage. The building was named for Prince Sergei, heir to Czar Nicholas II, who was executed by the Bolshevik revolutionaries.
The Russian government has long demanded ownership of the building, and talks over the transfer of ownership were completed last year, to the Russians' satisfaction.
But in return for transferring the building to Russian ownership, officials at the Jewish National and University Library urged the government to demand that Moscow relinquish the Guenzberg collection.