A few weeks from now, a Knesset vote will bring the curtain down on an 11-year legal and political saga, in the course of which the State of Israel nearly lost a unique opportunity to preserve something of its culture. If the National Library Law passes its second and third readings, it will mark the end of the first chapter in a melodrama starring a huge donation, a legislative proposal, power struggles between the Knesset and the government, and a treasure trove of Hebrew and Jewish culture. The second chapter will end a few years hence, with the completion of a splendid new building somewhere between the Supreme Court and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem - the new home of Israel's national library.
It is hard to believe that almost 60 years after the establishment of the state, Israel still does not have a national library. True, most people assume that the Jewish National and University Library (JNUL), at Givat Ram, is just that. In practice, however, it has never been officially recognized as such. In 1953, legislators made do with requiring local publishers to provide the library with two copies of every publication, but they never defined the library's "national" role. The library is owned by the Hebrew University. It is not a government corporation, and it has never been required to purchase the archives or estates of private persons or institutions, or to obtain important Jewish artifacts, historic or contemporary, offered for sale outside of Israel.
The university, which provides JNUL with its budget, is more interested in its being a university library than having it play a national role, and due to budgetary constraints, the possibility of making important acquisitions is being lost. Israeli writer Haim Gouri and the family of S.Y. Agnon have donated their archives to the library, but the heirs of poet Yehuda Amichai agreed to transfer his papers to Yale University, which offered a sum JNUL could not hope to match. In this way, a cultural treasure of the highest order left Israel.
"From the moment I took office in 1997 I realized that the upkeep of the library was beyond the university's means," Prof. Menachem Magidor, president of the university, told Haaretz recently. "The library may be a national asset, but for us it's a financial burden that we are not able to shoulder on our own."
Over the past year, Haaretz has reported on serious maintenance problems at the library, such as rainwater leaks and insect infestation. So when the Rothschild Foundation (Yad Hanadiv) offered to finance establishment of a "real" national library, using the university facility as its basis, the university was delighted.
The Hebrew University library was founded in 1892 as a public library, the first to serve the Jewish community in Palestine. The B'nai Brith organization opened it on the street that bears its name, between the Mea She'arim neighborhood and the Russian Compound. Ten years later, the library moved to Ethiopia Street. In 1920, the planners of the university decided that its main library would incorporate the B'nai Brith library. Five years later, when the university library opened on Mount Scopus, the smaller library was transferred there, becoming part of the JNUL. Since then, the university has relocated several times, and the library has gone with it.
In 1948, when Mount Scopus was cut off from the city, most of the books (about one million then) were moved to the Terra Sancta building in central Jerusalem, along with most of the university departments. Some books were stored in warehouses around the city. In 1960, they were rounded up and transferred to an impressive new building on Givat Ram. The library became the heart of the campus, bustling with activity. But in the late 1970s, the law, social sciences and humanities faculties returned to Mount Scopus, leaving Givat Ram semi-deserted. JNUL lost its standing as the central university library in favor of the departmental libraries on Mount Scopus, and never cultivated the national library alternative. The number of its users steadily dropped.
In the 1990s, as old-time library employees retired, the university did not rush to hire replacements. Acquisition budgets dwindled and operating hours were cut. The 50-year-old building was plagued by maintenance problems, and no longer could meet the needs of a library with over 5 million books. The storerooms were bursting and many volumes had to be placed in storage elsewhere.
At that point, the Rothschild Foundation hastened to Israel's rescue. The idea was to complete its "triad": After financing the Knesset building in the 1960s and the Supreme Court building a quarter of a century later, in 1998, the foundation offered to underwrite a new national library building nearby. At the time, representatives of the foundation spoke about donating an astronomical figure - as much as $100 million, according to some. However, no official spokesperson would confirm this. The Rothschild Foundation shies away from the media and its directors ignored requests for an interview.
The foundation offered to finance the building in keeping with the same principles that guided it in the Supreme Court project: It would pay all planning and construction costs, and install all furnishings and equipment needed for operating one of the world's most technologically advanced libraries - but its role would end when the library opened. The state and the university would then have to find resources for the upkeep of the fancy building and operation of its cutting-edge technologies.
This time, however, the foundation set another condition: Because the national library would be an outgrowth of one already operating at the university, the foundation has insisted that the Knesset pass a law that would divide responsibility for management and financing between the government and the university.
The foundation's offer to underwrite the project thus touched off a long, grueling debate - 11 years of negotiations between the university, the government, the Rothschild Foundation and the Knesset over how the library would be run. If all goes well, this lengthy process will reach an end in the next month or so, and as of January 1, Israel will have a National Library Law.
In December 1996, the Ministry of Education, the Hebrew University and the Rothschild Foundation appointed an international committee to suggest how to convert the university facility into a national library. Members included the chief librarian of the U.S. Library of Congress, the former director of Germany's Deutsche Bibliothek, and the director of the Oxford Library. They recommended establishing an official authority like that at Yad Vashem, and suggested the government cover 75 percent of the library's annual budget and the university, 25 percent.
The report was submitted in June 1998. The university happily embraced it, but the government ignored it. The Ministry of Finance did not want to establish a state authority, much less finance 75 percent of its budget. The whole issue came to a grinding halt.
The university waited four years for the government's response, until it finally decided, in collaboration with the Rothschild Foundation, to appoint a new advisory committee. The new committee, headed by retired Supreme Court justice Yitzhak Zamir, was asked to come up with a different formula. The Zamir committee's recommendation, in February 2004, supported establishing a "community benefit organization," instead of a state authority - to lessen government responsibility.
The committee further recommended that the state maintain a 50-percent, rather than 75 percent stake. The other 50 percent would be divided between the university and various public bodies, such as the Jewish Agency. The committee estimated that the library would require an annual budget of NIS 70 million, and pointed out that the state-funded Council for Higher Education already transferred NIS 35 million a year to the library, so the state would not have to increase its spending.
If the heads of the university and the Rothschild Foundation expected the government to adopt the Zamir recommendations, they were wrong again. The government put the project on a back burner, and the foundation began to hint that it might reconsider its gift. After waiting almost two years, the university decided to bypass the government and approach the Knesset directly. MK Aryeh Eldad of the National Union and Isaac Herzog of Labor, who was not in the government at the time, drafted a private member's bill in the spirit of the principles established by the Zamir committee, got 50 MKs to sign it, and submitted it for a preliminary reading at the end of 2005, nine years after the Rothschild Foundation's initial offer.
The coalition allowed its members to support the private bill, but announced that the Ministry of Justice was preparing legislation on the library and would thus oppose any advancement on a private bill. The plenary turned Eldad and Herzog's bill over to the Knesset Education Committee. The chairman, MK Michael Melchior, of Labor, waited almost a year and a half for the government to submit its bill.
"I waited and waited, and finally realized that if we didn't start discussing the private bill, nothing would ever happen," he says, explaining his decision in early 2007. "Only after I notified the committee that the private bill was coming up for debate and we would seek its approval by the plenary did the government change its tune and the ministries start to cooperate."
Melchior is referring to the Education and Justice ministries. The Ministry of Finance was still balking. Its representatives said the ministry would not agree to any new financial obligations imposed on it by the National Library Law. The only law that can force the ministry to comply, they said, is the Budget Law.
Melchior chose to circumvent the problem, and appears to have succeeded. The Education Committee completed a draft of all the clauses unrelated to the budget. When the bill was complete, and all that remained was the finance issue, Melchior threatened to bring it to the plenary for approval and show how little the government cared about the cultural assets of the state. Pressure on the government mounted.
A solution was found about half a year ago, during a conversation between Prof. Magidor and then-finance minister Avraham Hirschson. They agreed to omit the financing clause from the bill. Instead, a separate financial agreement would be worked out between the government and the university. This agreement, which will be signed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Finance Minister Roni Bar-On and Magidor in the coming weeks, states that the budget of the national library will be NIS 90 million and the state will cover half, with NIS 30 million from the Council for Higher Education and NIS 15 million from the treasury.
As soon as the agreement is signed and the Knesset approves the law, the Rothschild Foundation will start footing the bill for designing the library, whose exact location has not been determined. University officials say the building should be up by 2012, and believe the new library will better fulfill its national missions.
"Being an autonomous entity and not beholden to the university will allow us to approach donors ourselves and develop independent sources of funding," says JNUL director Shmuel Har-Noy. "Until now, we lived off the university budget and were bound by its priorities. Once we are free, we can do as we see fit."