Opinion |

Israel's National Library Is Closing Down. How Much Do You Care?

In a few days the National Library will be closing its doors until further notice, but none of those in power is saying a word

Yitzhak Hen
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A precious Bible manuscript originating in the Jewish community of Damascus, Syria, on display at the National Library in Jerusalem, in 2011.
A precious Bible manuscript originating in the Jewish community of Damascus, Syria, on display at the National Library in Jerusalem, in 2011.Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill / AP
Yitzhak Hen

Over 2,200 years ago, exiled Athenian statesman Demetrius of Phalerum suggested to the ruler of Hellenist Egypt, Ptolemy I, that he build a library in Alexandria. We don’t know how Ptolemy I reacted to the suggestion, but his son, Ptolemy II “Philadelphus,” built a magnificent library in Alexandria, as part of a large intellectual complex – a Mouseion – for advanced research and creativity. Within a short time the Great Library of Alexandria attracted researchers and artists from all over the ancient world, thanks to the many scrolls collected there, with the support and encouragement of Egypt’s Hellenistic ruler.

Ptolemy II apparently wanted to store copies of all the texts written in Greek in his library, and in cases where there was no copy of a work in that language, the ruler ordered to have it translated. According to legend, that is also how, at Ptolemy’s initiative, the Bible came to be translated into Greek in the version known as the Septuagint.

Researchers are still arguing about the scope of the library in Alexandria, with estimates ranging from 40,000 to 500,000 scrolls. But one thing is clear: The library turned Alexandria into a bustling intellectual center, whose reputation and influence were widespread.

About 1,000 years after Ptolemy II and the establishment of the legendary library in Alexandria, the Western ruler Charlemagne ordered the establishment of libraries in every monastery and every urban cathedral. That was part of a broader move of comprehensive reforms in his kingdom, in whose context the king also instituted a free compulsory education law for all the boys and girls (!) in his kingdom.

Social distancing in the National Library in Jerusalem.
Social distancing in the National Library in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

Charlemagne himself collected thousands of copies of various texts from all over the world, and his private library attracted intellectuals from all over the kingdom, who came to peruse the books and to copy rare texts that were unavailable in other places. At the same time in the East, the Abbasid Caliph Al Ma’mun, the successor of Harun al-Rashid, built “The House of Wisdom” in Baghdad. It was an institute for the translation and copying of manuscripts, a library and a research center, where scholars from all over the Muslim world assembled.

All these magnificent rulers were well aware that education is the key to creating a better, more ethical and more effective society, and that the basis for a good and meaningful education is the encouragement of research and creativity, which cannot exist without books and libraries.

That was the opinion of many enlightened rulers throughout history, for example the French King Charles V, who in 1369 built the royal library in the Louvre Palace, which eventually gave rise to the national library of France, and it was also the opinion of Francois Mitterrand, the French president from 1981 to 1996, who had the library transferred to its new home. Not to mention the heroic attempt by three rulers of modern Egypt to reestablish a library and a research institute in Alexandria.

All of them, who were not only rulers who are seeking honor, understood the importance of libraries and the institutions adjacent to them, both for research and for progress and for society as a whole. Not the Israeli government.

People wearing protective masks at The National Library in Jerusalem.
People wearing protective masks at The National Library in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

The library, built in 1892 by the B’nai Brith organization, gained national status long before it was defined as a national institution in the 2007 National Library Law. From the day of its establishment the National Library was responsible for preserving the print treasures of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, and like the library of Ptolemy II in Alexandria or that of Al-Ma’mun in Baghdad, the National Library attracted the finest scholars from Israel and the rest of the world, who found their research and intellectual home there.

Scholars of Judaism and Jewish philosophy, historians of the East and the West, scholars of religions and of literature, gathered in the library. They were blessed by its treasures that are scattered among the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, the various reading rooms, the Gershom Scholem Library for the study of Kabbalah, and the collection of ancient manuscripts and books, which includes several of the world treasures of culture and knowledge, such as manuscripts of Isaac Newton and Franz Kafka, the Afghan Geniza and the archives of Israeli poets and writers.

With great pomp and ceremony, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came a few years ago to examine the “safe” in which the writings of his father, historian Benzion Netanyahu, would be kept. But when there is a need to ensure the survival of this important Zionist enterprise, all those involved are disappearing and maintaining silence.

The National Library of Israel – a treasury of history, philosophy, culture and creativity – is now at the edge of the abyss. Years of underfunding, neglect on the part of the authorities, lack of interest, and in many cases a lack of understanding of the importance of this national and intellectual enterprise, are dooming the National Library to extinction.

In a few days from now the National Library will be closing its doors until further notice, but none of those in power is saying a word. Not the education minister, not the minister for higher education (who actually has firsthand familiarity with the library and its treasures, as opposed to most of his government colleagues).

The stained glass windows in the National Library of Israel, on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The stained glass windows in the National Library of Israel, on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Credit: Rafi Kotz

It’s true that they are all busy with important issues – the coronavirus, a profound economic crisis, nurturing a “university” in the occupied territories and so on. But an institution like the National Library should not, and in effect cannot, wait for the right time, a time of peace and prosperity, when they may notice its existence and channel resources to it. Any harm to the National Library may be irreversible, and its future rehabilitation is in doubt.

All the MKS from the right and the left, all lovers of culture, must buckle down and help the National Library restore its status and its place, in the understanding that its contribution to Israeli society is priceless. Some will say that it’s too much to expect the present government, some of whose members scorn culture, including the written word, to devote attention to such an issue. But there are also book lovers in the government, headed by the son of a respected historian, who would do well to take action, and soon.

The existence and uniqueness of the Jewish people throughout history was dependent on the preservation of a written tradition and the sanctification of values such as education, research and debate. The treasury of writings of the Jewish people throughout the generations is the “rock of our existence,” and without it, and without what it symbolizes, the ground beneath our feet will give way.

To paraphrase Heinrich Heine: “In a place where people scorn books and the foundations of culture, they will also scorn the ordinary citizen.”

Prof. Hen is the head of the Israeli Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem

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