A Tale of Two Open-air Libraries: One for Jerusalem's Palestinians, the Other for Jews

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Dedication of the Beit Safafa street library in 2018.
Dedication of the Beit Safafa street library in 2018.Credit: Manuel Mayer, Eytan Shouker and Adan Abu Dalou

The Jerusalem municipality dismantled a street-corner library in a Palestinian neigborhood after it was lightly vandalized, while the city spent 200,000 shekels ($60,000) to repair the damage at a similar reading area in a Jewish neighborhood that was torched.

When unknown vandals damaged the library in the western part of the Railway Park a month ago, the city responded swiftly. Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon visited the site together with police officers, and the city moved to install security cameras there.

However, this past weekend a book exchange in the same park was vandalized once again, but this time in the part of the park located in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa. The damage was relatively minor – a sign and an acrylic board were broken. But instead of repairing it, the municipality, which said it posed a safety hazard, decided to remove the facility, and did so the very same day.

The Beit Safafa reading area was set up two years ago as an unusual joint venture between residents of the neighborhood, which is predominantly Arab, and teachers and students at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. The driving force behind the project was Bahaa Alian, a Beit Safafa resident who studied at Bezalel. Aside from its function as a book exchange, the site contained an environmental sculpture.

The Beit Safafa street library in Jerusalem while it was under construction.Credit: Manuel Mayer, Eytan Shouker and Adan Abu Dalou

After Alian died of cancer a month ago at the age of 45, the reading area was named after him, and his relatives and people from Bezalel began negotiating with the city to improve it. But last Friday, after vandalism at the site was reported, Alian’s relatives were shocked to discover that the city had responded by getting rid of the site entirely.

Diego Rotman, who, together with Eytan Shouker, directed the joint venture with Beit Safafa residents as part of Bezalel’s course on art and activism in the public sphere, acknowledged that the Beit Safafa book exchange wasn’t as successful as some of the others in the city. But one reason for this, he said, was that in contrast to the other reading areas, the city didn’t pay anyone to run the project.

“Following Bahaa’s death, the family very much wanted to revive the project,” he said. “I held talks with them, I held talks with the municipality.” But even as these talks were underway, he added, he discovered on Friday that the book exchange had vanished. “They simply did away with it overnight.”

After discovering this, the head of Beit Safafa’s community administration, Ali Ayoub, and Jerusalem city council members Laura Wharton and Yossi Havilio urged Leon to restore the exchange. Leon promised to reconsider the issue in cooperation with neighborhood residents.

Alian’s niece, Nasreen Alian, said that “uprooting the library during an attempt to revive it as a way of memorializing him was a slap in the face to us and to every resident of the neighborhood. We hope the municipality will keep its promise and restore the library.”

The municipality said in a statement that the damage to the reading area had made it “a safety hazard that necessitated its removal,” and that the city had done the same when other reading areas were damaged.

“With no connection to that, different opinions arose about its optimum location,” the statement continued. “Therefore, next week, there will be a discussion with the community administration and the residents about the proper way to operate the library and its location in the neighborhood.”

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