Did Israel's National Library Steal Priceless Books - or Save Them?

Gish Amit alleges that the National Library pilfered Torahs belonging to Yemenite Jews and books owned by Arabs to advance the Zionist enterprise. That may be true, but so what?

Alex Levac

“Ex Libris: Chronicles of Theft, Preservation, and Appropriating at the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem,” by Gish Amit. The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 220 pp., 79 shekels ($20) In Hebrew

In the winter of 1946, some 2 million books the Nazis had stolen from their Jewish owners were brought to the city of Offenbach. Haaretz’s correspondent in occupied Germany reported that it was the largest Jewish library in the world.

Today, the largest Judaica collection in the world – which includes some half a million books that were stolen by the Nazis – is kept in the National Library, Jerusalem. The library also possesses thousands of books belonging to Palestinians, and hundreds of books and manuscripts belonging to Yemenite Jews. According to scholar Gish Amit, there are three scandalous stories here that are anchored in a single ideology: Zionism.

Had things happened differently, the books looted by the Nazis would have been returned to their owners. But “hegemonic Zionism,” as Amit puts it, “aspired to equate Judaism with Zionism, and wanted the books as part of its conspiracy to transfer the center of Judaism from Europe to Palestine/Eretz Israel.”

The German-Jewish professors from the Hebrew University, explains Amit, also wanted the books, because of an identity crisis related to their “Orientalist” dislike of Eastern European Jews: “I would like to argue,” he writes, “that the demand for ownership of the assets was designed, among other things, to reestablish the identity of Western Jewish intellectuals and once again to draw the line separating them from the Jews of Eastern Europe, while adopting and duplicating the ‘Orientalist’ discourse in modern Europe.”

Amit was a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin, worked in education for about 20 years, and today is a fellow at the Mandel School for Educational Leadership. He writes like someone caught up in the clichés of postmodern sociology, and that’s a shame because the story he delves into is very interesting.

The question of what to do with the books stolen by the Nazis gave rise, as expected, to a major battle between Jerusalem and New York: Who would get what, and how much? Of course, there was no point in returning the Nazi trove to its owners, because, as opposed to the books, most of their owners had been incinerated.

A committee was formed to divide the books between Jerusalem and New York – two Jewish centers with strongly established communities of yekkes (Jews of German origin). One of the key figures involved in dividing the books was political theorist Hannah Arendt.

Chaplain Samuel Blinder examines Torah scrolls looted by the Nazis and hidden in a basement in Frankfurt, 1945. Photo by AP

Today, Arendt’s image is battered almost beyond recognition. But, in contrast to most of her opponents, Amit criticizes her for the sin of Zionism: When she supported the transfer of Holocaust victims’ books to Jerusalem, he writes, she too lent a hand to the Zionist enterprise and did so out of an “Orientalist” identification with the desire to “deepen the Jews’ Europeanization.”

That may be true, but so what? What was supposed to happen to the books? Amit also links the transfer of the books to Jerusalem with a narrative of “rejecting the Diaspora.” Let’s say this was also true, but again, so what? The logical failure of this argument is obvious, since if the Zionists really did reject the Diaspora, why did they invest so much effort in gaining control of its cultural treasures? The true story is quite different, and is cited by Amit himself: Since it was unable to save the Jews themselves from extermination, the Zionist movement made an effort to at least rescue the vestiges of their culture.

A cornerstone of Zionism

At a cabinet session around the time of Israel’s establishment, the country’s first interior minister, Yitzhak Greenbaum, reported that the Hebrew University had organized a group of librarians which followed Israel Defense Forces soldiers and collected books from the occupied homes of Arabs. The minister’s explanation followed a question from another minister, who wanted to know what had been done with the food the Arabs left behind.

Many years later, the government minutes were opened to researchers, but Greenbaum’s words about collecting the books were in the sections meant to remain classified. (His words remain classified to this day, although they were published in Haaretz 10 years ago.) The War of Independence was accompanied by mass looting of Arab property and incidents of vandalism: the government took most of the land and the houses; soldiers and civilians took herds, tractors, cars, jewelry, carpets, furniture, radios, kitchen implements and books. Hebrew University librarians rescued the books from looters.

There are thousands of volumes that were privately owned, as well as tens of thousands of textbooks. The National Library was proud of rescuing the books from destruction, and wrote about it in several publications. Amit links the collection of the Palestinian books to the argument that the Hebrew University adopted the objectives of the state after its establishment. The truth, of course, is that the university was established in the first place as one of the cornerstones of the Zionist movement, as Amit himself writes. Several members of its faculty, including its first president, Y.L. Magnes, belonged to Brit Shalom, a Zionist coexistence movement that favored a binational state, and to the Ihud political party. Amit writes that they collected the Palestinians’ books despite their political worldview; as genuine humanists, they should perhaps have left the abandoned books to the mercies of the soldiers.

Appropriating the Palestinian books also testified to a “Eurocentric and Orientalist” worldview – a belief that the Palestinians themselves could not understand their value. How could the libraries that remained in the homes of Palestinian intellectuals lead anyone to such a conclusion?

There can be no doubt that the Palestinian books were brought to the National Library because of their cultural value. At least some of them were marked as abandoned property; some are still marked as such to this day. Others – perhaps most of them – are no longer identifiable as Palestinian books that were abandoned. A great number are available for public perusal in the library.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, several Palestinians showed up at the library to retrieve their books. The library was evasive. How nice it would have been had the books been returned to their true owners. They were not returned, like most of the cultural treasures that have been looted in wars throughout history.

Over 20,000 Arab books and textbooks collected from schools also were destroyed in the early 1950s. In official correspondence, Amit found that only in a few instances was it said that they shouldn’t be restored to use due to their content, which was hostile to Zionism. Some were sold to Arabs. The documentation provides a basis for the assumption that, like most used textbooks, these were also in tatters. Nobody wanted to buy them and so they were sent to the shredder.

It’s not such a terrible story, but here the Israelis are portrayed almost like an early incarnation of the Taliban thugs who shattered statues of Buddha. Nor is there any connection between the shredding of those textbooks and the destruction of the abandoned Arab villages, just as there is no connection between the theft of books from Yemenite Jews and stories about the abduction of their children. That’s the third story in the book.

With the arrival of the Yemenite Jews in the late 1940s, there were reports that many of their holy books had been stolen. “During that period they managed to ‘disappear’ little children who were stolen from their parents, not to mention books,” writes Amit, citing one of the owners of those books. As opposed to the myth about the kidnapping of Yemenite children, the story about the theft of the books is true. However, Amit is unable to prove that the books were stolen because someone thought their owners couldn’t appreciate them.

It is more likely they were stolen because they were easy to steal and their value in the Judaica market was high. Many of them were ancient Torah scrolls and manuscripts that were used in Yemen in synagogues and study halls, and were sent to Israel separately. Perhaps it was not easy to determine to whom exactly they belonged. In any case, you didn’t have to be an “Orientalist” to steal them; it was enough to be a thief.

The question of how several hundred Yemenite books ended up in the National Library remains unanswered, with Amit unable to unravel this mystery. According to Rafael Weiser, who works in the library’s Manuscripts and Archives department, there is a basic willingness to return the property to Yemenite Jews; to date, four items have been returned.