Documentary sheds light on large-scale pillaging of books from Palestinian homes in 1948, when Israel was founded
Ramallah, occupied Palestinian territories – Rasha Al Barghouti takes a few steps towards one of several large bookcases in her Ramallah home, treading slowly just four months after having hip replacement surgery. She takes out a thick blue book, and opens it to a bookmarked page, allowing her fingertips to trace the words as she reads out loud.
The book was written by her grandfather, the late Omar Saleh Al Barghouti, a leading figure of Palestinian resistance who took part in the national movement against the British occupation. During the 1948 war, when Al Barghouti was forced into exile, hundreds of his books, documents, newspapers and intimate memoirs were looted from his Jerusalem home.
The irreplaceable items representing a slice of Palestinian intellectualism were never located, except for a few – which, to Rasha’s surprise, were found in Israel’s National Library . “For years, we wondered what happened to my grandfather’s books,” said the 61-year-old, who works at Birzeit University, just outside Ramallah. “One day my sister and I looked up his name on the website of the National Library … and we found two of his books.”
Rasha later found out that a whole section of the library was dedicated to her grandfather’s books, a revelation that to this day moves her to tears. Al Barghouti’s large collection is part of some 70,000 books that were looted just before and during the Nakba (or “catastrophe”) of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled or forced to flee their homes.
About 40,000 of these books were stolen from private homes in mostly affluent Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem; others from cities such as Jaffa, Nazareth and Haifa. Many were either recycled into paper (because they “incited” against the nascent Israeli state) or taken to the National Library, where some 6,000 remain with the letters AP – for “abandoned property” – labelled on their spines.
The Great Book Robbery, a documentary recently shown in Ramallah, chronicles the large-scale pillage of these priceless pieces of Palestinian culture.
Prominent Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, who is featured throughout the documentary, identifies two sets of book robbers during this period: individuals acting alone who took their newly acquired possessions home, and collective or formal looters acting on behalf of the state who took the books to the National Library.
Library director Oren Weinberg told Al Jazeera that “the collection of books … is stored in the library for the Custodian for Absentee Property.
“The books are under the legal authority of the Custodian for Absentee Property in the Ministry of Finance, [which] holds decision-making authority regarding their use.”
The Ministry of Finance did not respond to repeated requests for comment before the deadline for publication of this report. Similarly, no ministry spokesperson was made available to interview as part of the documentary.
The documentary – which has also aired in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem over the past month – was based on the research of an Israeli PhD student named Gish Amit, who stumbled upon documents chronicling the “collection” of these books while carrying out research on his doctoral thesis.
Amit said he did not even know how important his accidental findings were until much later. “This was not a spontaneous act, nor was it a rescue,” Amit told Al Jazeera. “It was based first and foremost on the library’s organised plan to confiscate and to loot the Palestinian culture, and they really didn’t think Palestinians were capable of keeping these cultural treasures.”
The documentary paints a picture of a pre-1948 Palestine that was a hub for intellectuals, literary critics, writers and musicians before entire villages were destroyed, people were exiled or forced to flee, and Palestinian culture was decimated. Once a hub for art and culture aficionados, Palestine had a railway linking Haifa to Damascus and Cairo, and was frequented by acclaimed theatre troupes and poets.
Many renowned Palestinian authors and scholars, such as Khalil Al Sakakini and Nasser Eddin Nashashibi, spoke bitterly of the loss of their books, items of irreplaceable historical and religious significance.
Others, such as Mohammad Batrwai, tearfully recounted having been forced by the Haganah (the Jewish militia that transformed into the Israeli military after 1948) to loot other Palestinians’ homes and, in one case, his very own.
Nothing was spared: musical instruments, newspapers and even carpets. In some cases, books that were looted were sold back to Palestinians at auction.
The documentary also has an associated website with a special section that aims to identify the original owners of the looted books, thus restoring pieces of cultural heritage lost. According to the director, Benny Brunner – who served in the Israeli army and fought in the 1973 war, before shedding his Zionist beliefs – this is part of a larger project to carry on the vibrant legacy of Palestinian academia and intellectualism.
“I’m so bitter that he lost so much, that we have lost so much.” – Rasha Al Barghouti
In a thoughtful summation of the events depicted in the film, Pappé claimed the pillage took place to “defeat the Palestinian narrative”, and to “erase Palestinians out of history”.
Amit stated a similar theory. He believed the looting took place in part because of a colonialist mindset possessed by Israelis in which Palestinians were incapable of appreciating or safeguarding their own cultural heritage. “As Westerners who came from Europe, professors at Hebrew University felt they understood and appreciated these assets better than the Palestinians themselves,” he said.
Further, Amit added that some believed they were rescuing these assets from destruction. “No doubt there was an act of looting and confiscation, but on the other hand some did believe that they had to take care of these books, because otherwise they would be lost,” he said.
Uri Palit, a former librarian, echoed a similar sentiment in the documentary. “These books were not looted but collected. The owners were absent,” Palit said.
For years, many Palestinians such as Rasha searched far and wide for the beloved books of their relatives. Today, she only has a handful of books belonging to her grandfather, who later returned to live in Ramallah. A renowned lawyer and author, who at one point served as a minister in Jordan, Omar Saleh Al Barghouthi wrote personal memoirs every day until his death in 1965.
While his 1919-1948 diaries were pillaged, his memoirs recording political and cultural life between 1950 and 1965 remained. In them, “he wrote about the pain he felt over the loss of the land and his precious books”, Rasha said. “I’m so bitter that he lost so much, that we have lost so much.”