The great book robbery


June 1948, Israeli soldiers advance in an affluent Arab neighborhood, now almost deserted, in western Jerusalem. The soldiers are followed by several librarians from the national library. Sporadic gunfire is heard. The men cling against the walls as they arrive in a street with big wealthy houses, their occupants left in haste. Breaking into house after house, the librarians “collect” entire libraries into boxes which are loaded onto trucks. Similar scenes repeat themselves throughout the Arab neighborhoods of western Jerusalem and later on in Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth and other places. In total, 70,000 Palestinian books were “collected” in this manner.

In 1948 the new state of Israel used its military power to conquer as much land -designated to the Arab state according to the UN partition resolution of November 1947 – as it could, and to cleanse the newly occupied territories from their Arabs inhabitants. At the time, the books’ plunder affair was a small sideshow of the main events of the war. But seen through a wider historical perspective, the books’ looting together with the destruction of the Palestinian urban centers, constitute the destruction of an entire culture. This is a major outcome of the 1948 war. Thousands of the books were recycled into paper while others were absorbed into the library’s general collection, making it impossible to trace them today. Six thousand of these books were eventually categorized as foreign and placed in the Eastern Studies Department of The National Library, although technically still owned by the Custodian of Absentee Property. The fate of these books is much like that of the Palestinian people: unlawfully taken from their homes, expelled and made foreign in their own land. Baring the label “AP” for Abandoned Property the books are the focal point of The Great Book Robbery project.

In 1997, Benny Brunner became the first director to produce a documentary unveiling the story of the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe. Today he is the first to make a documentary about the systematic looting of 70,000 Palestinian books during the war of 1948, The Great Book Robbery. The book robbery is a facet of Palestinian cultural destruction that remains largely unknown. However, just as the Nakba became part of the international discourse on Palestine, the importance of Palestinian cultural preservation is crucial to the discussion. The Great Book Robbery is shifting the spotlight back to the books through the making of a documentary, digital library and active website. The project aims to tell this untold story. In the film’s teaser Nasser Eddin Nashashibi, one of the rightful owners of the books describes what this loss meant to him. The digital library lists 500 books with the titles, authors’ and owners’ names translated from Arabic into English. The goal is to list all 6,000 books in an effort to acknowledge their true origins. Finally, the website serves as a space for information and discussion. The latest feature on the website is the Forum a space for academics, librarians, students, journalists, filmmakers and others to share views on cultural preservation.

These stolen possessions still sit in The National Library, like treasured artifacts collected in a far off land thus denying that these books were taken from nearby Jerusalem neighborhoods. In 2008, Gish Amit, a PhD student was the first to discover documents attesting to the looting of the books. Amit researched the orientalisation of the 6,000 AP books in the Eastern Studies Department, which were moved into a socially constructed space to which they never belonged. This project aims at revealing not only the plunder that took place, but the true identity of the books. By exposing this narrative, the project reveals a new aspect of the Nakba.

In the summers of 2010 and 2011 I traveled to Palestine and Israel, hoping to learn about the conflict first hand. Driving through Israel, I was aware that hidden village ruins were remnants of the Nakba. Walking through Jaffa I noticed buildings with arched windows, once home to Palestinians, but now renovated luxury apartments for Israelis. However, I failed to see a similar pattern in Jerusalem. Could it be that in the former Arab neighborhoods of Baka’a, Katamon, or Talbiyeh, 63 years earlier Israeli librarians pillaged private Palestinian libraries? Familiar with the issues of settlements, refugees, prisoners, and the Wall, I had failed to realize the importance of the preservation of Palestinian national culture throughout Israeli occupation. After some self-educating and a lucky discover of The Great Book Robbery on Facebook, today I am proud to serve as the Communication Manager for this project with Benny Brunner.

The Great Book Robbery film is due to be released in May 2012. Aljazeera English Network will broadcast the film and so will, most probably, a number of European public broadcasters who have showed interest in the project. The digital library is always looking for more Arabic and English speakers to help with translation work. The Forum continues to grow as more pieces are posted contributing to the discussion on cultural preservation. I urge everyone to visit our website, learn more about this important project and see how you can get involved. And I will continue to write Facebook posts and tweets, using new media to bring attention to one of the oldest and most important mediums in history, books.

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18 Responses

  1. BradAllen
    January 25, 2012, 9:03 am

    This is beyond anything I have ever read about this conflict. The Nazis burned books for reasons of bigotry and ignorance, the Jews stole them to steal a history and a culture. What’s worse. This makes me sick.

    • Hostage
      January 25, 2012, 10:12 am

      In 1949 the First Israelis, Tom Segev relates that shortly after the first edition was released a friend surprised him with an Arabic version published in Beirut without his knowledge by the Institute for Palestine Studies. They had not asked permission or offered to pay royalties. He wrote: Subsequently, when I met a member of the Institute, I said to him, “I know you — you stole my book.” “True,” the man answered, “but you stole my country”.

    • seafoid
      January 25, 2012, 10:41 am

      They stole the country so the cultural vandalism was a key part of that. They wiped over 400 villages and towns off the face of the earth. They shunted half of southern Palestine’s rural inhabitants into an urban refugee ghetto called Gaza and threw away the keys. And when it was over they said the country was empty.

    • Karina Goulordava
      January 28, 2012, 4:20 pm

      Hi Brad Allen,

      Thank you for contributing to the conversation. As you know from the article, book robbery features a Forum on our website. We welcome dissent since it serves to create a more robust discussion. Please let me know if you’re interested in writing a piece for the Forum concerning your views and opinion on The Great Book Robbery. Relating it to past and current events you deem relevant would be fantastic.


  2. Dan Crowther
    January 25, 2012, 10:30 am

    Cheers Karina! Thanks for posting this here — this is story is truly repugnant. We Americans have our own history of this same sort of behavior, it seems like none of us are above this kind of cruelty.

  3. Avi_G.
    January 25, 2012, 11:35 am

    I see this as part of a larger problem, that is the Euro-centric nature of Western history and literature.

    For example, JFK’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you….” was originally written by Khalil Jubran (Gibran, as he is known in the US) in The New Frontier.

    Ironically, that too (the name, The New Frontier), Kennedy stole from Jubran.

    In the U.S., for example, the average grade school student is brought up to think that science, medicine, geography, art, architecture and history all originated in the European Renaissance period.

    Chinese, Arab and Russian history are either marginalized or non-existent in the U.S. school system.

    In Israel, however, Arab literature, art, history, poetry, music, architecture and sciences are all absent from the consciousness of the average Israeli. Israeli institutions repeatedly paint Arab heritage and contribution to the world as primitive and backward.

    So I see this destruction and theft of Palestinian books by Israeli authorities in 1948 as in-keeping with this general trend.

    • Walid
      January 25, 2012, 3:28 pm

      “… In Israel, however, Arab literature, art, history, poetry, music, architecture and sciences are all absent from the consciousness of the average Israeli. Israeli institutions repeatedly paint Arab heritage and contribution to the world as primitive and backward. ”

      Adding to the above and along the lines of what’s behind Israel’s robbery of Palestinian books, not long ago, it was trying to do the same with recorded classical Arabic music. An extensive collection of 6000 hours of recorded Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese music, some dating back to 1903 was put up for sale in Egypt. Collectors from all over the world were bidding on it and surprisingly, the most eager to get its hands on it was Radio Israel. Why would Israel want such a collection? Lebanese collector Kamal Kassar outbid Israel and won the collection and is now digitalizing it. One has to assume what evil things Israel would have done to this valuable collection.

      From Rolling Stone:

      “A unique collection of classical Arab music from artists such as Sayyed Al Safti, Sami Al Shawa, and Amin Al Bouzari will soon be available in digital format for the first time. Lebanese businessman Kamal Kassar, founder of the AMAR Foundation, fought off competition from around the world, including Radio Israel, to purchase the astonishing collection of Egyptian music historian Abd Al-Aziz Anani, which included several thousand 78-rpm records of Egyptian and Syro-Lebanese music, 33-rpms, magnetic bands, books, monographs, and catalogues of recording companies. Virginia Danielson, ethnomusicologist and visiting lecturer at Harvard University says the haul is widely considered to be the most important collection of tarab music in the world.

      “I didn’t know exactly what was in it, but I knew it was important,” Kassar tells Rolling Stone. “I started making an inventory and then discovered that what I had was unique. The core contained recordings from 1903-1935 of which no one has complete collections.”

  4. Annie Robbins
    January 25, 2012, 12:37 pm

    karina, thank you so much for all your efforts . i’m really excited to see the movie.

    btw, i listened you and susie abulwaha discussing the great book robbery on Radio Against Apartheid WPEB 88.1. hosted by MW contributor matthew graber.


  5. American
    January 25, 2012, 1:04 pm

    ” I had failed to realize the importance of the preservation of Palestinian national culture.”

    This is the supremist tactic of zionism….’erasing’ others.
    And how conquers of old destroyed ‘others’ civilizations. They wipe out all symbols and written evidence of their traditions and cultures to destroy any identification and unity of the conquered.
    When zionist like the Israeli Abm Oren for instance and others write and talk about how America was founded on the concept of Israel they are trying to a lesser degree to do the same thing…..ursup a unique American history with a story based on Israel/Judaism and zionism.

  6. Walid
    January 25, 2012, 1:42 pm

    Another example of Israelis imitating Nazis; they used the people they wanted to erase for cataloguing the looted books. From the good guys at Zochrot, a comprehensive essay on the looting by the Israelis as well as on the looting by the Nazis and how Jews were able to get their looted books and other property back:

    “… Because the Nazi government sought to understand the Jews, it often forced Jewish laborers to process and catalog the books. The conscripted staff of the Reich Security Main Office, or RSHA, found itself in a precarious position. On the one hand, Jewish librarians wanted to document and care for these stolen Jewish collections; on the other hand, they worked in inhumane conditions for a government that wanted to annihilate them. Additionally, the threat of deportation to death camps hung over everyone, and eventually most of the workers were indeed deported.13

    Similarly, Palestinian prisoners of war in 1948 were forced to loot each other’s homes, and in some cases their own, to gather books from them and prepare them for removal by the National Library.14 Since the cataloging took place only after the war ended, the labor was no longer forced prison labor, but Palestinians were still needed for their Arabic language skills. Aziz Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer with Israeli citizenship, loved his job cataloging books in the National Library, but also notes that, “I’ve seen the entire Palestinian tragedy through these books. A catastrophe.”15

    Multiple efforts at restitution of looted Jewish property have been conducted. These fall roughly into two categories: those conducted just after the end of World War II and those currently under way as a result of renewed efforts to retrieve stolen property. A few of the more instructive examples can be used as a basis for understanding and beginning to work on the case of looted Palestinian books and other property.

    In 1941, the Nazis established Theresienstadt concentration camp in a town called Terezin on the outskirts of Prague. This camp housed wealthy and prominent Jews from various countries and served as a “model camp” to show the world that the Nazis’ treatment of Jews was humane. Therefore, those in the camp were, at least at the beginning, permitted many of the amenities not usually provided to concentration camp inhabitants.16 One such amenity was a community library and bookmobile.

    Many people arriving in Theresienstadt brought books with them, and thus a collection was established. Nazi authorities soon supplemented this collection with libraries stolen from Jewish institutions throughout Europe. The books had no common language or subject, and were cataloged by professionals in the library. Eventually, the Nazis’ motivation for the operations in the library became much more insidious: Jews were to catalog materials for future inclusion in the “Museum of the Extinct Race.”17

    Eventually, the vast majority of Theresienstadt residents were deported and killed. The head librarian and one other staff member survived, and voluntarily remained in the camp for three months after liberation until they could fully organize and catalog the 100,000 volumes in the library. The books then found their new home in the Jewish Museum in Prague.18

    In the years immediately following World War II, the Jewish Museum in Prague underwent a massive process of restoring materials to their prior owners. Of more than 190,000 volumes that the museum acquired during and immediately after the war, 158,000 were returned.19 In 2000, the Czech Republic passed a restitution act that required all state institutions to return art obtained illegally between 1938 and 1945. Although not a state institution, the Jewish Museum committed itself to the spirit of the act and began provenance research on many of the items in its collection. Additionally, the museum has a section on its website called “Terms for the filing of claims for the restitution of books from the library collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague which were unlawfully seized from natural persons during the period of Nazi occupation.” Explaining that all books “shall be transferred free of charge to the natural person who owned them prior to the seizure,”20 the website lists specific instructions on how to file claims, which descendants and relatives may do so, and the documents required.

    Austria and Germany, perhaps because of their unique culpability in regards to the Nazi Holocaust, have conducted rigorous provenance research and returned more items than have most other countries. In Germany, the Lost Art Internet Database contains data on cultural objects which as a result of Nazi persecution or the direct consequences of the Second World War were removed and relocated, stored or seized from their owners, particularly Jews, or on cultural objects where, because of gaps in their provenance, such a story of loss cannot be ruled out as a possibility.21”

    Full essay:

  7. Charon
    January 25, 2012, 1:51 pm

    “…seen through a wider historical perspective, the books’ looting together with the destruction of the Palestinian urban centers, constitute the destruction of an entire culture

    This makes me sad. There was a culture in Palestine that was very unique, exclusive to that area alone. And it was destroyed almost entirely. Costumes for example:

    I’m surprised those books survived. Colonialism has a history of destroying indigenous knowledge. Perhaps it isn’t always destroyed though. When the Library of Alexandria was burned, many of the records were taken to Constantinople. Some ancient maps were discovered in the early 20th century in Istanbul, mostly Ottoman in origin. Rumor has it the real good stuff is under lock and key in Vatican City, taken there at some point before Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans.

    I wonder if any of those books are clues to the suppressed history of Palestine? Because it has been suppressed. I was reading some fringe info about the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, and even though it was fringe-sourced it did say some things that made sense about the foundation stone written of in the Christian Bible as the stone Jesus was standing on in the Roman Praetorium, which it says was located on the Temple Mount. It made sense, but it’s too taboo to talk about.

    • Walid
      January 25, 2012, 5:39 pm

      “I wonder if any of those books are clues to the suppressed history of Palestine?”

      Charon, it wasn’t just the history that Israel was after and it wasn’t for the literature either. The wholesale looting by these thieves included various civil registers that recorded people, births, deaths, property deeds, rental agreements, contracts and everything else.

      In 1982 when Sharon invaded Lebanon, Israeli forces sequestered Beirut’s Palestine Research Center‘s entire archive, which consisted of some 25,000 volumes in Arabic, Hebrew and French and served as a depository of Palestine‘s historical, political, and cultural heritage. The research center had been in the process of compiling a registry of land and various other properties that Palestinian refugees had owned in Palestine and evidently this is what the Israelis really wanted from that looting. Following international pressure, the Israelis returned the archival collection – minus the film collection – to the Palestinians, who subsequently moved it to Cyprus.

      In August 10, 2001, Israel shut down and looted Orient House in Jerusalem supposedly in a retaliatory response to the previous day‘s Palestinian suicide attack. Netanyahu and Sharon had been trying to shut down Orient House for years but internatonal pressure prevented them from doing it.

      In April 2002 Israel attacked and looted and totally destroyed the
      Palestinian Ministry of Education at Ramallah breaking doors, furniture and equipment. Soldiers carried away whatever computer equipment they hadn’t destroyed. The academic records of all Palestinian students were also taken. Other ministries were also raided and civil and property registeries were stolen. Israel’s thievery goes on.

      Looking forward to seeing the documentary this May.

  8. Henry Norr
    January 25, 2012, 2:08 pm

    Karina mentions the project’s website, including the book list, the teaser to the movie, and the discussion forum, but for some reason she didn’t include a link. It’s easy enough to guess or google, but just to save everyone that enormous trouble, it’s Well worth checking out, IMO.

  9. teta mother me
    January 25, 2012, 4:13 pm

    On the website, a participant — expat Iranian American, I think — asked if there was a likelihood of the family of Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan successfully bringing a lawsuit against IAEA and others discovered to be responsible for his assassination in Tehran two weeks ago, in a fashion similar to the lawsuit a Jewish American family won against the government of Iran over the death & injury of family members in Israel during the first intifada. The argument in the latter situation was that Iran supported the Palestinians who bombed the bus.

    To collect the award, the Jewish family has attempted to force the auction sale of ancient clay tiles in the possession of the University of Chicago and other museums in the US. The clays were entrusted to University of Chicago many years ago in the spirit of open research on ancient cultures.

    Stealing other people’s culture is not a new tactic. But it remains beyond repugnant.

  10. The Hasbara Buster
    January 25, 2012, 8:40 pm

    This example of an enlightened looting gives a whole new meaning to the expression “People of the Book.”

    • benb
      January 29, 2012, 11:32 am

      What an irony: it was the early Muslims who coined the term “People of the Book” when referring to Jews and Christians. The “Book” in this case being the Bible – old and new testaments.

  11. Karina Goulordava
    January 28, 2012, 4:28 pm

    Hi everyone,

    Thank you for the comments and for such a great discussion. As you know from the article, book robbery features a Forum on our website. We welcome dissent since it serves to create a more robust discussion. Please let me know if you’re interested in writing a piece for the Forum concerning your views and opinion on The Great Book Robbery.


  12. Justice Please
    January 29, 2012, 5:43 pm

    The mostly European Zionists had not only to erase Palestinian culture and the connection of the Palestinians to Palestine, but also conceal the fact that many Zionists had no direct connection to Palestine themselves.

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