Stolen books, stolen identity

on 9 Comments

Since 2010 we’ve been tracking The Great Book Robbery, the documentary by Israeli-Dutch director Benny Brunner, including here and here. But nothing quite prepared me for Nora Lester Murad‘s review Stolen Books, Stolen Identity: What Did Israel Do with Palestinians’ Literary Heritage? as she captured the audience reaction at the first screening in Palestine last week with almost 150 people in attendance.

One of the Palestinians opens a book and finds “Khalil Sakakini” written by hand in the inside cover. He gasps. The audience watching the film, crammed into the basement floor of Educational Bookshop on Salah Al-Din Street in Jerusalem, is captivated.  I crane my neck to see past the tall woman in front of me. The importance of this book, a one-time possession of one of the Arab world’s most important educators and nationalists, jumps off the screen. I feel an unspoken sadness in the room as we grasp the reality: This priceless piece of Palestinian heritage, and so many others, is held by Israel’s National Library.


During the discussion that followed the film, he [Brunner] also made the point that rare manuscripts (estimated by a knowledgeable member of the audience as numbering around 50,000, originating from 56 libraries in and around Jerusalem) are not included in the estimates and are totally unaccounted for. There are rare Palestinian manuscripts in the collection at the National Library, but they are not accessible by the general public. There are also rare Palestinian manuscripts at Hebrew University.

“We should remember,” Brunner added, “the film only addresses books that were stolen in 1948. We don’t know the details of what happened in 1967, though we do know there is a pattern of Israeli looting of Palestinian books, photographs and archives, including the PLO archives in Lebanon.”

To prove this point, a member of the audience later told me that a rare copy of Palestine in Pictures from the early 1920s was confiscated by the Israelis when her father crossed Allenby Bridge from Jordan in 1987 after he waited five hours to get it back. He finally asked for and was given a receipt for his book, but as history proves, documentation does not necessarily lead to restitution. The only other copy the owner knows of is in Bodleian Library at Oxford University

I recommend the entire review.

(Hat tip Sarah Ali)

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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9 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    January 22, 2013, 11:00 am

    I imagine (can anyone confirm?) that Israel stole (or in some cases doubtless destroyed) not only books (private and public libraries), but property-registers and other government documents.

    I think on the whole we should be pleased that the Israelis acted, in some cases, to PRESERVE what they might as easily have destroyed. Barbarous as the whole business was and remains today, of course, we must give thanks for small favors.

  2. seafoid
    January 22, 2013, 11:12 am

    History repeats itself

    “Two of the primary architects of the Aztec empire were the half-brothers Tlacaelel and Montezuma I, nephews of Itzcoatl. Moctezuma I succeeded Itzcoatl as Hueyi Tlatoani in 1440. Although he was also offered the opportunity to be tlatoani, Tlacaelel preferred to operate as the power behind the throne. Tlacaelel reformed the Aztec state and religion. According to some sources, he ordered the burning of most of the extant Aztec books claiming that they contained lies. He thereupon rewrote the history of the Aztec people, thus creating a common awareness of history for the Aztecs. This rewriting led directly to the curriculum taught to scholars and promoted the belief that the Aztecs were always a powerful and mythic nation; forgetting forever a possible true history of modest origins. One component of this reform was the institution of ritual war (the flower wars) as a way to have trained warriors, and created the necessity of constant sacrifices to keep the Sun moving.”

  3. Henry Norr
    January 22, 2013, 3:11 pm

    For anyone who hasn’t seen The Great Book Robbery, it’s available on Vimeo. Alternatively, a slightly abbreviated version (48 minutes instead of 57) that was shown on Al Jazeera a few years back is on YouTube.

    Of course, the really honorable thing to do is to buy the DVD from the movie site Annie links to, but that will set you back 38 Euros.

    Incidentally, Brunner, who works for Dutch TV, has made a bunch of other documentaries that are worth seeing, including a good one about the Nakba, a couple about the Wall, one about the Lobby, and so on. Most of them seem to be available (though in a few cases only in teaser form) at this Vimeo index page.

  4. DICKERSON3870
    January 22, 2013, 4:32 pm

    RE: “[W]e do know there is a pattern of Israeli looting of Palestinian books, photographs and archives . . .” ~ Annie Robbins

    MY COMMENT: There is a vignette dealing with this in “The Time That Remains” (2011) by writer-director Elia Suleiman.

    The Time That Remains (Le Temps Qu’il Reste) 2011 R 109 min
    From the creation of Israel in 1948 through the early 21st century, a Palestinian family experiences a myriad of triumphs and tragedies over the course of several generations in this sweeping drama from writer-director Elia Suleiman.
    Cast: Ali Suliman, Elia Suleiman, Saleh Bakri, Avi Kleinberger, Menashe Noy, Amer Hlehel, Lotuf Neusser, Nati Ravitz, Yasmine Haj
    Director: Elia Suleiman
    Genres: Foreign, Foreign Dramas, Arabic Language, Hebrew Language, France
    Language: Arabic (English subtitles)
    This movie is: Understated
    Netflix format: DVD and streaming
    • Netflix listing –
    • Internet Movie Database –
    The Time that Remains trailer – English subtitles. A film by Elia Suleiman [VIDEO, 01:45] –
    The Time That Remains | Film review | The Observer
    Elia Suleiman’s movie about life and death in the heat of the Middle East conflict is a cool, controlled minor masterpiece, says Philip French. –

    • DICKERSON3870
      January 22, 2013, 6:31 pm

      RE: “ ‘[W]e do know there is a pattern of Israeli looting of Palestinian books, photographs and archives . . .’ ~ Annie Robbins”

      CORRECTION: The above quote is not from Annie. It is from Nora Lester Murad’s film review (as excerpted by Annie).

  5. ToivoS
    January 22, 2013, 6:18 pm

    I guess we can add the many documents that US forces “liberated” from Baghdad during 2003 and are turning over to Israel. There was apparently a fairly large collection of antique Torah scrolls in Baghdad taken out by the US forces.

  6. Antidote
    January 22, 2013, 8:53 pm

    Baghdad was not the first city destroyed and plundered by the US. Here is a long article on the subject, including the plunder and destruction of Native American and Filipino artefacts:

    Predictably, the Nazis and Soviets are portrayed as the worst offenders in history. The Anglo-American bombing of hundreds of German, French, Italian and Belgian cities during WW II is, of course, not mentioned. It clearly represents one of the biggest acts of destruction of cultural property in history. Irrelevant, of course, compared with the horrendous loss of the World Trade Center as the central icon of American identity

    And, as one comment notes, the Vatican and the British Museum house some of the greatest collections of stolen art.

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