Librarians group calls for boycott to stop ‘erasure of Palestinian culture and history’

August 2013

We are an independent group of librarians and archivists who traveled to Palestine from June 23 – July 4, 2013. We come from the US, Canada, Sweden, Trinidad & Tobago, and Palestine. We bore witness to the destruction and appropriation of information, and the myriad ways access is denied. We were inspired by the many organizations and individuals we visited who resist settler-colonialism in their daily lives. We connected with colleagues in libraries, archives, and related projects and institutions, in the hopes of gaining mutual benefit through information exchange and skill-sharing. We learned about the common and unique challenges we face—both in different parts of Palestine and in our home contexts. In all our travels and work, we respected the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and did not partner with any organization that violates this call. As librarians and archivists, as people who believe in access to information, we affirm that institutional academic and cultural boycotts are appropriate responses to curtailed freedoms and are effective tools for change.

Our group was small, our scope limited. We traveled only to Palestine, and only to parts of Palestine. We were not able to visit Palestinian communities in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, or elsewhere, and our trip was only the first step in creating a network of information workers. We were privileged to visit cities, villages, and refugee camps, and to meet with grassroots activists and institutional representatives. In the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and 1948 Palestine (Israel), we engaged with librarians and archivists about their projects and their struggles.

As we travelled we saw barriers to movement everywhere: walls, checkpoints, turnstiles, metal detectors, segregated roads, surveillance watchtowers, military patrols, security cameras, and settler militias. We saw communities devastated by criminalization and incarceration. We visited the rubble of villages that were destroyed in 1948, and we witnessed the ongoing Judaization of Palestinian communities through new housing developments, unequal provision of municipal services, and the Hebraization of place names. We saw new Israeli settlements hovering on hilltops above Palestinian villages, evidence of the forcible land grabs and displacement that Palestinians have been facing for decades. We met families that have struggled and suffered through egregious violence and yet work every day to secure education, opportunities, safety and a more just world for their children.

The erasure of Palestinian culture and history is a tactic of war and occupation, a means to further limit the self-determination of the Palestinian people. Yet the richness, beauty, and complexity of Palestinian existence was everywhere evident, in the historical and contemporary cultural material produced by writers, poets, journalists, artists, archivists and librarians, and in the histories passed down through stories and from person to person. We bore witness to a culture of resistance, which in all its myriad forms resoundingly refutes the notion that Palestine does not exist.

Our experiences in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and 1948 Palestine (Israel) were complex, challenging, beautiful and deeply meaningful. We met creative, committed, and courageous activists, visionaries, cultural workers, artists, librarians and archivists. Everywhere we went we witnessed the daily lived realities of occupation and colonialism, as well as ongoing resistance and the persistent quest for justice:

  • At Aida Refugee Camp located in Bethlehem, we saw how the Apartheid Wall prevented the community from accessing nearby olive groves which had been used for relaxation, studying, animal grazing and agriculture. We also heard about the Lajee Center’s project to map the people’s histories of the camp.

  • In Nabi Saleh weekly nonviolent demonstrations against the confiscation of the community’s land and water are met with extreme violence from the Israeli military. The villagers are using video to document the violence they experience, as well as collecting the empty tear gas canisters and shell casings which are used against them. This documentation is used by the community to honor their resistance, to communicate their struggle with the wider world, and to dispute false accusations in the courts.

  • School librarians described the difficulty in obtaining Arabic language children’s literature, especially in 1948 Palestine (Israel). Many of the available books are low-quality translations from Hebrew, and Palestinian children have little access to their own literary heritage.

  • We visited the destroyed town of Saffourieh and heard from former resident Abu Arab about his experiences fleeing the town as a child during the Nakba. Abu Arab has a museum of Palestinian material culture, which he developed out of his work as an antiques collector. The museum challenges the process of ethnic cleansing and the erasure of cultural memory. Abu Arab is the brother of poet Taha Muhammed Ali.

  • Throughout Palestine we encountered cultural production by youth to preserve traditions, by the Yaffa Youth Movement in Jaffa, the Yafa Cultural Center in Balata Refugee Camp, and the Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp.

  • We witnessed the documentation of prisoners’ lives, a central experience in the Palestinian struggle against occupation. At the Nablus Public Library we saw the marginalia and creative book repairs in a former prison library collection, and at the Abu Jihad Museum for the Prisoners Movement Affairs we learned about a project to collect and digitize prisoners’ notebooks from across the West Bank.

  • We learned from the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association that the Israeli military is currently detaining 4,900 Palestinians, including 236 children and 8 members of Palestinian legislature.

  • In East Jerusalem we visited the Nashashibi Center for Culture and Literature, a rebuilt family library from which all the books were stolen during the Nakba in 1948. We also visited the Orient House, which was closed by the Israeli government in 2001 and had significant portions of its archival collections confiscated.

  • Librarians at Birzeit University told us of their success in petitioning the Library of Congress to adopt a unique call number for the First Intifada: DS128.4.

  • During a meeting with the organization alQaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society, we learned about the process of organizing across the West Bank / 1948 Palestine border, the articulation of Palestinian-specific understandings of sexual identity, and the Singing Sexuality project, which discusses sexuality through music.

  • In Lyd, not far from Tel Aviv, we saw where the library of the local school was removed and replaced with a police station.

  • We visited the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan, where residents of the neighborhood create grassroots media about the settler violence they experience on a daily basis.

  • At the El Bireh Municipal Library we learned about the Tamer Institute, which produces and publishes Arabic language children’s books that are distributed to libraries and community centers throughout Palestine.

Recognizing the barriers to movement and access that often keep the aforementioned organizations and projects from connecting with each other, and appreciating the importance of accountability to the communities that hosted us in Palestine, our delegation organized a public forum in Ramallah on our last evening together. We shared our initial ideas and asked for feedback about our observations.

While the delegation has ended, our work will continue: we will seek out and convene events in our home communities where we can share our knowledge about the effects of occupation and colonialism on libraries, archives, and Palestinian society; we will publish reports, articles, and zines that document the challenges faced—and the amazing work being done—by Palestinian information workers; we will develop an international network of information workers to facilitate skill-sharing, solidarity work, and community among librarians and archivists in Palestine and abroad; we will lobby national and international library and archival organizations to take tangible steps against the occupation and in support of Palestinian perspectives in information work; we will join Palestinians, Israelis, and international activists in campaigns for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israeli apartheid and colonialism. We will continue to learn and adapt our strategies to changing realities and will engage in critical examinations of our own positions of privilege. Through these activities we will work to support access to information in and about Palestine and Palestinian self-determination.

Librarians and Archivists to Palestine 2013 Delegation:

Bronwen Densmore – New York City College of Technology
Molly Fair – Interference Archive; Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative; CUNY TV
Che Gossett
Amy Greer – Doctoral Candidate, Simmons College
Blair Kuntz – Near and Middle East Studies Librarian, University of Toronto
Grace Lile – WITNESS
Josh MacPhee – Interference Archive; Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative
Rachel Mattson – University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana; Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
Hannah Mermelstein – Saint Ann’s School Library; Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel
Andrea Miller-Nesbitt – Liaison Librarian, McGill University
Bekezela Mguni – Independent Librarian; New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice
Melissa Morrone – Public Librarian
Vani Natarajan – Barnard College Library
Elisabet Risberg- Librarian, The International Library in Stockholm
Maggie Schreiner – Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive; Rude Mechanical Orchestra

All organizational affiliations are listed for identification purposes only and in no way indicate a position taken by such organizations on the issues raised in this statement.

This piece was posted by Librarians and Archivists to Palestine.

Update: An earlier version of this statement listed the call number as DS119.75. Birzeit University librarians have clarified that DS128.4 was the number assigned during the First Intifada, whereas it appears that the Library of Congress assigned a new number (DS119.75) after the Intifada ended. Birzeit University continues to use DS128.4. We apologize for the error.

Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 15 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Great effort by these librarians, one crucial fight is to correct the history regarding Israel/Palestine.

    • just says:

      Agree completely, Justpassingby!

      A huge thank you to this esteemed & compassionate delegation of truth seekers and tellers.

  2. John Douglas says:

    Once again, it is librarians who step up where others fear to tread. In the manufactured national hysteria following 9/11 with its infamous “Patriot Act”, it was the librarian community that resisted where it could the invasions of privacy, in the face of FBI threats, that the law called for.

    Little old ladies shushing us to be quiet they certainly are not. Bravo to the librarians!

    • just thought i’d mention not all librarians are little old ladies..

      ;)

      this is a fantastic group, i urge everyone to check out their website as i did when i was researching
      Shooting the messenger: occupation filmmaker al-Azza is arrested, 3 months after being shot in head link to mondoweiss.net

      Librarians and Archivists to Palestine, a delegation of librarians, archivists and information workers who had met Al-Azza while visiting the Lajee Center, report that Israeli forces arresting Al-Azza beat him in his bad eye:

      All the folks I spoke with on Monday in Aida Camp were distressed about this news, especially because they were told the soldiers hit Mohammad repeatedly in his bad eye during the arrest process. Mohammad still requires two surgeries on his cheek and eye to make a good recovery from the injury. Members of his family were also injured in the raid.

  3. Taxi says:

    Thank you Librarians and Archivists Delegation to Palestine.

    Your work will make a difference indeed.

  4. MHughes976 says:

    The erasure of ancient Palestine, which did exist you know, is the basis of all the other erasures.

  5. Let’s be clear – the state of Israel is NOT responsible for any unrest between Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Jordanians, Iranians, Iraqis, Shi’ites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Alawites or ethnic minorities.

    The sole exception being the indigenous Palestinian people whose land was stolen, whose towns and villages were destroyed and whose families were either killed, terrorised or dispossessed in 1948, upon the questionable authority of a then newly established United Nations that represented but a fraction of today’s international community and which employed political expediency to re-settle hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn Europe.

    However, the resettlement was not in Europe or America but in the Muslim Middle East where Arabs have lived for well over a thousand years and who were, and are, the majority indigenous people of the region. Even Israel’s first president, Ben Gurion, acknowledged that truth.

    The plain fact is that whilst the Netanyahu family, originally from Warsaw, Poland, can trace its family roots back to probably no earlier than 1800, the majority of Muslim Arabs can trace their ancestry back a millennium to just a few hundred years after the birth of Islam in the 7th .Century, in Medina by the Red Sea, just 930kms from Jerusalem.

    (The distance from Warsaw to Jerusalem is 2562kms.)

    • Walid says:

      “Let’s be clear – the state of Israel is NOT responsible for any unrest between Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Jordanians, Iranians, Iraqis, Shi’ites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Alawites or ethnic minorities.”

      Can’t agree with you on that one. Although unrest is historically present among these people, there is no doubt that Israel has a clear hand in fomenting trouble and lighting it up between the different factions in these countries. Israel’s 20-year occupation of south Lebanon with its Israeli-funded and trained militia comprised of Christian officers and Shia Muslim footsoldiers is one example. Isreal’s frequent false-flag operations and assassinations in Lebanon that result in continued hostilities between pro-US and pro-Iranian/Syrian factions is another. Iraq and its Kurdish north is another. And you have the current uprising in Syria that is being manipulated by Israel.

  6. Walid says:

    The trip didn’t provide new discoveries but simply confirmed what they already knew. Since “erasure” was what it was all about, it’s regrettable that the group didn’t touch base with Ghada Karmi or with Nurit Peled-Elhanan or the Zochrot people, at least by email; they would have learned from them than from their tours of ex-libraries and closed schools.

    • kamanja says:

      Hannah Mermelstein, one of the librarians on the list of delegates, is in contact with Zochrot, although I don’t know whether she was in touch with them on this visit. There’s an interesting article by her on Zochrot’s website, on the subject of books labeled AP (Abandoned Property) found in Israel’s National Library, a subject she also places in a broader historical context. link to zochrot.org

  7. Citizen says:

    Here’s an interesting article to add to the library list–and it does touch on specifics of the subject here addressed by the librarians–Israel As A Horror Flick: link to 972mag.com

    Of course it helps immensely to have seen and to remember the horror flicks mentioned.

  8. Walid says:

    Thanks for the correction on Hannah Mermelstein, kamanja, that was a big ooops on my part.

  9. hmermels says:

    Hi Walid, et al,
    We did indeed meet with Zochrot. We did so much that not everything made it into our statement above. We were in touch with Nurit Peled-Elhanan, but schedules did not work out for us to meet in person. We also met with a group of Palestinian school librarians in Haifa. For a complete (ish) list of all the projects and organizations we visited, see link to librarians2palestine.files.wordpress.com. Also, for a direct link to my article referenced above by kamanja, see link to jerusalemquarterly.org.
    -Hannah

  10. Walid says:

    Hannah, thanks for jumping in. There’s evidently much more to your tour than the summary of it here. Great article in the Jerusalem Quarterly and I hope everyone here takes the few minutes to read it. From it, I learned of the similar theft of millions of books and other Jewish cultural heritage by the Nazis and how mostly all of it had been returned to its rightful Jewish owners after the war. I also learned from your article that the Zionist librarians had proceeded in 1948 with the systematic looting of Palestinian cultural heritage using Palestinian forced labour to help with the actual looting in much the same systematic way the Nazis had done it to the Jews.

    There are still many unanswered questions that maybe one day we’d be reading about them from you. Questions such as whatever happened to the looted contents of the Orient House, to the written records and deeds to properties in Palestine and unreturned archival films looted by Israel in 1982 from the Palestine Research Center’s Beirut office, to the confiscated Palestinian government computers, the Palestinian academic and all civil registers in Ramallah in 2002. All these lootings were to erase the Palestinians.

    This taken from your conclusion; hope it encourages others to read your full article:

    The disappearance and theft of Palestinian cultural heritage corresponds with the disappearance and theft of Palestinian land and the largely unsuccessful Zionist attempts to disappear Palestinian people and identity. Many Palestinians talk about the ongoing Nakba that continues through simultaneous processes of occupation, colonization, and apartheid. Laws, policies, systems, structures, and attitudes keep the Palestinians struggling for survival on multiple levels. For example, the censorship of Palestinian textbooks inside Israel is not unrelated to the maintenance of a collection of so-called “abandoned” Palestinian books in Israel’s National Library.

    Similarly, the work of Baladna in Haifa or the Yafa Cultural Center in Balata refugee camp to preserve Palestinian identity is not unrelated to the efforts of Gish Amit and Benny Brunner to document the story of the AP books. The struggle of refugees to return to their homes is not unrelated to the struggle to return the AP books to their rightful owners. The abundant research in the case of Nazi looting of Jewish property is not unrelated to the need for research in the case of Israeli looting of Palestinian property.

    In July 1948, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion famously wrote in his diary about the Palestinian people, “The old will die and the young will forget.”54 The old may be dying, but the young are not forgetting. Under the surface of any interaction in or about Palestine lie the ghosts of the past, powerfully resurrected in a multitude of cultural heritage projects with one eye on the present and another looking towards the future. It is my hope that this study of the “Abandoned Property” books will contribute to an ongoing process of decolonization through memory and return.55