Sunday, 14 November 2010


The Great Book Robbery of 1948: documenting Israel's purge of Palestinian heritage

  • Sunday, 14 November 2010
  • Fouad GM
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  • Farewell my library! Farewell mansion of wisdom, temple of philosophers, institute of science, council house of literature!
    ~ Khalil Sakakini

    The Great Book Robbery of 1948 is a multifaceted cultural heritage project. It has two major components, a documentary film
    to be produced, broadcast and screened internationally and a website which is expected to develop into a multi-function platform.

    Two European broadcasters have already committed to air the film.

    Stolen Palestinian books labeled "absentee property." (Courtesy of The Great Book Robbery)

    Through rigorous research and documentation, the project reveals a hidden chapter in the history of the Palestinian Nakba. Accompanying the Palestinian expulsion and the flight of the Palestinian people at the hands of Zionist militias in the run-up to the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948, a process of appropriating culture as well as land and heritage was taking place.

    The Great Book Robbery of 1948 looks into the the systematic looting, destruction and purge of more than 60,000 Palestinian books in Palestine's archives by Jewish militias in the run-up to the establishment of the State of Israel.

    According to a review by Arwa Abourawa published on Electronic Intifada Net a few days ago, this untold story of the Nakba has remained hidden over the years until, by complete accident, Israeli graduate student Gish Amit stumbled across archives documenting the systematic looting of Palestinian books. "I came across this topic quite accidentally," Gish admits. "I spent the first few months of my doctoral studies at various archives, among them the archive of the Jewish national and university library, where one day, I discovered the first documents regarding the collecting of the Palestinian libraries left behind during the 1948 war. Anyhow, it took me a few more weeks -- and dozens of documents -- to realize that there was a story to tell. A story that hasn't yet been told and one that might enrich our knowledge about the Palestinian culture and its erasure."

    Although many Palestinian families were aware that their books were taken during the aftermath of 1948, they had no idea that there was a systematic and conscious effort to appropriate their books.

    While Palestinians and pro-Palestine activists continue to lament the loss of the nation's cultural heritage in this purge, leftist Israeli scholar Ilan Pappe describes it differently. To him, the purge is a "despicable" part of the well-organised process of appropriating the cultural assets of Palestine and its people, which is not different from the appropriation of the land, the houses, the natural resources and everything that Palestine had for the sake of the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel.

    The aim of course is a simple one - yet of great strategic importance: to erase the history of a peoples and a nation and justify granting "a land with no people" to "a [Jewish] people with no land."

    The project and documentary, as far as the website indicates, seems to focus all of its attention on Israel's war against Palestinian heritage and libraries during the Nakba of 1948. However, this war on Palestinian cultural heritage and the purge of a nation's collective memory and narrative didn't stop in 1948 of course. The Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967 allowed the Israeli army and well-trained militias to run similar operations aimed at purging Palestinian memory, documents, archives and history.

    Similarly the fall of Beirut, which had become home to the Palestinian cultural revolution, the cultural resistance since 1948 and a base for PLO fighters since the 1970s, to Ariel Sharon's armies in 1982 signaled the start of a new massacre: while Israel's right-wing allies in Lebanon massacred Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps Israeli forces targeted the archives and libraries with a wealth of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian leftist literature, documents and films. Christian Ghazi, a Lebanese director of tens of documentary-films on the plight and resistance of the Palestinian people has lived the experience and lost a lifetime of films in Israel's "great purge" of Palestinian heritage in 1982.

    The latest re-invasion and surge of violence in the West Bank in the 2000s was also used as cover by the Israeli forces to close down, confiscate and destroy innumerable archives and collections of books and documents in Abou Dis (a suburb of East Jerusalem) and other locations.


    Many thanks to Farfahinne Kob for bringing my attention to this project.

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