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Books and Historical Amnesia

Posted on March 01, 2013 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments

A new documentary has reignited the conversation about confiscated Palestinian property. The Great Book Robbery by Israeli filmmaker Benny Brunner chronicles the story of the nearly 30,000 books that were stolen and either burned or stored away in Israel’s National Library. The National Library, in cooperation with the Haganah (a Zionist militia that would later become the Israeli military) and Hebrew University systematically pillaged books from Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth, and beyond. All of the extracted books were subsequently labeled AP for “abandoned property.”

According to PhD student Gish Amit, featured in the documentary, nearly 6000 books under the label AP remain in the National Library.

In 1948 during the violence that would predate the creation of Israel, Palestinians were expelled from their homeland, leaving behind their belongings, their houses, and their livelihoods. That period came to be known as the Nakba, or catastrophe. As the Zionist militias expelled the Palestinians from their land, they also looted their books, diaries, and writings. This endeavor functioned as a tool to suppress the history, narrative, and culture of the Palestinian people. Knowledge is power, and the story of the looting of Palestine’s books demonstrates this.

The Great Book Robbery details how the pillaging of Palestinian books was formulated into a plan that was executed systematically. In the film, Shlomo Shunami, who was responsible for the “book collection,” claims in a report that the operation was created in order to protect the books from destruction, and that the books were to be returned to their rightful owners. However, as the documentary makes clear, there was no attempt to return these books or even to make their existence known to the public.

Palestinians and various Israeli historians argue that the looting was, in fact, an effort at cultural appropriation and/or erasure. An Israeli archivist notes that behind the book looting was a colonial attitude, a belief that the Israelis were more capable than the Palestinians of looking after and caring for these books.

Hasan Karmi, father of Palestinian academic Ghada Karmi, was an owner of a private library that was targeted in the operation. Ghada Karmi explains in the documentary that her father was a linguist and book collector. He started to write an English-Arabic dictionary, an extraordinary task at the time. In 1948, when Karmi’s family was expelled from their home, her father was forced to leave all of his work behind. This too would be confiscated by Israel.

Even the Karmi home would become the property of the New York Times and the home of its bureau chief.

The Palestinians have long held onto documents that prove ownership of their homes and their belongings, labeled by the State of Israel as “abandoned property” or “absentee property.” But this documentary has propelled this conversation into mainstream media. The documentary itself reveals unequal power dynamics: Israeli filmmakers have access to the documents, the homes, the personnel, and the books while Palestinians do not. The conversation that has surfaced in light of the film is riddled with speculation about intention. But once again the story reveals the equation “knowledge = power.” 

Palestinians have long requested the return of their property, including lands and homes. In this case the library administrators tell Palestinian book owners that in order to acquire these private collections they must provide a list of book titles. This is an impossible task, as Palestinians do not have access to the books and therefore cannot produce a list of titles. By placing an impossible burden of proof on the Palestinians, once again a legal structure has been set up that perpetuates Israeli control and ownership over Palestinian property. 

In covering this story, AFP gives the final words to Israeli librarian Uri Palit, who notes that the Palestinian claim that this looting amounts to theft is “their narrative, but it's not true... [t]hey had abandoned their houses, their whole villages.” The Nakba, however, was not that simple. Over a period of two to three years village by village witnessed numerous acts of aggression by Zionist militias, everything from extra judicial arrests to massacres and aerial bombings. The Palestinians did not simply abandon their villages. 

This debate about books has brought colonial historical amnesia to the fore. 

It must be stated again. Knowledge is power. And with power one can recreate a historical account into a brand new narrative. With a state’s infrastructure, documentation, and the power to name confiscated property “abandoned property” or “absentee property,” history can be entirely rewritten. 

The documentary can be viewed on Al Jazeera’s website.

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