Watch: The Great Book Robbery, Israel’s 1948 looting of Palestine’s cultural heritage

On May 15, Palestinians mark the anniversary of the Nakba, the systematic expulsion of the Palestinian people by Zionist militias that began in late 1947 and lasted through 1948 and beyond.

As well as land and properties, a lesser known aspect of that expulsion is that Israel looted Palestinian homes over their cultural treasures, among them books, manuscripts, personal papers, photographs and works of art.

The The Great Book Robbery tells the story of the systematic looting in 1948 of tens of thousands of Palestinian books in a joint operation by the Haganah – what became the Israeli army – and the Israeli national library.

The film, a 48-minute version of which is being screened by Al Jazeera this week, and is available free to watch on YouTube, is the culmination of a joint project by filmmaker Benny Brunner and Arjan El Fassed, who is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada.

Israeli denial goes on

Using eyewitness interviews, secretly shot footage, and historic images, and shots of the books themselves, The Great Book Robbery tells the story of the books and their owners, despite ongoing Israeli official denial.

Israel’s national library denied the filmmakers permission to shoot the collection of looted Palestinian books it holds, but the filmmakers did so any way with a palm-sized camera.

We see books that were taken from the homes of well-known figures, such as Palestinian diarist, educator and visionary Khalil Sakakini among others, often with hand-written notes, or dedications by or to their owners. The Israeli library catalogued the books under the code “AP” which stood for “Abandoned Property.”

The “New York Times house”

In the film, author Ghada Karmi returns to her childhood home in Jerusalem’s Qatamon neighborhood. It was seized in 1948 as the family was forced to flee, and her father, the famous late scholar and broadcaster Hasan Karmi, lost his extensive collection of books.

In 2010, The Electronic Intifada told the story of the Karmi house, which is now partly owned by The New York Times as the official residence of its Jerusalem bureau chief.

An “accidental” discovery

Although the looting of Palestinian books was an organized operation and some of those who took part in it are interviewed in the film, Israel has not been keen to talk about it.

Not only did the national library refuse to cooperate with the film, but the “Custodian of Absentee Property” which allegedly is responsible for the books, did not respond to requests for interviews.

It was an Israeli graduate student, who helped break the silence around the systematic theft. As Arwa Aburawa wrote in 2010:

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.

For those who are just learning about the Nakba or those who’ve lived with it all their lives, The Great Book Robbery is an eye-opening film.

You can also learn more about the books at the project’s website: thegreatbookrobbery.org.