Israel’s war on Palestinian culture

In a new article made available today by the journal Jerusalem Quarterly, activist and The Electronic Intifada contributor Hannah Mermelstein discusses a lesser known part of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine — the attempted annihilation of the Palestinian nation through cultural theft and destruction.

In “Overdue Books: Returning Palestine’s ‘Abandoned Property’ of 1948,” Mermelstein focuses her discussion on Hebrew University’s Jewish National and University Library, where tens of thousands of books looted from private Palestinian libraries are stored — thousands of them marked with the label “AP” for “absentee property.”

Mermelstein writes:

To this day, the books’ call numbers begin with the letters “AP.” The National Library has thus maintained a likely unintentional collection of looted Palestinian books, easily identifiable to those who understand what “AP” means. It remains unclear why certain books were labeled “AP” and others were not. Indeed, the remainder of the 30,000 plundered books, which were embedded into the library’s general catalog and are also still housed there, are much more difficult to identify.

This study will focus solely on the 6,000 books with the “AP” designation, and aims to contribute to uncovering a particular historical episode and to offer suggestions on how to move forward with the information the study gathers. It will place the story of Palestine’s looted books in the larger political contexts of Zionism and other cases of looted cultural property during times of war and occupation, namely that of Jewish property looted by Nazis. Most concretely, it will begin to establish an understanding of how the “Abandoned Property” books at the Jewish National and University Library may be linked to their former owners and eventually restored to their place in Palestinian cultural memory.

Mermelstein compares the theft of Palestinian cultural artifacts in 1948 to the theft of Jewish cultural property by the Nazis, and discusses attempts to restore such looted artifacts to individual owners or representative groups.

The author visited Israel’s National Library to see whether she could find information in any of the “Absentee Property” books that would link the artifacts with individual owners:

I set out looking for markings such as name plates and bookseller stamps; handwritten notes, including owners’ names, dedications, and marginalia; librarians’ or catalogers’ markings; and request slips or check-out cards indicating prior use.

There are close to 6,000 books labeled “Abandoned Property” in the National Library, most of which are in Arabic. …

I looked at thirty-four books, most of which appear at the beginning of the list. They seem to be representative titles, encompassing linguistics, science, religion, philosophy, literature, and more. …

While the AP books are in closed stacks, they can be requested and viewed in a reading room. Kara Francis, an Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies graduate student at Hebrew University, visited the library on three occasions in order to view all of the requested books. She photographed any markings that might be useful and sent the data to me. Colleagues fluent in Arabic helped translate notes, decipher handwriting, and provide further context for some of the names and types of comments found in the books.

Mermelstein’s article is a must-read for anyone wanting to better understand the premeditated, comprehensive nature of Zionist forces’ attempts to destroy the Palestinian people for their colonial project in 1947-48, and indeed the decades that have followed. It also hopefully marks a step toward restoring the Palestinian people with their cultural property.

As Mermelstein writes, “This first step of acknowledging looted property can lead to the further step of return.”

The Great Book Robbery

This chapter (no pun intended) in Palestinian and Zionist history is also the subject of a forthcoming documentary, The Great Book Robbery (see the trailer below). The documentary project also involves a website that aims to build a virtual library for the tens of thousands of stolen Palestinian books, find their individual owners and advocate for their return.

Arwa Aburawa reported on The Great Book Robbery project for The Electronic Intifada last year, interviewing the filmmaker and Palestinians whose families’ looted property remains off limits to them in the library of a prestigious Israeli university (yet another reason to support the academic boycott of Israel).



Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.