The great book robbery of 1948

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

A new documentary reveals a hidden chapter in the history of the Nakba — the Palestinian expulsion and flight at the hands of Zionist militias as Israel was established in 1948 — which saw the systematic looting of more than 60,000 Palestinian books by Israeli forces and the attempted destruction of Palestinian culture.

As the violence which came to mark the formation of Israel erupted, Palestinian families living in the urban centers and villages of the country fled their homes in search of safety and refuge. One Palestinian family after another escaped, and believing that they would soon return, many left behind their most precious belongings. As Palestinian homes sat silent in the haze of conflict, however, a systematic Israeli campaign was underway to enter the homes and rob them of a precious commodity — their books.

Between May 1948 and February 1949, librarians from the Jewish National Library and Hebrew University Library entered the desolate Palestinian homes of west Jerusalem and seized 30,000 books, manuscripts and newspapers alone. These cultural assets, which had belonged to elite and educated Palestinian families, were then “loaned” to the National Library where they have remained until now. Furthermore, across cities such as Jaffa, Haifa, Tiberias and Nazareth, employees of the Custodian of Absentee Property gathered approximately 40,000-50,000 books belonging to Palestinians. Most of these were later resold to Arabs although approximately 26,000 books were deemed unsuitable as they contained “inciting material against the State [Israel]” and were sold as paper waste.

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.

Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian activist and author who lived in Jerusalem until 1948 when her family was forced to flee, recalls that her father was an avid reader and had an impressive personal library. “My family was part of the small, relatively educated elite in Palestine at the time which has lots books,” she explains. “For the Zionists to steal those books … I don’t know, it’s shocking. Well, they stole everything so I guess it doesn’t surprise me at all.”

The cultural destruction that occurred during the Nakba has remained a relatively marginalized aspect of the wider narrative of Palestinian suffering. It is seen as a small, irrelevant detail which affected a small minority of urban elites living in the cities, as apposed to the complete annihilation of Palestinian villages that affected a large portion of the Palestinian population.

“What you need to understand is that the Palestinian loss was so massive that such details were overwhelmed,” says Karmi, who now lives and works as a university lecturer in the UK. She is also the author of several books including In Search of Fatima, a memoir of her family’s experience during the Nakba. “People lost their homes, their lives, their land and I guess the loss of books in the homes of a small Palestinian elite would not have been high up on the scale. Now that all these years have passed since the Nakba, these details are starting to emerge and their importance is being acknowledged.”

In fact film director Benny Brunner, Arjan El Fassed (co-founder of The Electronic Intifada) and others have made it their task to highlight the state-sponsored looting of 1948-49. The Great Book Robbery is a project and documentary in the making which hopes to expose the untold story of the book looting and help Palestinians reclaim their cultural heritage and even revive it (a brief video is available on the film website).

Brunner, a Dutch and Israeli citizen who has worked on various films related to Israel and the Palestinians, says “The story is really significant because it’s more than the fact that 60,000 books were looted — it’s about the destruction of a culture. That’s the real impact of this event; that’s the real significance and I think that needs to be communicated. And if possible, efforts have to be put in resurrecting the lost cultural world that was destroyed in 1948.”

Before the Nakba scattered the Palestinian elites, cities such as Jerusalem and particularly Jaffa were a hive of cultural and political activity. Well-educated elites published newspapers, magazines, books and poetry and intellectual clubs thrived and cafes served as venues for discussion of important issues. This all came to an abrupt end in 1948 and is now an almost completely forgotten chapter in Palestinian cultural history.

While the books seized by Israel were initially marked with the names of the Palestinian owners, in the 1960s this policy was changed and the books were later marked with just two letters: “AP” or “abandoned property.” As time passed, these became “Israeli” books especially as a vast majority of them were embedded in the national collection and so it became impossible to trace the looted Palestinian books. “They became ‘our’ books and part of ‘our’ cultural heritage,” says Brunner.

As Karmi explains, “What’s really horrible about the book thefts is that it’s like saying, ‘I’m not only going to steal your home and your land but also an intellectual heritage’ because they took these books, put in them in their Israeli libraries and then pretended that they were always there. Therefore we’re in a fight because we’re not just trying to reclaim something which has been sitting there gathering dust — we’re trying to reclaim something before it’s destroyed. And that’s why it’s so urgent and why [Brunner’s] project is extremely valuable.”

Right now, Brunner is trying to trace more Palestinians who either witnessed the looting or lost their books in the Nakba. “We want people to tell us how they see the event, to analyze it and to contribute to us, not only financially — although that would help — but with their stories.”

“If people care about their past and making a serious attempt to revive part of the cultural heritage they need to be a part of this project,” says Brunner. He urges Palestinians to “look into your family history and see if there is anything you can contribute to this project” and to get in touch directly if they can.

Karmi emphasizes the urgency of reclaiming this part of Palestinian history and the significance of this moment: “We are no longer in a stage of trauma or shock which Palestinians have been in for a very long time. The actual shock of losing everything and having to build yourself up again has occupied people’s energies for a very long time. Now, it’s time to reclaim our history, our culture, our towns, our architecture, our geography before the Israelis demolish everything.”

But even Karmi admits that some things have been lost forever. Manuscripts which were never published, books sold as paper waste, personal diaries or even the Arabic-English dictionary which Karmi’s father was working on at the time of the Nakba is now lost forever. Even so, both Karmi and Brunner believe that Israel must return the 6,000 books that are clearly marked as Palestinian property to their rightful owners.

Karmi also adds that it’s time for a Palestinian movement to emerge — parallel to the movement reclaiming Jewish and other cultural artifacts lost under the Nazis — dedicated to relocating pieces of cultural heritage lost during the Nakba. The Great Book Robbery aims to highlight the scale of the loss and hopefully act as a first step in this direction.

Arwa Aburawa ( is a freelance journalist based in the UK who writes on the Middle East, the environment and various social issues.

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