Was the appropriation of Palestinian books and manuscripts in 1948 a case of cultural theft or preservation?

I recently watched a documentary called The Great Book Robbery (you can watch it here). It’s about the looting (specifically the looting of books and other cultural assets) that took place during and immediately following the 1948 war in Israel/Palestine of Palestinian property by the new Israeli state. It is a sad and revealing account of the nature of colonialism; in this case it is in Israel/Palestine but unfortunately this is not a unique occurrence (the systematic looting and destruction of Iraqi cultural assets such as ancient buildings that began with the US invasion of Iraq over a decade ago is another chilling example). The books were looted from Arab homes around Israel and taken to the Israeli National Library where they were catalogued as AP (abandoned property) and put in a basement. Some of the books still bear the names of their owners in their own handwriting.

The Great Book Robbery has a number of heart wrenching scenes in which authors, intellectuals, and book-lovers talk about the books they or their parents used to own before 1948 but that were looted during and immediately after the war. It is difficult to comprehend the fact that these people escaped during the war (or were driven out) and when they returned their house and property was demolished, looted, or occupied by an Israeli family.

Also chilling was the apparent coordination, cooperation, and participation in the looting that existed between the army, the Hebrew University, the Israeli National Archives and Library, and individual soldiers and civilians. In some cases it was an explicit order from a librarian or commander, and in other cases it was ordinary soldiers or civilians who did not see anything wrong in looting that amounts to an attempt at cultural annihilation; without literature that is central to the cultural life and history of a people, there can be no culture.

The documentary is worth watching; it is in English and has English subtitles where the need arises. This is from the website:

A film by Benny Brunner

When the Arab-Israeli war raged in 1948, librarians from Israel’s National Library followed soldiers as they entered Palestinian homes in towns and villages. Their mission was to collect as many valuable books and manuscripts as possible. They are said to have gathered over 30,000 books from Jerusalem and another 30,000 from Haifa and Jaffa. 

Officially it was a ‘cultural rescue operation’ but for Palestinians it was ‘cultural theft’.

It was only in 2008 when an Israeli PhD student stumbled across documents in the national archive that the full extent of the ‘collection’ policy was revealed.

Using eyewitness accounts, this film tries to understand why thousands of books appropriated from Palestinian homes still languish in the Israeli National Library vaults and why they have not been returned to their rightful owners. Was it cultural preservation or robbery?

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