Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Khalil Sakakini

Stolen Identity? Stealing the Books: What Did Israel Do with Palestinians’ Literary Heritage? 

Have you seen “The Great Book Robbery”?

Gish Amit, an Israeli PhD student at the time (2005-9) said:


Nora Lester Murad posted on Jan. 20, 2013:

AP 1 corr

The camera follows two Palestinians (with Israeli citizenship) from the counter at Israel’s National Library to a table. They carry a small stack of books from a collection labeled “AP” for “Absentee Property.”

They sit awestruck in front of the collection. They touch covers showing respect for the books, their rightful owners, and the Nakba that caused Palestinians to lose their country and heritage.

One of the Palestinians opens a book and finds “Khalil Sakakini” written by hand in the inside cover. He gasps.

The audience watching the film, crammed into the basement floor of Educational Bookshop on Salah Al-Din Street in Jerusalem, is captivated.  I crane my neck to see past the tall woman in front of me.

The importance of this book, a one-time possession of one of the Arab world’s most important educators and nationalists, jumps off the screen. I feel an unspoken sadness in the room as we grasp the reality: This priceless piece of Palestinian heritage, and so many others, is held by Israel’s National Library.

This scene is one of many gripping scenes in the film, “The Great Book Robbery” shown for the first time in Palestine on January 12, 2013 to an audience of almost 150 people. The documentary by Israeli-Dutch director Benny Brunner unfolds the story of at least 70,000 books looted from Palestinian homes and institutions in 1948.

Benny Brunner, a longtime maker of films says of himself: “His work is subversive in nature and has proven to be a thorn in the collective Israeli establishment’s backside.”


It is widely known that when approximately 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled from Palestine before and after the establishment of Israel, most Palestinian land and belongings were lost.

This film highlights the plight of books. It’s a story that isn’t well-known, and to lovers of books, it is particularly tragic.

According to the film, Gish Amit, a PhD student at the time (2005-9), stumbled by accident upon Israeli documents attesting to the “collection” of books Palestinian books in 1948 as he was writing his dissertation about archives.

Among papers preserved at the National Library, Amit found detailed documentation about approximately 30,000 Palestinian books that were taken from private homes and institutions in Jerusalem, by staff of the National Library in coordination with the army.

In an article originally published in Haaretz, Amit commented on the fact that documentation of the theft was found in the Library itself. He said,

“It is the paradoxical structure of any archive: the place that preserves the power and organizes it is also the place that exposes the violence and wrongdoing. In this respect, the archive is a place that undermines itself.”

Only about 6,000 books are still labeled “Absentee Property”—and these, we were told, can be seen by logging into the National Library of Israel and searching by call numbers starting with AP.

Brunner speculates that the other 24,000 books that are listed in the documentation are either mixed in with the general collection or have been lost or destroyed.

Another 50,000-60,000 books are known to have been looted from other parts of Palestine, mostly textbooks, which Brunner speculated were mostly destroyed or sold. During the discussion that followed the film, he also made the point that rare manuscripts (estimated by a knowledgeable member of the audience as numbering around 50,000 originating from 56 libraries in and around Jerusalem) are not included in the estimates and are totally unaccounted for.

There are rare Palestinian manuscripts in the collection at the National Library, but they are not accessible by the general public. There are also rare Palestinian manuscripts at Hebrew University.

Brunner added: “We should remember the film only addresses books that were stolen in 1948. We don’t know the details of what happened in 1967, though we do know there is a pattern of Israeli looting of Palestinian books, photographs and archives, including the PLO archives in Lebanon. (when Israel entered the capital Beirut in 1982)”

To prove this point, a member of the audience later told me that a rare copy of Palestine in Pictures from the early 1920s was confiscated by the Israelis when her father crossed Allenby Bridge from Jordan in 1987 after he waited five hours to get it back. He finally asked for and was given a receipt for his book, but as history proves, documentation does not necessarily lead to restitution. The only other copy the owner knows of is in Bodlian Library at Oxford University

The Great Book Robbery, which took five years to make, was broadcast by Al Jazeera English and seen in fifty countries, and has also been screened in the three major cinemas in Israel. The director has so far been unable to arrange a showing on Israeli television.

Apparently, there is some controversy over whether the original intention was to protect the books or to steal them, but regardless of the original intent, the Israel National Library, in cooperation with the Israeli Custodian of Abandoned Property has kept Palestinian private property for over 64 years and made no effort to return it to its rightful owners.

In fact, according to Benny Brunner, until the 1950, each card in the catalog listed the book with a code that linked it to the place where it came from, thus identifying the original owner. However, those codes were erased in the late 1950s.

Those who watched The Great Book Robbery that night were visibly moved. The film showed the vibrancy of Palestinian literary and cultural life before 1948, how it was stolen (with poignant quotes by a Palestinian prisoner of war who was forced to take part in looting his own village), and the impact on Palestinian identity and well-being today.

Many seemed inspired by the movie’s concluding slide which noted that:

1) no effort has been made by Israel to return the stolen books;

2) nor has there been any organized effort by Palestinians to claim them.


1. Should there be a national effort by Palestinians to reclaim books stolen in 1948 and since?

2. What Palestinian entity is the best custodian for these national treasures?

3. Would a successful claim on books strengthen the Palestinian claim on other stolen property or would a piecemeal approach starting with books weaken the Palestinian national movement for self-determination and reparations on a broader scale?

Note 1: Nora Lester Murad, PhD, writes fiction and commentary from Jerusalem, Palestine. Her blog, “The View from My Window in Palestine” addresses issues of international development and life under military occupation

She is a life-long social justice activist and a founder of Dalia Association, Palestine’s first community foundation. She tweets from @NoraInPalestine.

Note 2: Nora Lester Murad recently went to see Benny Brunner’s film, The Great Book Robbery and reviewed it in this post.

Editor’s note: From the Book Robbery website: “We are preparing a US screening tour in February 2013. If you are interested in ordering or organising a screening in your community, group, or organisation, please contact our tour manager Karina Goulordava <karinaig89(at)> for details.”

“Culture et resistance” by Edward W. Said

(Written in April 18, 2008)

Culture and resistance is an interview conducted by David Barsamian with late Edward Said before the latter died of an incurable cancer.

Every page needs a review and much pondering.  Edward  is indeed said to be the narrator or the storyteller “hakawati” of the Palestinian cause because he manages to give a clever twist to the story in his books and conferences.

The book shows the geographic maps of how the Palestinian State has been transformed and subdivided since the British mandate that ended in 1947; a slicing scheme that the USA and European press never show.

There are maps of 1920, 1947, 1949, the Oslo II of 1995, the Wye Plantation of 1998, the Charm el-Cheikh of 1999, the Camp David map including Jerusalem, the Taba I and Taba II, the two Sharon’s plans of 2001, including Jerusalem.

No wonder that these maps are never displayed because these Swiss cheese subdivisions and the implantation of Jewish colonies would speak louder than any article.

Edward Said is an American Palestinian born in West Jerusalem  in 1935.

He pursued his schooling in Cairo before obtaining his Masters’ in Princeton and his PhD in Harvard.  He has been a tenured faculty member and professor of literature at Columbia University.

Professor Said suffered from cancer for nine years and his physician from India managed to extend his life for five years.  During his painful ailment, Edward never stopped teaching, writing and accepting to speak in conferences.

Edward Said was saying that you don’t find a single Arab university student studying about Africa, Latin America, or Japan; it is a sign of our delinquency, current cultural weakness, and our intellectual torpor.

What he is trying to say openly is that we need to change our attitude, to free our mental power from the archaic chains in order to be treated by the rest of the world as equals.

Professor Said plays the piano and is an accomplished connoisseur of classical music; he organized an evening with Daniel Barenboim, the famous pianist and chef of orchestra, in the Palestinian university of Beir Zeit.

This Beir Zeit university was closed for 4 years by Israel during the first Palestinian “Intifada” in 1996 when the Palestinians holding Israeli passport demonstrated against the social injustices; they were supported by all the other Palestinians as one people. The Indian Zubin Mehta, Israel’s Philharmonic chief orchestra, attended this cultural and musical event among the Palestinians.

The Arabs have been too long on the defensive, too complacent, paralyzed in their pain and bitterness.

Our lack of democracy in our institutions is the result of our lack of the citizenship spirit that permit tyranny, military plots, corruption, regimes of secret police, and the meddling of imperialist States in our affairs.

The only way to changing a situation is to get on with it, to start reading, interrogating, and meeting with the “Others” so that to starting knocking down the walls of the prisons we have incarcerated ourselves within.

Edward Said mentioned that Rabin, Israeli PM, said before the Oslo negotiations with the PLO that Israel wanted to get relieved from the services offered to the heavily populated areas in Palestine like Gaza and Ramallah.

Thus, the policing and health services and schools in the so-called areas under the PLO semi-autonomy that represented 22% of what Israel conquered in 1967 in Cis-Jordan were to be catered for by authority of Arafat.

Israel had no intention on negotiating the implanted colonies, the return of East Jerusalem or even relinquishing its rights for checking the entrances and exits at the borders with Jordan and Egypt.

Every Palestinian minister, deputy, and even Arafat had to obtain a permit to exit and enter Israel.  At the first opportunity, Israel destroyed the tiny airport in Gaza and whatever infrastructures that were built by European financing.

So far, since the creation of the Israeli State, the successive US administrations have donated over 135 billion of actual dollars to the State of Israel in financial and military aids.

The US vetoed every UN resolution condemning Israel’s colonial, apartheid, and racist activities.

The Israelis are conscious of the existence and presence of the Palestinians among them since they work in their hotels, in construction and drive taxis even though the Zionist movement has propagated the notion that they inhabited a desert land that was roamed by nomads.

Since 2004, Israel built the 900 miles of the Wall of Shame dividing the so-called 1967 borders with Jordan, and Israel established also hundreds of check points all over the West Bank.

Currently, most Israelis play the game of ignoring the presence of Palestinians living across town from them or across the wall: they are ashamed of this apartheid situation.

The danger to Israel is that:

1. the US Zionists sincerely do not believe that Palestinians exist;

2. that the Palestinian people is an abstraction in their imagination and thus,

3. they encourage and feel free to exert undue pressures on the Israelis to exercise the ultimate in anti-Semitism, racism and apartheid policies on the “insignificant” and lower status indigents.

The newer generations of Palestinians and Arabs have such disdain for the generations that permitted the creation of Israel that they refuse to draw any experience, knowledge and accumulated realizations from the previous generations; they are reduced to reinventing the wheel.

We do have a serious problem of relaying the previous achievements or analyzing profoundly our previous mistakes.

Professor Said is a frequent lecturer in conferences at various universities and he realized that the students and people in the USA and England are perfectly aware of the Palestinian issues and Zionists cruelty and racism.

What the Palestinian Authorities and Arab governments have to start doing is communicating with the Israeli people and the masses in the world.

Israel has already occupied the entire Jordan Valley which would prevent any link for any prospective Palestinian State to join directly any Arab country.

Since Palestine is tiny and Israel is not about to offer full self autonomy to a Palestinian State then Edward Said vision was a Federal State of Palestinians and Jews in the whole of Palestine as two people living together and sharing in the public institutions. Before this arrangement can take hold it was necessary that the Palestinians enjoy the recognition of a State of their own to administer and negotiate at parity for further arrangement that is more suited for reality.

The writer Milan Kundera said:

The struggle of man against the authority is the struggle of memory to forget (the injustices).”

Many Palestinians still hang on to bits and pieces of ancestors’ belonging in order never to forget their origins and the injustices forced upon them.

Keeping the same dialect and intonations of the grandfathers and grandmothers from generations to generations is one of the most powerful tools for memory rejuvenation.

Israel has many times invaded the cultural and archival locations of Palestinian institutions such as the Cultural Center of Khalil Sakakini in Ramallah and abroad like in Beirut, in order to steal and destroy any historical archives: Israel carried the Palestinian computers and their contents and destroyed the hard disks and the valuable manuscripts.

In his “Prison colony”, Kafka describes a system that functions 24 hours a day meant to break the will of any person so that he lose the drive to live.

Israel has instituted this monster system in the everyday life of a Palestinian, going to school, to work, to the market, to the hospital, control posts and presentation of identity cards.

Palestinians die before reaching the emergency entrance, schools are frequently closed, houses demolished, agricultural lands taken and the imprisonment of youth is common occurrence for no valid justifications. Gaza is one huge prison fenced by electrical barb wires.

The US media have the tendency to cut off persons expounding on the Palestinians’ problems and suffering.

The Zionist Michael Walzer cut off Said during a conference saying:

“It is best to stop talking about the past; just state your argument and let us move on.  The Palestinians should cease to behave as victims and start taking stock of their present.  The Palestinians have to ponder on the wounds they inflicted on one  aother”.

A listener, Hilda Silverstein, shouted at Michael Walzer and said: “How dare you ask a Palestinian not speak on his past?  Have you Jews stopped reminding the world of the holocaust and the miseries of the Jews in Europe?

Edward Said didn’t try to find balance among the different and multiple discords and lines of thinking in life but opted instead to live the differences. It is the discords and dissonances that teach us harmony and unity.

Lately Said was in hurry to deliver what he had to say


1. Edward Said wrote “The Orientalist“, “Culture and imperialism”, “Parallels and paradoxes”, “Freud and the extra-European world“, “The question of Palestine“, “Covering Islam“, “Representations of the intellectual“, “Reflections on exile and other essays”, “The end of the peace process” and finally his memoirs “Against traffic“.

2. David Barsamian, an Armenian by origin, is the founder of Alternative Radio (AR) at Boulder, Colorado. AR emits weekly and is diffused to the USA, Canada, Europe, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Jamaica.

Ralph Nader said that AR is a beam of light in the darkness of the media because it let us hear suggestions that reinforce our democracy.




January 2023

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