Living, Breathing Books

M. Lynx Qualey
January 21, 2013
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Next month, Benny Brunner will bring his film, “The Great Book Robbery,” to the U.S. It has shown thus far to Israeli and Palestinian audiences, as well as on al-Jazeera, to impassioned responses.

The matter of the “great book robbery” — it sounds rather like a caper, but is not — was uncovered by then-PhD student Gish Amit. He was doing research at Israel’s National Library when he found documentation on approximately 30,000 Palestinian books that had been taken from private homes and institutions, by staff of the National Library, in coordination with the nation’s army.

Amit told Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “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.”

Not all agree with Amit and Brunner that wrongdoing was involved. The Haaretz article gives two perspectives on the movement of books from Palestinian homes, schools, and libraries into the Israeli National Library, where they were marked as “Abandoned Property” and kept with no apparent attempt to return them. By one view, they were looted with a view to under-developing Palestinian culture. By another, they were protected and preserved for some yet-unrealized future.

But, either way, the books were removed from their immediate cultural context. It is wonderful to “preserve” a cultural legacy, to forward it in a time capsule for researchers from 3020. But, ultimately, books are living, breathing atoms of human culture and belong to their moment and their readers above all.

Also: Artist Emily Jacir photographed many of the books with her cell phone during repeated visits to the library over the course of two years. Photos from an exhibit of this work can be seen online

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