Issue No.
156, April 2011 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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‘Absentee Property’ in Israel’s National Library.
‘Absentee Property’ in Israel’s National Library.

The Great Book Robbery

Arjan El Fassed* - the Dutch-Palestinian MP - has found room on his crowded plate to address a little-known scandal. Along with an Israeli-Dutch filmmaker and an international alliance of conscience-led individuals, El Fassed is digging up the bones of 1948, or rather the pages. Amid the chaos and tragedy of Al-Nakba, an act of common theft went under the radar, albeit theft on a grand scale that was to provide a model of Israeli policy ever since; to deny and erase Palestinian heritage from the history books.

In 1948, the Israeli army looted 70,000 books from private Palestinian collections in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nazareth, and other Arab cities. Many of these can now be found in Israel’s National Library bearing the insincere label “AP - Abandoned Property.” The story only came to light recently when Israeli PhD student Gish Amit began to analyse the labels and concluded that they represented mass cultural pillaging.

“The Great Book Robbery” team aims to build on Amit’s discovery through a documentary, a database of the missing books, and legal action on behalf of the victims. They are confident of success. “Since we started this project new information has come to light,” El Fassed told us. “We interviewed Nasser Eddin Nashashibi, who witnessed the looting of his uncle’s priceless library. His own books were looted too, among them, a book he received from its Egyptian author with a personal inscription. His book was found in the National Library and the handwritten inscription fitted to the last comma of Nashashibi’s recollection of it. We spoke with witnesses, both Israelis and Palestinians, including someone who worked on the cataloguing of the books. We also spoke with a former employee of the National Library, who described how librarians removed signs of Palestinian ownership from most of the books.”

Of the books which did not end up at the National Library, around 26,000 were sold as “paper waste,” because the librarians found them unsuitable as they contained “inciting material against the State [of Israel].” El Fassed pinpoints the main aim of the project: “to tell the story of these books and to open access to them. This is collective cultural heritage which debunks myths about Palestinians and life before the Nakba.”

El Fassed believes that greater understanding of 1948, and subsequent appropriation of Palestinian heritage, is a vital step towards righting the injustices which continue to plague Palestinians today. “Palestinian cultural life before 1948 is not widely known. Focusing on one aspect - these books, which also have a universal value - will serve to highlight this aspect. In most countries which have seen dramatic human rights abuses, establishing truth is a prerequisite to reconciliation and peace. I believe that establishing what has happened in the past and what the late Edward Said called, ‘the permission to narrate,’ is essential for reconciliation.

“The year 1948 is a reference point but we hardly know the details. For policymakers it’s easier to talk about 1967 and thereafter than to go back to 1948. All policy discussions when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict start with 1967, but it is my belief that sharing a collective past and reconciling with the truth is a must for any peace process to be successful in the long term.

These truths do, of course, reflect badly on the Israeli establishment, and for such a high-profile figure as MP El Fassed, nailing his Palestinian colours to the mast is not without risk. In Europe, the Palestine-Israel question is an extremely sensitive topic, and challenging Israeli mythology is controversial. El Fassed is not worried; “I’ve got a lot of positive responses to this project. It’s a human endeavour … and we want to open access to that cultural heritage for all who live in this region and beyond. Reconciliation starts by recognising the past and not by hiding it.”

The project fits neatly with a career spent “promoting and enhancing respect for human rights.” El Fassed began his professional life in the aid sector, based in trouble-spots across Africa and the Middle East, where he worked with downtrodden communities suffering from a lack of representation. The experiences inspired his later political and literary work, appealing to popular conscience with a variety of creative methods.

He is a fervent believer in the empowering qualities of social media and quickly became one of the most popular Dutch Twitter users, with almost 300,000 followers. Having seen the effects of such tools during the Middle East uprisings, El Fassed convincingly argues that they have become essential for proper understanding of a story. “To effectively assist and protect ordinary men and women, we need to learn how to listen to social media. The voices you hear and the faces you see on your television screens - the militiamen and political leaders - do not form the majority in Afghanistan. Neither do pirates in Somalia. What we hardly see are huge numbers of ordinary people who do not subscribe to the policies of the governors or the militiamen, and who are, in fact, quiet dissidents. People like you and me. If we listen to social media for a prolonged period, we would find not only pirates but also ordinary Somalis struggling on a daily basis to survive in one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises, not only Taliban fighters or international troops and their policymakers in Afghanistan, but ordinary Afghans who want their kids to go to school.”

Inadequate media coverage of global issues has long frustrated El Fassed, a frustration which led to his co-founding the popular news website Electronic Intifada in 2001. Now one of the most respected sources on the Palestine-Israel conflict, EI is often credited with helping restore balance to the debate. El Fassed feels that the mainstream media remain weak on the issue and that only through careful discretion can consumers hope to get an accurate and complete picture.

Although he lives mainly in Holland, El Fassed remains deeply connected to his Palestinian roots, and “The Great Book Robbery” is a personal as well as principled campaign. Born to a Nabulsi father, his relatives suffered the consequences of 1948, with many forced to abandon their homes. In 1968, his grandfather was killed during an Israeli aerial bombing in Jordan, while another relative and former mayor of Nablus, Bassam Shaka’a, was severely maimed by a bomb planted by Zionist terror group Gush Emunim. The “child of two cultures” has not escaped the struggle for human rights in Palestine, nor does he seek to. His crusade to restore Palestinian heritage via a public investigation is guaranteed to shed light on dark secrets of 1948, and provide fresh challenges to Israel’s oppression.

While he has great faith in the campaign, it will stand or fall on winning favour with the wider public. “On an individual basis and during various aspects of our work we have participation, but it’s not enough,” says El Fassed. “We could still use the help of anyone who is willing to contribute, share stories, help with translations, find eyewitnesses, and anything else that brings this story to life. We have tried to get this story out to a wide audience, and we think that with the completion of the documentary we will finally draw more participation.”

He is keen to stress the literary, rather than symbolic, value of the stolen books. “We are showing how rich cultural life was in Jaffa, Haifa, Tiberias, and other places. The richness of Palestinian literature has been widely recognised, but it is also dependent on a nation that reads and shares stories.” Now El Fassed hopes Palestinians will share his, perhaps in the form of a tweet.

For more information, visit or twitter@bookrobbery.
Text prepared by the TWIP team.
Article photos courtesy of Arjan El Fassed.

*    Arjan El Fassed is a member of parliament in the Netherlands. He is the son of a Palestinian father and Dutch mother. He was interim head of humanitarian campaigns at an international development organisation and has worked for several human rights organisations in Palestine. El Fassed is the author of Niet iedereen kan stenen gooien, about the history of the Palestinian side of his family, and has initiated several successful social media initiatives, He is also a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada.
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