Overdue Books: Returning Palestine’s “Abandoned Property” of 1948, Part 4

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Last week I explained the process by which I examined just a few dozen AP books, and I wrote a bit about my results. In short, we found many books with clearly identifying information, including Palestinian owners’ names. This means if we were to continue to go through the 6,000-ish books marked AP, we’d probably come up with hundreds, if not a couple thousand, with owners’ names. Does this mean I should move to Jerusalem and spend hours in the library each day doing this work? Perhaps. But I’m not 100% convinced this is the next step, or that I’m the person to do this. For one, my Arabic and Hebrew, while existent, are nowhere close to fluent. And perhaps even more important, I’m not Palestinian. It’s crucial that Palestinian people, and particularly the refugees who have been most affected by the looting of books and other cultural property, make the decision about where to go from here.

A systematic examination of the books is certainly one option. We could also try to track down the handful of owners (or their families) of the books that we have already looked at. We could try to find an insider – someone who works at the library – who is sympathetic and might be able to find out more about the still emerging story of the books. We could wait until May, when Benny Brunner’s film The Great Book Robbery is scheduled to be released, and see what further light is shed and what ideas it sparks.

We could do all this, but amidst it all, most important is to reassert that whether or not owners are identified, the AP books – as well as tens of thousands of other books that are embedded in the library’s general collection and thus harder to identify – are Palestinian books. They are individuals’ books, yes, but they are also Palestinian books in a collective sense.

After World War II, the workers at Offenbach Archival Depot in Germany did an incredible job of returning millions of books to their owners, but they also faced the question of what to do with the 500,000 or so unidentifiable books. Normally they would return them to the country or community that they were taken from, but when the Jewish population had been murdered or dispersed throughout the world, it seemed offensive to “return” the books to their countries of origin. So they embarked on a process of discussion in which they tried to be as accountable as possible to affected Jewish communities. The books ended up in libraries and Jewish cultural centers around the world, including some at the National Library in Jerusalem – the same place that now houses the AP books.

So when we consider the case of Palestine – which is uncannily similar at least in the sense of a population scattered throughout the world – we must ask ourselves the same questions. How can the books be “returned” to a Palestinian population with millions in exile? Who represents the Palestinian people? Should the books be housed in a governmental institution, a cultural NGO, a new library to be set up for this purpose? Should they be as close to Jerusalem as possible, or as far away from occupation as possible?

These are all issues I am eager to discuss with Palestinians. If you know folks whose families may have more insight into this, let me know. Next week (yes, February has 5 Wednesdays this year!) I’ll suggest resources for further education and activism about this issue and Palestine in general. And if you want to get a head start on the education and activism, check out all the events coming up for Israeli Apartheid Week. See you there!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the last part of my article:

In some ways, the importance of this story lies simply in its telling, and the AP books as a collection take on new meaning with each examination. Not only do they represent a more or less unintentional reminder of Israel’s theft of Palestinian cultural and intellectual property, but they are also a living archive with meaning in the relationship between and among the books and their owners. For example, while AP book owner Mohammad Nimer Al-Khatib was part of a number of groups specifically aligned with the famous Husseini clan, Dr. Yusuf Haikel, another AP book owner, “was considered to be an enemy of the traditional supporters of Haj Amin Al-Husseini, and a supporter of King Abdullah.” One might wonder how the books’ or the men’s relationship to each other changes within the context of a captive collection of looted books from six decades ago.

In July 1948, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion famously wrote in his diary about the Palestinian people, “The old will die and the young will forget.” The old may be dying, but the young are not forgetting. Under the surface of any interaction in or about Palestine lie the ghosts of the past, powerfully resurrected in a multitude of cultural heritage projects with one eye on the present and another looking towards the future. It is my hope that this study of the “Abandoned Property” books will contribute to an ongoing process of decolonization through memory and return.

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