'The Great Book Robbery' (watch here), a documentary that recently screened on a number of US college campuses, is the latest attempt by anti-Israel groups to rewrite and recast the historical events of 1948.
In the film, Israeli-Dutch director Benny Brunner purports to reconstruct how 70,000 Palestinian books were systematically taken by the new-born state of Israel during the 1948 war as part of a calculated attempt to erase any shred of Arab-Palestinian culture. Seeking to explain the process by which the books came under Israeli control, Brunner interviewed former and current employees of the National Library (NL) at the Hebrew University, where the books are housed.
Palestinian author Ala Hlehel is shown at the NL claiming that by checking out volumes from the collection - even by holding them in one’s hands - one is “liberating Palestine.” The books are marked “AP” (abandoned property) as a reminder of how they were stored during the war of 1948-49 and subsequently saved by the newly established government of Israel after most of their owners fled during the course of the war. Yet Hlehel suggests they be rebranded as “SP” (stolen property) to underscore the “so-called egregious acts” of the Jewish community between 1948-49 - a claim that is repeated throughout the film.
The same narrative is advanced by Aziz Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer who catalogued the Arabic books at the NL, when he tells Brunner, “(I) saw the Palestinian tragedy through the looting of these books.” The emotional pull peaks with the interviewees claiming that housing the volumes at the NL amounts to an “official” validation of the Israeli government’s alleged cover up. Shehadeh acknowledges that were it not for the State of Israel these volumes would have been lost, yet the entire collection becomes a constant reminder that the Palestinians were “robbed” and that the books now housed in and publicly displayed at an Israeli public institution inexplicably demonstrate “Israeli colonialism.”
To arrive at the figure of 70,000 volumes, the filmmakers claim that between 1948 and 1949, 30,000 books were collected in Jerusalem and another 40,000 in Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth, and elsewhere. Most of the books - which include the Koran, novels, books of poetry, and volumes on Islamic philosophy - came from private libraries. They were catalogued by the State of Israel, which listed their points of origin, and were then placed in the NL to be used for research on Arab poetry and literature.
Some of the scenes were filmed in the Jerusalem neighborhoods where the books’ owners once lived - a tactic that allows for a number of interviewees to claim ownership and thus be denied entrance to their “homes.” Israel is portrayed as the guilty party whose actions are illegitimate, while Palestinians are confirmed as victims of Israeli theft not only of their homes but, through the books, of their culture.
A constant theme in the film is the portrayal of Arab-Palestinian despair at the hands of the Jewish community, which, it claims, “cut them off” from their Arab brethren. This ignores the historical fact that the Arab world rejected the Palestinians in order to use them to promote its respective agendas. Tellingly, Brunner introduces the film as a documentary in which he interviews Arab-Palestinian descendants of 1948 and others who validate the “Nakba narrative.”
'People without culture'
These historical fallacies are rooted in politicized scholarship. Among the institutions at which 'Robbery' was shown is the University of Pennsylvania, where the federally-funded Title VI Middle East Center hosted the film as part of its outreach and education efforts. Because of a clear lack of balance in the material, attending students were indoctrinated rather than educated. Penn’s students were not alone in being subjected to fiction posing as fact: 'Robbery' also screened at Cornell, Tufts, Brown, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Columbia University’s highly politicized Center for Palestine Studies.
Moreover, the documentary’s website, which incorporates anti-Zionist views, gives the impression of an unfolding mystery being solved by Brunner and company:
"For decades Zionist and Israeli propaganda described the Palestinians as ‘people without culture.’ Thus, the victorious Israeli state took upon itself to civilize the Palestinians who remained within its borders at the end of the 1948 war. They were forbidden to study their own culture or to remember their immediate past; their memory was seen as a dangerous weapon that had to be suppressed and controlled."
In truth, mainstream Zionists from the beginning attempted to work with the Arab population and then favored an Arab state alongside Israel. Palestinians and Arab countries rejected this arrangement utterly on November 29th, 1947, when the UN voted to partition Palestine, and thereafter.
Additionally, 'Robbery' features prominently anti-Israel professor Ilan Pappe, formerly of Haifa University and now with the University of Exeter in England, who was a driving force behind the boycott movement against Israeli academics. In featuring Pappe, the makers of 'Robbery' try (and fail) to cloak their ahistorical, biased film in the mantel of respectability by giving the impression that even Israeli Jews - albeit extreme, far leftist ones - support this narrative.
The production and widespread screening of 'The Great Book Robbery, often accomplished with federal Title VI funds, reveals systemic problems within US centers of Middle East studies, where politicized writing and teaching have largely displaced rigorous scholarship, and academic freedom has been redefined as the liberty to dispense with high scholarly standards. An intellectually dishonest enterprise unworthy of university affiliation or support, 'Robbery' should be exposed as the anti-Israel propaganda it is.
Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum