David Newman
Views on the Borderline

A new national library during wartime

The new National Library in jerusalem.
Souce: Public access photo
The new National Library in jerusalem. Souce: Public access photo

To be normal in these days of warfare, it difficult. I cannot bring myself to travel (not even to London) or to go to a concert or a play or an exhibition, while I think of what is going on just 40 kms away and how this continues to impact upon the whole of Israel.

At the same time, not allowing life to be as normal as is possible is, in itself, a defeat – because there is nothing that our enemies would prefer than to disrupt as much as possible, normal life – especially as they know that their ultimate goal of destroying the State of Israel is not in the cards. The more disruption and damage they succeed in causing is their objective. The fact that Israel has had to evacuate tens of thousands of people from their homes in the south and north of Israel is, in a warped way of thinking, a partial victory on their part. The pogrom which took place on 7th October, an event which was never meant to happen again in a strong sovereign Jewish State is, from an Israeli perspective, a partial negation of the raison d’être of why, for many, the state exists.

But life does, and must, go on. So this coming Sunday, 31st December, the universities will start academic year, two months after the original date, and will attempt, through shortened semesters, assistance to students who are in reserve duty and serving in the army, and welfare assistance for the many who survived the massacres of the 7th October and were witnesses to the most horrific and brutal events they could ever imagine, or whose family and friends have been killed or injured, to try, as much as possible, to bring the university campuses to life.

Yesterday, I also did a normality. I visited, for the first time, the amazing new National Library which has now opened its doors to the public in Jerusalem. It may not have the rarefied atmosphere of the old National Library on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University, a place I have visited for my research on and off during the past 40 years (and which I will miss), but it will no doubt create a new atmosphere of its own – as I witnessed with the full reading halls and the many researchers filling up the tables.

Farewell my old friend – the National Library on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University

The new library was planned and constructed over ten long years, a library for the modern era, with books (yes, books that we sit at a table and read from real pages), archives, exhibitions, online technology and an amazing robot retrieval system of material from the underground archives. The collections of rare books, manuscripts (especially rare and famous Jewish manuscripts), maps, musicology and other archives is second to none and is clearly on a qualitative par with the collections at the British Library (my favorite place to work when in London) or the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

One of the reading rooms at the new library – with chairs for the hostages and books they would be likely to read, reminding us of the realities of the present time. Source: Private photo David Newman

While the big opening ceremony, due to take place in October, has been indefinitely postponed due to the current war situation, there is important symbolism in the fact that the library was opened to the public a month AFTER October 7th. A reminder that at the end of the day, this country – in a continual fight for existence which flares up every few years – values, more than anything else, the world of education, medicine, science, arts, literature and progress. This has been the backbone of the Jewish people, through hundreds of years of exile (a product which can always be carried with them in their heads wherever they were persecuted or expelled) and has always been a key priority for the State of Israel – the library and the Hebrew University were opened long before the establishment of the state in 1948.

Source: Public access

There is also great symbolism in the location of the library directly opposite the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) on one side of the street, and the Israel museum on the other, and in close proximity to both the Israeli Supreme Court building and the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University. Political power, as represented in the Parliament, means little without strong parallel systems of education (universities), memory (history) and justice (law.)

We pray and hope for the day when, once again, everyone will be able to return to the libraries and the archives, to their universities and schools, rather than the present situation in which so many are prevented from doing so due to the ongoing conflict and war. The new library is magnificent and is a credit to all those (especially the Rothschild, Gottesman and Wohl Foundations) who helped create this cultured and civilized place for learning and research.

And yes, I hope also that the many innocent civilians who have been impacted in the Gaza Strip, thanks to the brutal activities of their own countrymen (and women) – the Hamas, ISIS, Hezbollah – will eventually be able to rebuild their lives and communities and use the billions of aid dollars they receive from Qatar, the EU, the UN and other international organizations, for libraries, schools and hospitals instead of for tunnels, missiles and military installations. I am not naive, I have been involved in much peace related activity over the years (even if current events have required me, along with many others, to reassess our positions) but there can and should be freedom and independence for all peoples and national groups, based on a common culture of science and education – as the new National Library and its opening at this time, so clearly demonstrates.

About the Author
David Newman is professor of Geopolitics in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Originally from the UK, he was awarded the OBE in 2013 for promoting scientific links between the UK and Israel. From 2010-2016, Newman was Dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at BGU.