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The books that bind us

The National Library of Israel is a singular monument to the power of texts to bind a fractious nation
A library official shows a 13th-century German prayer book containing the earliest evidence of the Yiddish language, at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem, October 5, 2014. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
A library official shows a 13th-century German prayer book containing the earliest evidence of the Yiddish language, at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem, October 5, 2014. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

In the 19th century, my family lived in the Bialystok area of what is today eastern Poland. In Bialystok, towards the end of that century, there was a Russian physician named Dr. Joseph Chazanowicz who practiced medicine in the Jewish hospital.

In 1890, Chazanowicz visited Palestine and conceived the idea of founding a library in Jerusalem. In 1896, he sent his large collection of books, amounting to nearly 10,000 volumes, to Jerusalem as the beginning of the Midrash Abarbanel Library, named after a great sage who was also a statesman. By the start of World War I, the library was up to 22,000 books.

At the same time as Chazanowicz was building a library in Jerusalem, the first Jewish public library – the Strashun Library – opened in Vilna. It was formed from the collection of Mattityahu Strashun, who traveled all over Europe to collect Hebrew books and rare manuscripts. The Strashun Library was true to the mission of a public library; its holdings contained books that were as diverse as its patrons, from modern Hebrew fiction to rabbinics to math books, in over ten languages. Although rooted in the Diaspora, the library sought to connect its patrons to Eretz Yisrael. The founder of the Zionist movement Theodor Herzl was supposed to visit the Vilna library in 1903 and a special guest book was commissioned for his arrival; however, this plan was thwarted by the Russian authorities.

At the same time in the 1890s, a Jewish public library opened in New York. The Dorot Division of the New York Public Library opened only two years after the founding of the library itself.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Jewish community was undergoing both cultural and geographic change. Given trends of modernity and secularization, the community was no longer solely defined by religion, as it had been in the past. However, the concept of libraries remained a unifying symbol for Jews everywhere. It was a reminder of the cultural treasures of the ‘People of the Book.’ This legacy would cement peoplehood even at a time of fragmentation. Everyone could agree on the value of a rich past, guiding Jews and how they lived, even if their interpretations regarding religious practice would vary.

For Zionists, there was also a sense of the power of ideas to provide human infrastructure for the Jewish homeland. With guest of honor Lord Arthur Balfour and Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook at his side, Zionist giant Chaim Weizmann defended a focus on intellect as central to the new enterprise. At the founding of Hebrew University in 1925, Weizmann declared:

It seems at first sight paradoxical that in a land with so sparse a population, in a land where everything still remains to be done, in a land crying out for such simple things as ploughs, roads and harbors, we should be creating a center of spiritual and intellectual development. But it is no paradox for those who know the soul of the Jew. It is true that great social and political problems still face us and will demand their solution. We Jews know that when the mind is given fullest play, when we have a center for the development of Jewish consciousness, then coincidentally, we shall attain the fulfillment of our material needs.

With differing institutional affiliations along the way, the Abarbanel Library would evolve to become the National Library of Israel (NLI).

The library had another purpose in the earliest days of the state, born as the ashes of the crematoria were still smoldering. The War of Independence of 1948 and the incoming Aliya from Arab lands would sap whatever money the state had, but it did not stop Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, whose small home was crammed with books, from allocating funds to bolster the Library. He declared, “… our first duty is to save Hebrew literature. There are thousands of Hebrew manuscripts lying idle in various libraries … Many of them have vanished in the darkness of the past or have been destroyed by the wrath of oppressors … It is the duty of the State of Israel to acquire and gather those exiles of the spirit of Israel dispersed in the Diaspora.”

NLI would continue to grow over the decades and has reached an important new step as it builds the Israeli equivalent of the Library of Congress, across the street from the Knesset. In the 19th century, the David Oppenheimer Collection went to the Bodleian; at the end of that century, the Friedland Collection went to St. Petersburg. Today, NLI fills the role of housing the largest number of Jewish texts from around the world. Just recently, the greatest private collection of Jewish books, prints, and manuscripts, the Valmadonna Trust Library from England, was transferred to the NLI.

With the nearly comprehensive collection of all books relevant to Jews and Israel, the new National Library will be a literary mecca for Jerusalemites and visitors to the city. Its new home and mandate will encourage and allow people of all stripes to debate ideas that have animated Jews throughout history. The Library’s considerable Arabic collection, one of the region’s best, will hopefully attract people of all faiths to its physical and digital doors.

Technology is now certainly taking libraries worldwide to new heights. The National Library’s goal is to digitize every Jewish book and manuscript, alongside millions of other items including maps, posters, photographs, and more. This will surely weave together Jews from all over the world, making cultural treasures accessible to every desktop and laptop. Like the book itself, the National Library’s focus is literally a task of binding.

It would be a fitting tribute to people like Chazanowicz and Strashun who possessed a unique ability to understand the transcendent power of books, to bring together a famously fractious people of different backgrounds under one roof. At a time of polarization in Israel and the United States, such reasoning together would be very valuable. As renowned Jewish thinker Jonathan Sacks said, the National Library will be “the Home of the Book for the People of the Book.”

David Makovsky, American Middle East policy analyst, is a board member of the National Library of Israel-USA. He is participating in the NLI Global Forum convening next  week in Jerusalem. He is coauthor (with Dennis Ross) of the forthcoming book Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny (PublicAffairs/Hachette, 2019).

About the Author
David Makovsky directs the Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author with Dennis Ross of the new book Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny. He is also the host of the new podcast Decision Points: The U.S.-Israel Relationship.