National Library of Israel and the books of the people

With the cultural repository shuttered since last week, its chairman tells ‘In Jerusalem’ why we should all care.

The reading room of the National Library of Israel, in Jerusalem (photo credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)
The reading room of the National Library of Israel, in Jerusalem
Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges once said, “I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.”
Books have always been considered a natural asset of the Jewish people, the People of the Book. One could expect a national library to be a must for the rebirth of the Jewish nation.
“Well, it should be, but it is far from being so,” David Blumberg, chairman of the National Library board of directors, said this week following the drastic cut in the financial support provided by the government – even before eventual further cuts due to the pandemic. Blumberg expressed concern that this cut in the NLI budget might serve as a precedent.
In a dramatic move highlighting its precarious financial situation, the NLI closed its doors last week until further notice, although it seems this period won’t extend beyond August.
The first blow to the NLI came before the pandemic. The budget as the year began was set at NIS 86 million, of which 80% comes from the Education Ministry and 20% from the Hebrew University, which uses its facilities for research. When the government cut the budgets of all ministries in January, the Education Ministry cut its contribution to the NLI from NIS 53.5m to NIS 46m.
The NLI derives additional revenues from its activities and projects, but when all cultural events, exhibitions and more were canceled due to coronavirus restrictions, an additional estimated NIS 3.5m. was lost, raising the NLI deficit to an estimated NIS 15 million. Accordingly, last week the NLI sent its 300 employees out on halat forced vacation without pay). This saves the NLI a million shekels, which ironically, the government is paying the employees through the National Insurance Institute – a sum that could have been added to the NLI budget instead of sending people home. 
“THE STATE of Israel lacks the consideration it should have for its own cultural and spiritual assets,” Blumberg told In Jerusalem.
“In fact, at first Israel didn’t have a National Library at all. Until 2007, there was only a university library that served scholars and researchers but was not open to the public. In 1950, the State of Israel was just emerging from the War of Independence with many casualties, facing a large wave of immigrants with no budgets and structures. Nevertheless, in March 1950 prime minister David Ben-Gurion urged treasury minister Eliezer Kaplan to designate a significant sum of money to track down Jewish manuscripts around the world and bring them to Israel. These manuscripts were the core of what became later the Center of Jewish Photographed Manuscripts here. That was the mood and understanding of Ben-Gurion, but it got lost over the years.
"So today, when the government faces a crisis, it seems normal to cut the budget of the National Library, as if it’s just another budget cut.”
The National Library of Israel, until 2007 called “The Jewish National and University Library,” is dedicated to collecting the cultural treasures of Israel and of our Jewish heritage. Located on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University, it holds more than five million books. It has the world’s largest collections of Hebraica and Judaica, and is the repository of numerous rare and unique manuscripts, books and artifacts.
In a way, it all began with an idea of Joseph Chazanovitch to create a home for all works in all languages and literatures that have Jewish authors, even if created in foreign cultures. Chazanovitz collected some 15,000 volumes, which upon his death in 1919 became the core of the collection, whose first home was in the B'nai B'rith library, founded in Jerusalem in 1892 and located near the Russian Compound.
In 1920, when plans were drawn up for the Hebrew University, the B’nai B'rith collection became the basis for a university library, and the books were moved to Mount Scopus when the university opened five years later. In 1948, when access to the university campus on Mount Scopus was blocked, most of the books were moved to the Terra Sancta building in Rehavia. For lack of space, since by then there were already more than a million books, some found a home in storerooms around the city. It was only in 1960 that all the books were gathered together in the building in Givat Ram, where the library continues to operate. The new building under construction near the Knesset is scheduled to be ready next year.
In 2007, the Knesset enacted the National Library law, thus officially recognizing it as a national institution separate from the university. The law changed the library’s name to “National Library of Israel” and turned it into a fully independent entity jointly owned by the Government of Israel (50%), the Hebrew University (25%) and other organizations.
“TWENTY YEARS ago, Blumberg continues, when the Supreme Court building was inaugurated, Lord Jacob Rothschild, a major figure behind that project in terms of grants and involvement, said it was time to launch another major cultural project. A committee was formed to work on the issue and included personalities from abroad, such as directors and chairmen of the national libraries of Germany, France and more. They came up with the proposal for an Israeli national library, which required a special law for a separate institution differentiated from the Hebrew University.
"This was the birth of a new paradigm – a national library to serve the local and global public, laypersons and scholars. Later came the project of digitalization, to make all these treasures more accessible than ever. This is the core of the vision and the mission.”
Today, the construction on the new building – located on Balfour Road, next to the Knesset and overlooking Givat Ram and the museums – is progressing separately from the present situation of the NLI, on a separate budget, with about 95% of the funding coming from donations from Jewish and even non-Jewish donors. But for Blumberg, this achievement – which is in a large part the result of his neverending efforts and involvement – is also the core of the problem.
“I am very concerned that the funds for such highly important projects should come from philanthropy. That’s wrong in my eyes. There is always room for philanthropy, but such a major and important asset as an institution that collects and gathers all the cultural and spiritual assets of the Jewish people cannot be only in the hands of private donors or foundations. The State of Israel has the obligation to be the leading factor.”
THE TASKS of the NLI are many. A central mission is to secure: 1) copies of all material published in Israel, in any language; 2) all publications on the subject of Israel, the Land of Israel, Judaism and the Jewish people published in any language in any country in the world; and 3) all material published in Hebrew or any of the languages spoken in the Jewish Diaspora (such as Yiddish and Ladino). By law, two copies of all printed matter published in Israel must be deposited in the National Library. In 2001, the law was amended to include audio and video recordings and other non-print media.
Additionally, many manuscripts, including some of the library’s rare volumes such the 13th-century Worms Mahzor, have been scanned and are now available online. The NLI also has special collections, such as the personal papers of hundreds of outstanding Jewish figures, the National Sound Archives, the Laor Map Collection and numerous other collections of Hebraica and Judaica.
The library also possesses some of Isaac Newton’s manuscripts. That collection, donated by the family of collector Abraham Yehuda, includes many works by Newton about theology, mysticism, analyses of holy books, predictions about the end of days and the appearance of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. It also contains maps that Newton sketched about mythical events to assist him in his end-of-days calculations.
The library also houses the personal archives of philosophers Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem. It completed gathering the collection of the Max Brod archive in August 2019, which includes all the archives and legacy of famed writer Franz Kafka – for whom Brod was both friend and biographer – “because clearly, Kafka belongs here,” Blumberg points out.
Another aspect of what can be found at the NLI is the libraries of Arabs who left in 1948. About 30,000 books removed from Arab homes in the Jerusalem area were transferred to the national library, plus 40,000 additional books from other cities in Mandatory Palestine. Thousands of these books, indexed as “abandoned property,” are cataloged and regularly consulted by the public, including Arab scholars from around the world. There is also a collection of rare Islamic artifacts and books, including editions of the Koran, from the late Avraham Shalom Yehuda, a scholar in Islamic studies, who donated his collection to the NLI.
“IT IS our duty and task to reach out and bring here all the spiritual treasures that belong to the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” continues Blumberg. “Too often such treasures fall into private hands and are lost forever to us. We need to track them, reach them and get them here where they belong.
"This is not easy; it takes time, knowledge and above all – money. This is the responsibility of the State of Israel, but too often I have the sense that Israel hasn’t fully grasped the tremendous importance of that task."
"I am outraged when I hear that cutting the budget of the National Library is just like any other budget cut," he declares. "This is awful; it says something about the society in which we live.
“This is our heritage; we have to foster and preserve it and make it accessible to all, and while we have so far obtained generous donations and grants, it is not acceptable that the State of Israel does not give its share. It is wrong to rely on philanthropy in this context.
"In order to understand what is at stake here, we should consider the National Library in Jerusalem as the Beit Hamikdash of our days – until the day come that we will have a Beit Mikdash again.”