The National Library of Israel: Victim of COVID-19, elections, budget war

The People of the Book cannot afford to lose their national library.

Reading room of the National Library of Israel. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Reading room of the National Library of Israel.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The National Library of Israel (NLI) last week announced that it would be freezing all its operations starting from August 17, putting all 300 employees on unpaid leave.
The move is due to a cut by the government in the library’s budget along with a “drastic drop” in income and donations, the library announced.
The NLI is both a victim of the general economic situation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, including a drop in donations, and the disturbing problems caused by the lack of a state budget for this year due to the political situation and three rounds of elections.
The library’s board chair, David Blumberg, and director, Oren Weinberg, called upon Israel’s education and finance ministers – under whose auspices the NLI falls – to help the library and transfer the missing budget, reportedly NIS 11 million.
The NLI has a venerable history. It was founded in Jerusalem in 1892. With the establishment of  the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1925, it was officially named “The Jewish National and University Library” and its collections were greatly expanded.
The library was located on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem until that became cut off in the War of Independence. After relocating several times, it moved to its current location on the Edmond J. Safra (Givat Ram) Campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1960. Under the National Library Law of 2007, it was renamed “The National Library of Israel” and a new specially dedicated building is being constructed at the National Compound, close to the Knesset and Israel Museum, to house its huge collections and meet modern needs.
The location of the future complex is not a matter of chance: It signifies the cultural importance of the National Library of Israel to the state.
There are currently some 4 million items physically housed at the NLI, of which some 100,000 items are considered rare items. In addition, there are some 60 million digitized items. With the freezing of the NLI’s operation, none of these will be available and the library’s educational, training, digital services and cultural activities will also be suspended.
As the library site notes, the collections “reflect the multifaceted Israeli culture and Jewish culture throughout the ages. There is a huge selection of books, ancient manuscripts, rare prints, photographs, historical posters, personal and institutional archives, exquisite maps, and the largest and most expansive collection of Jewish and Israeli music in the world.”
In short, the National Library of Israel is not only a national treasure, it is a treasure trove for the Jewish world.
By law, two copies of every book published in Israel is stored at the library. The Judaica Collection is one of the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in the world and the Rare Books department houses manuscripts and early printed books from the 15th-16th centuries and limited editions. In some cases, the manuscripts are among the few – or even the sole copy – to have survived anywhere in the world. The NLI also houses the vast majority of Hebrew and Jewish journals and newspapers.
As Prof. Menachem Magidor, former president of the Hebrew University, once wrote: “The role of the National Library brought with it the charge to gather and house forevermore any work produced by the Jewish people in its own and foreign tongues, and all written records or documents of Jewish history, whether concerning the Jewish people itself or its relations with other nations.
Its priceless treasures include handwritten works by Maimonides, Isaac Newton, Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, S.Y. Agnon, Franz Kafka and others, along with rare bibles in different languages and alphabets, and works of art.
It is tragic that such a national symbol and international treasure is going to waste. Although the NLI technically is the responsibility of the education and finance ministries, in this current inflated government there should be other ministers, including those for higher education, science and culture, that should realize the importance of the National Library of Israel remaining open.
The People of the Book cannot afford to lose their national library.