Robbery of Books and Ownership of Narrative

By Susan Abulhawa

I finally watched The Great Book Robbery at the University of Pennsylvania this weekend with some friends.  It’s a film documenting Israel’s systematic looting of over 70,000 books from Palestinian public and private libraries after Jewish gangs in Palestine proclaimed the state of Israel and ethnically cleansed the native population.

The film itself is excellent and I have a lot of good things to say about it.   But I was bothered by a certain element, at the very end, which was repeated by the Director, Benny Brunner, who was at the showing to answer questions.  So I raised my hand and asked a question about it.  Mr Brunner became very defensive.

His reaction made me think and re-think on a topic that already preoccupies me on a near daily basis – namely, the Palestinian narrative: who tells it, in what context is it told, how is it told, and, ultimately, who owns it.    The importance of such a discussion regarding a people’s narrative should not be underestimated, particularly in instances of oppression and ethnic cleansing.

Putting aside the single, albeit important, element that bothered me in the film, and the film director’s unfortunate reaction to uncomfortable questions, I will first tell you everything that was right and good about this documentary.  For starters, it unveils another facet of the Zionist project to strip the indigenous Palestinians of everything tangible and intangible, not merely out of pure greed and opportunism, but also to necessarily fill in the various gaps and requirements of manufacturing a Jewish state in the 20th century.  This documentary deals with our books – some ancient, others contemporary; some rare one-of-a-kind books, others reproduced.  Most of them were personal, all were historic, and each was a piece of Palestinian cultural and intellectual heritage and identity.

As Zionists did with our homes, bank accounts, photographs, farms, orchards, and all remaining worldly possessions, they also stole our books.    A large number of them were looted from wealthy families from Jerusalem and Haifa, and in the process of watching this documentary, the viewer gets a sense of the cultured and highly-educated Palestinian society that was dispossessed of home and history by foreign Jewish newcomers.  One man in the audience made reference to this in a comment to the director.  This film clearly changed the image of Palestinians in his mind from something other than cultured, to people he could relate to.   That says something about the film’s power.

Several Palestinian personalities were featured, including Nasser Nashashibi, whose tears fell as he spoke of the loss of his library.  Ghada Karmi, too, was in the film.  Footage showed her returning to her home in Qatamon and finding the same lemon tree and porch tiles from her youth.  Another poignant interview was with a Palestinian by the name of Ahmed Batrawi.  He described himself as a prisoner of war who was forced to work and to clear out other Palestinian homes, including his own, and turn over all loot to Zionist authorities.  Although the director did not mention this, all evidence points to Batrawi having been in one of the many forced labor camps that Israel apparently established just 4 years after Nazis closed the last of their forced labor camps.  Little is known of these camps and I first heard of them from Dr Salman Abu Sitta, whose research into the archives of the Swiss Red Cross revealed 5 camps with 6,360 prisoners who were forced into slave labor after 1948.  But I digress.

The story was haunting and compelling.  It provoked anger in me that plunged into a depth of sadness and loss.  I think it would seem silly to some to mourn old books, especially when there is so much more to mourn, from stolen futures to extinguished lives.  But perhaps it is precisely for the magnitude of our loss that our books, our intellectual heritage and narrative, matter so much.

Now I’ll tell you what bothered me about this film.  Toward the end, text appeared on the screen to tell us that no attempts have ever been made to return any of these stolen books (marked abandoned property in the Israeli national library).    Immediately after, there was text indicating that there has also been no organized Palestinian demand for these books to be returned.  My well-honed antennae perked up with this statement and I sat through much of the Q&A session ruminating about the unspoken meaning of those words, particularly as they were coming from an Israeli filmmaker. In one of his responses to questions, he made another reference to Palestinian inability to coalesce around a demand for those books, “whose ownership is easily proven.”

It was here that I raised my hand.  I asked the first of my questions, which didn’t pertain to what really annoyed me: “Palestinians can prove ownership of nearly all of Israel, what makes you think that demanding our books back would get a result different than demanding our homes back?”  He said it didn’t matter whether we got them back or not, what mattered was the demand.

It seems that Israelis, especially those referred to as “leftists” can’t help but to lecture Palestinians.  The kind of paternalistic finger wagging the director was doing seemed so natural. Even when I questioned him about it, he was indignant and self-assured in his right to criticize.

I reminded him that they – yes, he is part of the “they” – have taken everything from us and with what gall, with what right, did he think he could wag his finger at us when heroes like Samer Issawi are dying of hunger in their prisons.

He didn’t get it.  And few in the audience understood my perspective.  What an angry, ungrateful Palestinian I was being!  This Israeli was on our side and here I was jumping all over the poor guy.  Even the Palestinian young woman who organized the event stood up to defend Mr Brunner.  I asked her sit down if she was going to try to squash this discussion because he, the director, should be able to answer uncomfortable questions.

Mr Brunner defended his position and said he did indeed have a right to criticize Palestinians. He said the books were part of his history, too.  I disagreed.  The legacy of theft was all, and is all, he can claim of those books.  Anything else is as ridiculous and laughable as “Israeli couscous” and “Israeli hummus”.

Mr Brunner further lectured that an ideal “solution” to the problem of these stolen books would be that photocopied replicas remain in the Israeli library while the originals could go to the “Birzeit library”.  An astute Palestinian woman behind me asked why he thought they should be transferred to Birzeit when these books came from Jerusalem, Haifa, Yaffa, Lod, and other Palestinian towns quite a distance from Birzeit.  His response?  “It doesn’t have to be only Birzeit.  The books can be split between there and Nablus, for example.”   He clearly didn’t understand what the woman was asking or the deeply Zionist underpinnings of his response.

In his irrelevant response that followed, Brunner recounted how he was not permitted to participate in the showing of his film in Ramallah because his participation would have constituted normalization.  He was indignant that Palestinians would not want to engage in a cultural event with an Israeli in Ramallah.  Again, he didn’t get it.

It is not for Mr Brunner to lecture or criticize us.  It is not up to him plot an ideal future for our books, one that is suitable to Zionist desires relocate Palestinian identity to the confines of “Birzeit” or “Nablus”, “for example.”  Nor is it for him to decide or even express an opinion on how Palestinians should conduct a non-violent anti-normalization struggle.

This is an important lesson for us.  Just because and Israeli makes a film and admits that Israel murdered, dispossessed, robbed, disinherited, marginalized, and terrorized Palestinians, it doesn’t mean they really understand.   It doesn’t mean that they have a right to our story.  Most of all, it doesn’t give them a right to express their endless subtext of ineffectual Palestinian efforts.   We know our weaknesses and we know our (official) leaders have fallen short of leadership.  Given the magnitude of his societies crimes against the indigenous population and the fact that Israeli society keeps electing one war criminal after another to lead them, perhaps Brunner should focus his criticism at his own and just stick to that.

I recounted this story recently to a friend who is African American.  He laughed, cut me off, and said, “Susie, you don’t need to explain it to me.  I’m a black man.  You know how many do-gooder white people have tried to lecture me on everything wrong in the Black community and what we need to do to fix it?”

The fact is that Mr Brunner’s film is wonderful and he’s being compensated for it, with whatever funds, fame or recognition the film brings.  And while there is nothing wrong with an Israeli contributing to our narrative, it is not okay for him or her to try to frame that narrative or the discussion of our narrative.  When an Israeli filmmaker cannot understand why an occupied, imprisoned, oppressed society might not want to normalize relationships with members of the occupier’s society, that filmmaker does not have the right to condescend and criticize.  That is something that must be earned by Israelis, and there are certainly some who have.  They are those who have truly joined Palestinian society in one way or another.  People like Neta Golan and Amira Haas come to mind.

The fact is also this:  For societies that have been stripped of everything tangible and intangible, so little remains.   Some of us still have a little property left.  Some still have the privilege to wake up and see the land our forefathers and foremothers roamed (and the price of that privilege is living under the hell of occupation).  But the one thing we all still have is our narrative.  Our collective story.  Our societal truth that’s made up of millions of individual histories.  We should all guard, protect, and propagate that.  It’s ours.  We are the natural descendants of every tribe that ruled or submitted in that land, every conqueror who passed through and raped our mothers, every battle, every harvest, every wedding.  We didn’t step off European boats and proceed to kill, terrorize, or steal everything in sight.  I’d like every liberal Zionist or Israeli leftist to remember that before he or she presumes to adopt a paternal tone that criticizes or tries to shape the Palestinian narrative or Palestinian struggle.

– Susan Abulhawa is the author of the international bestselling novel, Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury, 2010) – – and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine – She contributed this article to

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  1. How sad.Another tragic along with all the other othrosogies the palestians have to faceLong live Palestine.long live the Palestinians.

  2. Susan, what an incredibly cogent and constructive essay! I’m certain that you’ve stated, in an eloquent & forceful manner, feelings that many have had yet lacked the words to express. Congratulations & Kudos!

  3. Well said, Suzie!
    It’s sadly correct: no one can represent us, our memories, our history, our collective dreams, our life! What an indictment of understanding. But true.
    The problem of theft is starker, more awful than the film you mention. It’s brilliantly presented in a book the PC reviewed some time ago which plots Palestinian history, it’s ‘facts’, its erasure by Israelis – the lies now adopted and inhabited. The book is called “HIDDEN HISTORIES – Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean” by Basem L Ra’ad, published in UK by the Pluto Press, ISBN (PB) 978 0 7453 2830 0. Great scholarship, facinating investigations of language and customs. History as it should be presented, as it must!
    The truth about the incursion of the Israeli state, the truth about its theft, its murder, its erasure of Palesinians must become a part of any state solution in the M.E.
    Sadly, America’s history is queezily similar. No wonder the US obfuscates the Jewish question.
    But (after your stern words) those of us not Palestinian need a sort of a voice too. Don’t you think?

    • Perhaps you could flesh out your reservations about Amira Hass, Joe, so that we can see where you’re coming from.

  4. Susie is a great writer. She knows how to put into words the feelings that sometimes you can not understand …

    When I read: “It provoked anger in me that plunged into a depth of sadness and loss”, I understood what happened to me when I watched the film in Jerusalem.

    My feelings of unrest and anxiety were only a little bit relieved when I cried….. my sadness, my anger, and my sense of powerlessness were overwhelming.

    Keep writing…….. Susie

  5. You write ‘It is not for Mr Brunner to lecture or criticize us’, but of course anyone is free to criticize anyone. And you have the right to be upset about it and criticize back (as in the Q&A and in this blog post). If there is a grain of truth and it makes you rethink your strategy so much for the better. What doesn’t kill you, will make you stronger.

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