An old advertisement poster printed on brittle green paper beckons Palestinians in Jerusalem to buy Al-Jamal cigarettes, made in Nablus.
“Smoke the products of this company and sense the Arab aroma and flavor untarnished by Zionism,” reads the ad. “By doing so, you will safeguard your revolution and prove that you respect the martyrs. You will be honored and respected by the foreigners.”
The eye-opening artifact, which offers insight into the political climate of the land some 80 years ago, is one of 600 British Mandate-period posters and announcements, mostly from the 1920s and ’30s, recently scanned and digitized by Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem. Paid for by the Arcadia Fund, the project is part of a massive undertaking by the library to make 150,000 mundane historic documents, known professionally as ephemera, available to the general public online.
Raquel Ukeles, curator of the Islam and Middle East collection at the National Library, told The Times of Israel that approximately half of the documents scanned belong to the library, while the other half belong to partner organizations and archives throughout Israel that give the library copyright for the material to be displayed.
Given the near absence of Arab archives in Israel, the library proactively seeks out Arab citizens, mostly in northern Israel, offering to buy their private collections of ephemera or allow the library to scan them, Ukeles said. The digitization project is a race against time to preserve historic material that would otherwise be lost.
“People we meet say ‘I’m sorry you came now and not a month ago, because I just threw out a bunch of stuff,’” she said. “We feel that this is an important project to preserve cultural material in the state.”
Though the Library has obtained hundreds of documents through scouting, convincing Arab citizens to cooperate with a national Israeli institution isn’t always easy, she admitted.
“Being a national institution comes with baggage for the Arab community,” she said. “We try to feel our way forward and be encouraging even if people are reluctant [to cooperate]. They don’t see this as their library.”
The National Library is undergoing a massive overhaul to make it more accessible to the general public, Arabs and Jews alike. Founded by the Jewish organization B’nai B’rith in 1892, the library was only designated by law as “national” in January 2008. Prior to that, it mostly served as Hebrew University’s main research library. In a few years, the library will leave the Hebrew University campus and move its collection of five million items to a new building next to the Knesset.
The Islam and Middle East Collection dates back to 1924, a year before the founding of the Hebrew University. It is based on the private library of renowned Austro-Hungarian orientalist Ignaz Goldziher, procured following his death in 1921 at the bidding of his Jerusalem-based student Abraham Shalom Yahuda.
Ukeles, who earned a PhD in medieval Islamic law from Harvard University and joined the library in 2010, said she was skeptical about the digitization project at first, but gradually changed her mind and is now “a huge fan of this material.”
A few months ago, the library put on an exhibition displaying the posters, including a number of propaganda posters in support of and opposition to Ragheb Nashashibi as mayor of Jerusalem.
“We displayed a poster in favor [of Nashashibi] and another saying he’s a scoundrel and a traitor to his people,” Ukeles said
Other posters also shed light on a hot debate in the academic world, of when Palestinian consciousness began to emerge among the local population.
“What this material shows is that there were multiple competing ideologies,” she said.
One poster addresses “the Arab Palestinian nation,” while another speaks to “the Arab people.” A third appeals to “Muslims,” and a fourth simply to “the nation.”
Sometimes the area commonly knows as Palestine is referred to in the posters as “southern Syria.”
“It’s a snapshot of the complexity of identities and ideologies that were led by different organizations and different parties,” Ukeles said.
Most communiques produced by government agencies are kept in the Israel State Archives, meaning that most of the material obtained by the National Library reflects politics from a popular rather than official perspective.
A petition printed by Palestinian laborers and farmers one month into the great Arab revolt of 1936, directed at the British mandate government, implores the Arab leaders of the protest to ease the economic suffering of the men on strike.
“They are saying: ‘We’re going to leave the politics to you, smart leaders, but we’re starving,” she explained.
But politics are by no means the sole subject of the posters. The library has also scanned hundreds of commercial advertisements and theater posters, shedding light on the vibrant cultural and economic life of Mandate-era Palestine.
A 1932 poster invites residents of Haifa to attend a soccer match between Cairo’s Arsenal team and the local team Islamic-Ittihad — in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Theater posters displaying Arab stars preforming in local venues, en route from Cairo to Beirut or Damascus, expose a previously unknown cultural scene and demonstrate how Palestine sat at a crossroads between Egypt and the Levant, Ukeles said.
“You feel a society and culture through these very fragile, very mundane pieces of paper,” she said. “You get to see the world as they saw it.”