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Dignitaries and donors fete Israel’s new national library

Cornerstone-laying ceremony brings out the prime minister and the president, who vow to donate their fathers’ archives and writings

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu helps lay the National Library's new cornerstone, while National Library Chairman David Bloomberg, Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein, and Menachem Ben-Sasson, President, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, look on (Courtesy Albatross)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu helps lay the National Library's new cornerstone, while National Library Chairman David Bloomberg, Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein, and Menachem Ben-Sasson, President, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, look on (Courtesy Albatross)

A trowel in hand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin helped lay the cornerstone for the new National Library of Israel Tuesday, under a tent at the corner of Ruppin Boulevard and Eliezer Kaplan Street in Jerusalem.

The cement stone, still wet during the ceremony, was set on a sloped, triangular plot adjacent to the Knesset and across from the Israel Museum, at the meeting point of the city’s cultural and national institutions.

A copy of the National Library Charter, signed in 2007 and declared as the start of this rejuvenation process, was buried under the wet cement.

“The concept of the renewal of the library will allow us to place the National Library in the proper perspective in the country’s cultural fabric,” said David Blumberg, chairman of the National Library. “The National Library will be the most important cultural institution in Israel and the Jewish world.”

Netanyahu announced that he intends to hand over the archives of his father, Professor Benzion Netanyahu, who specialized in the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, to the library. Rivlin also said that he would give the library the writings of his father, Professor Yosef Rivlin, a historian and expert on the east, as well as the liturgical poems of Rabbi Israel Nagara.

Netanyahu called the national library “a center of culture, intellectual freedom, enlightenment and progress, which is not a small matter in the Middle East.”

“The National Library is part of our pluralistic society, in a place where Islamic fanatics are destroying cultural treasures, we cultivate the culture of the spirit,” he added.

The new library — which replaces the current building, completed in 1960 inside Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus — is designed as an environmentally sustainable structure, built over a total of 45,000 square meters (484,375 square feet), with six aboveground floors and four below ground.

The front exterior of the planned National Library, with benches and easy access (Courtesy National Library)
The front exterior of the planned National Library, with benches and easy access (Courtesy National Library)

Lord Jacob Rothschild, whose family, through Yad Hanadiv, is funding a portion of the library, offered what he called a sentimental note, reminding everyone that the 1918 cornerstone ceremony for the Hebrew University and the library featured the laying of 13 stones laid, 12 for the tribes of Israel and one for future generations, including the Rothschilds, whose descendants were present at Tuesday’s ceremony.

In 1925, recalled Rothschild, Chaim Weizmann said at the opening of the university and library that a fitting home for the library would be built “as soon as the architect has made the appropriate plans.”

That time has come, said Rothschild.

“For two thousand years, the writings of the Jewish people were scattered around the world,” he said. “Now, these writings, as well as future books and a wide collection of other resources will have their proper place, in the heart of Jerusalem.”

Funding for the $200 million project comes from the government of Israel, the Rothschild family through Yad Hanadiv and the David S. and Ruth L. Gottesman family of New York.

David Sanford “Sandy” Gottesman, the nearly 90-year-old financier and billionaire who is donating a large portion of the project’s funding, was at the ceremony and spoke briefly.

Philanthropist David 'Sandy' Gottesman donated a major sum of funds toward the $200 million project (Courtesy Sandy Gottesman)
Philanthropist David ‘Sandy’ Gottesman donated a major sum of funds toward the $200 million project (Courtesy Sandy Gottesman)

Gottesman said prior to the ceremony that the project touches upon his lifelong fascination with libraries and an abiding dedication to Israel.

“My brother Milton began supporting the construction of a few school libraries in Israeli schools when he learned that schools were built without libraries,” he told The Times of Israel in an email. “After Milton passed away, our foundation grew this program and to date we have constructed 250 school libraries throughout Israel.”

Gottesman said he hoped the new building would allow the National Library of Israel to take its place among the great libraries of the world and serve as a dynamic center for intellectual and artistic collaboration and creativity.

His family has supported Israel since the pre-state era, and in recent years funded Milton’s Way Bike Path in Jerusalem — also known as Park HaMesila, the train track path — and Israel’s first aquarium at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, still under construction.

The library, which is scheduled to be completed in 2020, will be a contemporary, sloping structure that will link the surrounding cultural and civic buildings, wrote Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron in a detailed description of the building, with a spacious garden, public space and art that will help join the visitors with the locals, researchers and staff who regularly visit and work in the library.

The planned kids' space at the new National Library (Courtesy National Library)
The planned kids’ space at the new National Library (Courtesy National Library)

The plan is to make the new library fully accessible to the public, with exhibitions, restaurants, a bookstore and youth space centered around the spacious, three-floor central reading room.

Books and vitrines containing the library’s collection, wrote the architectural firm, will be left at the center of the library, “forming a foundation and necessary balance against constant technological change.”

The facade of the building will be curved, elevated and cantilevered, the architects said, a contemporary take on the cut Jerusalem limestone found through the city, and chipped to resemble the stone facades required in the capital.

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