Hebrew U threatens to pull content if National Library politicized

University, which owns a third of the library’s contents, issues warning over education minister’s bill that aims to curb institution’s independence

File: View of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, September 7, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: View of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, September 7, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has warned that if the government moves ahead with plans to make a fundamental change to the National Library Law, the institute will pull its content from the institution.

On Friday, the government advanced Education Minister Yoav Kisch’s bill, which is titled “Increasing transparency and public oversight of the National Library,” as part of a legislative package accompanying the state budget. The bill would allow the government to determine the makeup of the library’s board, a move reportedly aimed at pushing out the rector — the former state attorney behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criminal trial.

The cabinet approved the plan, despite opposition from Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who said it had not gone through the appropriate professional and legal procedures.

Along with the rest of the budget, the proposal — which the chairman of the library’s board of trustees has warned represents a real threat to the institution’s continued existence — must still be approved by the Knesset, where Netanyahu’s right-religious coalition holds a majority of seats.

As first reported by Channel 12, the university — whose materials amount to around a third of the library’s total  content — sent Kisch a letter over the weekend warning that it “would not hesitate to demand the return of all the books and materials given to the library” if the library’s independence is harmed without deliberation or negotiation.

The letter added that the university could also cut its funding to the National Library.

The university materials at the library include writings of Isaac Newton, the archive of Shai Agnon’s works, the original copy of Israel’s anthem Hatikva written by Naftali Herz Imber, the Rothschild Haggadah, considered the oldest Passover Haggadah in the world, the Rambam’s writings and more.

A view from the Reading Room of Israel’s new national library, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, Basle (courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron, 2022)

Hebrew media reports on the bill have noted that right-wing politicians have been targeting the library for the past year — since the appointment of former state attorney Shai Nitzan as library rector.

Nitzan was heavily involved in preparing the corruption charges against Netanyahu. He came under fire by Netanyahu and his allies throughout the investigation of the prime minister in three corruption probes, and particularly since the filing of charges against him that include bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Nitzan has been portrayed by the prime minister’s associates, without proof, as a left-wing activist bent on removing the premier from office through illegitimate means.

The National Library of Israel was founded in 1892 as a world center for preserving the spiritual treasures of the Jewish people. In 2007, the Knesset enacted the National Library Law, granting it independent status by law, in order to document the cultural creation in the State of Israel and provide free access to the general public to the unique collections housed there.

Before that, the library was fully owned by the Hebrew University.

Education Minister Yoav Kisch, then-chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee at the Knesset, on July 12, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Efforts by the government to take control of the library come amid widespread protests against their attempts to also radically alter the process for appointing judges, part of a broad and radical judicial overhaul.

Critics say the moves will undermine Israel’s democracy and harm its economy and security.

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