National Library chair: Government moves threaten very existence of institution

Education Minister Kisch said to advance proposal to take away independence of library, allow the government to appoint management

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 of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, look on, April 5, 2016.. (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 of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, look on, April 5, 2016.. (Courtesy Albatross)

The chairman of the Board of Directors of the Israel National Library, Sallai Meridor, has warned that plans by the government to make a fundamental change to the National Library Law represent a real threat to the continued existence of the institution.

“The greatest asset of the National Library is the public trust, thanks to which private individuals deposit their works and collections for the benefit of the entire public and for the benefit of future generations,” Meridor, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, said Thursday.

“Damage to public trust will jeopardize the continued deposit of national treasures in Jerusalem,” he added.

His warnings come amid reports that Education Minister Yoav Kisch is pushing a government decision to give it a majority in determining the members of the Board of Trustees who appoint the Library’s management.

“In these days of division and harming the reputation of the State of Israel, it is baffling that they plan to undermine such an important consensus, while seriously damaging such a national treasure that is so important to the public,” said Meridor, adding that the move would place the library at the whim of politicians.

On Thursday, the Haaretz daily published a draft of Kisch’s proposal and 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.

Former ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor. (Courtesy Jerusalem Foundation)

Nitzan was heavily involved in preparing the corruption charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Nitzan 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 — bribery, breach of trust and fraud — against him.

Former State Attorney Shai Nitzan speaks at the Calcalist conference in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

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.

“The attempt to change the law that was specifically legislated and with widespread agreement — without consulting with professionals responsible for the library and its partners — represents a gross intervention that threatens the existence of the National Library, a treasure of the Jewish people through the generations and a repository of Israeli culture,” Meridor said.

Meanwhile, the Walla news site reported Friday that Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara had informed Kisch that he could not include his proposal into the Economic Arrangement Bill that details how the state budget will be put into practice.

The government was voting on the budget and arrangements bill on Friday.

Baharav-Miara reportedly told Kisch that he could not include his motion since it did not go through the appropriate professional and legal procedures, was submitted without any paperwork, and “raises serious questions about the independence of the National Library.”

Netanyahu has in the past spoken about the importance of an independent library.

Speaking at the ceremony to lay the cornerstone of the new library building in 2016, Netanyahu called it “a center of culture, intellectual freedom, enlightenment and progress, which is not a small matter in the Middle East.”

Incoming Education Minister Yoav Kisch (left) at a handover ceremony with outgoing minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, at the Education Ministry in Jerusalem on January 1, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussil/Flash90)

“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.

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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