National Library wasn’t consulted on government plan to control its board, head says

Director says he heard from press about education minister’s bill that would let government determine who sits on board of directors, warns move will politicize institution

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

A view of the reading rooms of the new National Library of Israel, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, Basel (courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron, 2022)
A view of the reading rooms of the new National Library of Israel, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, Basel (courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron, 2022)

When Education Minister Yoav Kisch moved ahead last week with plans to make a fundamental change to the National Library Law, the National Library itself wasn’t consulted or even informed, according to library CEO Oren Weinberg.

The government on Wednesday began advancing Kisch’s bill, which would allow the government to determine the makeup of the library’s board, a move reportedly aimed at pushing out the rector — Shai Nitzan, the former state attorney behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criminal trial.

“No one spoke to us, except for members of the press,” said Weinberg. “I can only respond to what we’re hearing in the media. It sounds strange, to change the law of an institution but not to speak to the institution, or with the university.”

Weinberg was referring to a letter sent Saturday by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem warning Kisch that if the government moves ahead with its plan, the university would pull its content from the library.

Kisch’s office declined to respond to Weinberg’s comments.

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.

“We said in the press that we’d be happy to meet and discuss this,” said Weinberg.

The National Library Law enacted in 2007 created a board of directors of the library representing different sectors of Israeli society, explained Weinberg, who has been library director since 2010.

“It was to create a system in which there wouldn’t be any political direction or pressure of any kind,” he said.

Since then, said Weinberg, the library has become independent and flourished as a professional body that was home to all — “it offers a place for everyone’s collections and uses.”

Kisch’s proposed changes to the law, said Weinberg, create the possibility of a board chosen by the education minister, thus bringing politics into what should be an apolitical institution.

“It could create a situation that people won’t want their collections or their works held in the library, which would be a big danger,” he said.

The government’s part in funding the library doesn’t give it this much power, he added.

When first reported by Channel 12, the university’s collections in the library were said to amount to around a third of the library’s total content. But according to Weinberg, 80% of the library’s collection comes from Hebrew University.

Among the university’s materials at the library are writings of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, the archive of Shai Agnon’s works, the original copy of the Israeli national anthem “Hatikva” written by Naftali Herz Imber, the Rothschild Haggadah, considered the oldest Passover Haggadah in the world and writings of Maimonides.

The library, which was founded in 1892, was fully owned by The Hebrew University until the 2007 law was enacted. The law allowed for Hebrew University to give its collection to the library, and now the university is threatening to take it back if the law is changed.

The current National Library of Israel is located on the Hebrew University Givat Ram campus. A new, under-construction library that will cover 45,000 square meters (480,000 square feet), with six above-ground floors and four below, is located across from the Knesset.

“It was called the national library but it belonged to the university,” said Weinberg. “So it could be that it will be the Hebrew University library once again.”

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