Nobel Prize winners plead for halt to government takeover of National Library

Seven laureates warn that placing archive institute’s board under political control will threaten its very existence, academic freedom and research

People seen studying at the National Library in Jerusalem, on December 30, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
People seen studying at the National Library in Jerusalem, on December 30, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Seven Nobel Prize winners penned a letter Tuesday urging against a government plans to give politicians say over who sits on the National Library’s board, a move critics say will damage the institution’s independence.

The letter was sent to President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Education Minister Yoav Kisch, who is advancing the bill to make the change.

“We are witnessing a real threat hovering over the independent nature of the national library and we tremble at becoming a tool in the hands of the regime,” wrote the authors.

The plea was signed by Prof. Avram Hershko, chemistry laureate in 2004; Prof. Arieh Warshel, chemistry laureate in 2013; Prof. Ada Yonath, chemistry laureate in 2009; Prof. Daniel Kahneman, economic laureate in 2002; Prof. Michael Levitt, chemistry laureate in 2013, Prof. Aaron Ciechanover, chemistry laureate in 2004; and Prof. Roger Kornberg, chemistry laureate in 2006.

Last month the government advanced a bill proposed by Kisch that 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 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 necessary professional and legal procedures.

The coalition had hoped to pass the bill as part of its package of budget legislation, but treasury legal counsel rejected the rider for not being in line with the rest of the Arrangements Law it was attacked to, Haaretz reported this week. It can still be passed as a bill on its own.

Artist’s impression of the reading rooms in the new National Library of Israel, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, Basel (courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron, 2022)

Learning of Kisch’s intentions, “we trembled with fear, all of us, in light of the sword held over the independence of the National Library and its ability to fulfill its national role,” the letter’s authors wrote.

They noted that, “amazingly,” the plans had not been discussed with the Hebrew University, a major contributor of the library’s collections, or the library itself.

“Harm to the National Library is harm to all of us, as one entity. A political intervention at a national, historical, and cultural institution makes it into a ball in play on the political field.”

And the authors expressed worry that the plan would have a chilling effect on academic freedom and spell “disaster for the excellence of Israeli academia and could severely impair knowledge and research in Israel.”

The letter warned that some donors and contributors to the library have already said they will freeze or consider freezing their activities, raising “deep concern for the continued existence of the library.”

The Hebrew University has publicly threatened to take back its artifacts if the bill is passed into law.

According to the authors, the university loaned its collections to the library based on an understanding that the institution would remain independent, as laid out in a 2007 law.

That law stated that the library would be “completely independent” and that the library’s institutions would be determined “in a way that does not allow appointments for political considerations.”

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.

Former state attorney Shai Nitzan in an interview with Channel 12 news, October 16, 2020. (Screenshot/Channel 12)

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.

Kisch’s 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.

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.

Efforts by the government to take control of the library come amid widespread protests against its 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, economy and security.

Most Popular
read more: