Over AG’s objection, cabinet backs bill curbing National Library’s independence

Proposal would let government appoint library’s Board of Trustees, with reported aim of pushing out rector who was formerly involved in preparing graft charges against Netanyahu

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

Despite opposition from Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, cabinet ministers gave their backing to a proposal that would curb the National Library of Israel’s independence by allowing the government to determine the makeup of the library’s board, a move reportedly aimed at pushing out the rector.

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, both of which they approved on Friday.

Along with the rest of the budget and the Economics Arrangement Bill, 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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-religious coalition holds a majority of seats.

During the cabinet deliberations on the budget, Kisch and Justice Minister Yariv Levin, both members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, argued with Baharav-Miara as she pushed back against the proposal, saying it could not be included since it did not go through the appropriate professional and legal procedures, according to the Ynet news site.

“It sat in your email for a month,” Kisch reportedly responded, while Levin was quoted as saying, “you weren’t at the deliberations and didn’t give your opinion on the law. How am I supposed to predict your opinion.”

The report said Baharav-Miara wrote in a legal opinion sent to cabinet-secretary Yossi Fuchs that the proposal was not included on the cabinet’s agenda and was first brought up during budget deliberations, adding that it did not appear to have been reviewed by relevant legal officials.

She was also said to raised issues with the proposal itself, questioning Kisch’s stated goal of increasing transparency and public oversight, and raised objections to a clause that would lead to the end of the current board members’ tenure 30 days after the bill is passed into law — “an order that in practice allows the firing of the board through legislation.”

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara attends a conference at Haifa University on December 15, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

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

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.

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

The government’s approval of the bill on Friday came a day after the chairman of the Board of Directors of the Israel National Library, Sallai Meridor, came out publicly against the measure.

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

“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.

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.

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)

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.”

“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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