With deal reached, education minister ends bid to control National Library board

Yoav Kisch to appoint one member of board of directors and one of audit committee, hails ‘new era for National Library’; reports say government caved to pressure from major donors

Yoav Kisch, chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee, leads a meeting regarding the deportation of African asylum seekers at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, January 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yoav Kisch, the then chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee leads a meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, January 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Education Minister Yoav Kisch announced late Monday that he had reached an agreement with the National Library that would end government efforts to appoint the institution’s board, a plan that had sparked widespread fears for the library’s independence.

Announcing the agreement on Twitter, Kisch said that the negotiated settlement would allow him to appoint four people to the library council, as well as one to the board of directors and one to the library’s audit committee.

Under the current law, Kisch could already appoint the four council members.

“A new era for the National Library,” Kisch declared in his Twitter post, adding that he anticipates “fruitful cooperation” going forward.

“In this period of public tension it is important that agreements are reached, thus setting an example of what can be done when dialogue takes place,” the Ynet news site quoted Kisch as saying, referring to ongoing civil unrest triggered by the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul plans.

In a statement, the National Library said: “We welcome the agreement reached with the education minister and believe that this agreement will strengthen the understanding that the library is a national heritage and cultural asset belonging to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”

While Kisch sought to portray the agreement as the result of dialogue, the Haaretz newspaper reported that the government had backed down from its plans in the face of threats by major donors to end their support.

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)

Haaretz said donors to the library threatened to pull financial support of NIS 80 million ($22 million,) enough to sustain the library for years.

In a tweet, Haaretz journalist Michael Hauser Tov identified one of the major donors as Sir Ronald Cohen, the founder of venture capital group Apax Partners, who has been referred to as the “father of social investment.”

“Ronald Cohen told Bibi he would pull his money, and he surrendered,” Hauser Tov tweeted, using Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname.

The legislation initially proposed by Kisch would have allowed the government to determine the makeup of the library’s board, a move reportedly aimed at pushing out the rector — former state attorney Shai Nitzan, who was a key figure in the decision to charge Netanyahu with corruption, for which he is currently on trial.

The cabinet approved Kisch’s initial plan despite opposition from Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who said it had not gone through the necessary professional and legal procedures. But the bill was halted after the treasury’s legal counsel, Asi Messing, notified the Education Ministry that, with the attorney general’s backing, it would not be submitted to the Knesset.

Critics of the legislation had argued that granting government control over the library board would bring politics into what should be an apolitical institution.

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)

Nitzan, the National Library’s rector, 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 of bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Nitzan has been portrayed by the prime minister’s associates as a left-wing activist bent on removing the premier from office through illegitimate means.

The library, which was founded in 1892, was fully owned by the Hebrew University until a 2007 law that allowed the university to give its collection to the library. However, the university threatened to take back its collection if the government continued its pursuit to control the board.

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 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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