Apr 2013 Journal
Letter from Israel
What was formerly known as the Israel National and University Library has been situated on the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus (now known as the Edmund Safra Campus) since its construction in the early 1960s. I remember the imposing yet welcoming building in which I spent many happy hours, studying and occasionally also catching up on journals and magazines from England during the 1960s when I was a graduate student in the nearby Kaplan building for the Social Sciences. In those days, the air-conditioning in the library was so powerful that one had to take a woolly jumper even in the heat of summer. The Ardon windows with their message of the universality of learning dominated the upper lobby with vibrant colours. It was difficult to resist the temptation just to sit and gaze at them, drinking in their beauty.
The origins of the library lie in the mists of time, in 1892, when the B’nai B’rith library was founded in Jerusalem, constituting the first public library for the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine. In 1925 the collection formed the core of the library on Mount Scopus, the original site of the newly inaugurated Hebrew University.
In 1948, when access to the university campus on Mount Scopus was blocked, most of the books were moved to the university's temporary quarters in the Terra Sancta building in Rehavia. By that time, the university collection included over one million books. For lack of space, some of the books were placed in storerooms around the city. In 1960 they were moved to the new JNUL (Jewish National and University Library) building in Givat Ram. I recall being informed in confidence in 1965 by a friend who was off to do military service on Mount Scopus that he had been instructed to surreptitiously bring as many books as possible back from the Mount Scopus campus.
In the late 1970s, when the new university complex on Mount Scopus was inaugurated and the faculties of law, the humanities and social science returned there, departmental libraries opened on that campus and the number of visitors to the Givat Ram library dropped. Nevertheless, the library continued to exhibit parts of its remarkable collection of texts.
The library holds some of the world’s most important documents, among them ancient Hebrew texts, Albert Einstein’s correspondence, Isaac Newton’s Bible-based musings and calculations regarding the ‘End of Days’, unique exemplars of ancient maps, both those of the world and those referring specifically to Palestine, recordings and musical notation of Jewish and ethnic music, Franz Kafka’s manuscripts, the writings of Maimonides, Stefan Zweig, Martin Buber and many others.
But despite its impressive architecture, the building is beginning to show signs of old age and a new site has been designated for it, a stone’s throw from the university campus, on the outer edge of the area containing the government ministries, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Bank of Israel, and facing the area where the Knesset, the Israel Museum, the Bible Lands Museum and the Science Museum are to be found. According to the sign that has gone up at the site, the new building will be financed jointly by the government of Israel and Yad Hanadiv (the Rothschild Foundation), which funded the construction of the Knesset and the Supreme Court building. A competition has been held and architects have been chosen, so that the new building is expected to be completed by July 2017.
Although I haven’t needed to use the library for many years, it still holds a warm place in my heart.