Monday, October 21, 2013

Librarians and Archivists to Palestine

This is a guest post by Hannah Mermelstein, a librarian at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn. In the summer of 2013, she led the Librarians and Archivists to Palestine delegation.


Last summer I traveled to Palestine with a group of sixteen librarians and archivists in order to connect with Palestinian colleagues in libraries, archives, and related projects and institutions and to gain mutual benefit through information exchange and skill-sharing. For the past ten years, I have been working in Palestine in various capacities, including with many delegations, but this was the first time I was fortunate enough to be able to merge my two worlds – Palestine and librarianship. What I’d like to share with you is some of what I learned from Palestinian school librarians and youth services librarians in particular, both in the West Bank and inside Israel.

Near Ramallah, in the central West Bank, we spoke with staff from Al Bireh Public Library and from the Tamer Institute about the obstacles to obtaining quality children’s literature in Arabic. Much of the best Arabic kids’ literature these days is published in Beirut, and the Israeli government (which controls all borders of the West Bank) does not let books in from Lebanon. Even when libraries try to obtain Arabic-language books through third parties, the books are often held up in Customs for months. Whether they’re ultimately allowed in or not seems somewhat arbitrary, and the libraries are required to pay for the costs of holding them in Customs. A Swedish librarian who was on our delegation commented that at the Madaa Silwan Creative Center in Jerusalem, she saw more books translated from Swedish into Arabic than originally written in Arabic, and she has more books originally written in Arabic in her library in Stockholm than they do at the center! The Tamer Institute for Community Education has tried to mitigate the negative effects of these Israeli restrictions by co-publishing a few titles with publishers in Beirut, and by publishing a few of their own as well, but their efforts are not adequate to meet the needs of the children they’re serving.

In Haifa, the situation is even more difficult. Although supposedly a “mixed city” of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, Haifa has 22 public library branches that primarily serve the Jewish community, and only one that serves the Palestinian community. Even this one branch is privately funded by an NGO, rather than by the Israeli government. We spoke to a number of Palestinian school and public librarians in Haifa who, because of difficulty traveling between Israel and the West Bank, are largely unable to supplement their collections with books put out by the Tamer Institute. Instead, most of their Arabic language books are low-quality translations of Hebrew books, effectively denying Palestinian citizens of Israel their literary heritage. This must be seen in its larger context, librarians told us, in which the Israeli government has for decades tried to erase Palestinian identity by calling Palestinians inside Israel “Israeli Arabs” or “Arab Israelis.” So whereas the availability of quality Arabic children’s literature could be a powerful way to preserve Palestinian identity and culture, the lack of availability further demoralizes the community.

I’ve shared these stories with a few people upon return from Palestine, and they’ve been moved to try to organize book deliveries to Palestine. Our delegation has had similar thoughts, but we must be careful how we approach this. Librarians in Palestine made it clear to us that they are not looking for a charity model. Not only can charity easily be accompanied by a colonialist attitude, but it simply won’t work. Large shipments of books would be held up at Customs for months, and smaller deliveries would do more to make us feel good about ourselves than make any significant dent in a system designed to prevent such a project. Palestinian libraries in the West Bank and inside Israel face a political problem that is at the core of any economic or humanitarian problems we might more easily address. But this should not stall our work. We are beginning conversations about effective follow-up, and we hope others will join us in these efforts. In the meantime, we can support some of the amazing organizations that are doing such important work on the ground. Here are a few:

The Tamer Institute for Community Education – based in Ramallah with partners throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip
Lajee Center in Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem – youth center that has, among other things, conducted workshops with children in which they have written and illustrated their own children’s books
Madaa Silwan Creative Center in Jerusalem – many amazing programs, including a library. They even published their own Palestinian cookbook!

To keep in touch with the delegation:
Our website – Here you can read more and see the statement we put out shortly after we returned.
Email to join our (very!) low-volume email list.

AND, we’re having a delegation reportback at Bluestockings bookstore at 7 pm on Thursday, October 24. Come on by!

Looking forward to any questions or comments you have. All questions welcome! 

At Al Bireh Public Library, a youth services librarian from Providence, RI exchanges ideas with Tamer Institute staff.

Winner of a book contest by Tamer Institute
Wall of the children's section of Nablus Public Library


  1. Hannah MermelsteinNovember 8, 2013 at 8:30 AM

    A few librarians from another New York school have objected to parts of this post. I will address here a few of the points they made (and they can feel free to publicly post their original response here, but I didn't want to do so without their permission).

    A couple of their points had to do with language, so let me clarify. They pointed out that Palestine is not a "country." That is, of course, debatable -- it's been recognized as a country in some international venues and not others -- but that's not the point. I am not at heart a nationalist and our delegation was not to a country but to a place. When I say "Palestine," I mean historic Palestine, which includes modern-day Israel, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and the Gaza Strip. We did not visit the Gaza Strip (it's closed off completely from the Israeli side and difficult to access from the Egyptian side as well), but we went to both the West Bank and Israel, meeting with Palestinians (and a few Israelis) in both areas.

    Another point about language: The librarians who objected to my post stated that "Arab Israeli" and "Israeli Arab" are not pejorative terms. I was not trying to suggest that they were. What I said above is that they are terms used to strip Palestinian citizens of Israel of their Palestinian identity. Israel has engaged in many practices to divide the Palestinian people, from physical walls and barriers to different color ID cards with different privileges to language like "Arab Israeli" instead of "Palestinian."

    There was also a question about the public libraries of Haifa, and a claim that they are all accessible to all residents of the city. It's not about whether there's a "No Arabs" sign on the door (which there is not), but what we heard over and over again was that people did not feel like their community was being served by the publicly funded libraries.

    The criticism of my piece also called the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement "discriminatory." I am not exactly sure what they mean by this and welcome further questions about BDS. The movement has very clear guidelines about boycotting Israeli goods and certain cultural institutions and projects, similar to (though not exactly the same as) the boycott against South African apartheid. It only "discriminates" against injustice. For more on BDS:

    This is getting long, so I'll stop there. I just want to reiterate that my original post was a brief report on some of what we heard from school and public librarians in Palestine. This represents their reality, and I think it is important for more people to hear these perspectives and experiences.

  2. Stephanie Entin-WaldNovember 8, 2013 at 9:57 AM

    Dear Members of HVLA

    We would like to add our names in wholehearted support of Noreen Wachs and her colleagues, as well as others, in response to the posting by Hannah Mermelstein. Mermelstein's stance against the State of Israel is well documented. Among other things, we strongly object to the characterization of the State of Israel as seeking to deny young Arab children their literary heritage. While we encourage HVLA to publish a wide variety of viewpoints, we agree completely that our members should be careful to donate only to organizations whose missions they have researched and whose agendas they support. We encourage further discussion.

    Stephanie Entin-Wald
    EC/LS Librarian

    Robin Skolnik
    MS Librarian

    Abraham Joshua Heschel School