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An Interview with Vani Natarajan

Librarians and Palestine

by RON JACOBS

This June, a delegation of librarians, archivists, and other library workers will travel to Palestine. They will connect with colleagues in library- and archive-related projects and institutions there, traveling as truth seekers and information skeptics, applying their experience in the form of skillshares and other types of joint work.    Their hope is to shed light on Palestinian voices, refure various myths common in the West about Palestine, and bear witness to the destruction and appropriation of information.  Furthermore, they will support efforts to preserve cultural heritage and archival materials (of all kinds) in Palestine.  Upon their return, this delegation hopes to share the information and experience theywere able to appropriate on their trip.

In all their travels, they have stated that they will repsect the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel and will not partner with any organization that violates this call.

Upon hearing of this venture, I emailed the organization with a few questions.  What follows is my exchange with the group.

Ron Jacobs: What compelled/inspired you all to undertake this journey? Was there a specific report regarding the destruction of historical materials?

Librarians and Archivists for Palestine: We’re all librarians or archivists who have been involved with issues of knowledge production, circulation, access, and preservation across contexts and for many years. We’re also very much committed to the idea and practice of librarians and archivists as active members of justice movements, including Palestine. One of us has been organizing delegations to Palestine for many years now, and authored a study on the destruction of historic materials in Palestine. Given the austerity climate in the US and around the world, and the short shrift given to libraries, archives and other information commons, we felt that now would be a good time to head to Palestine to not only carry forward support for Palestine in the library and archive community, but to learn and share skills and knowledge on how to improve and expand the reach and effectiveness of these institutions for justice movements.

RJ: As a library worker, I share your belief in the power of knowledge.  What do you see as the essential role knowledge plays in Palestine?  Likewise, what about Israel?

LAP: We are indeed absolutely committed to open access, and the free exchange and distribution of knowledge. Israeli settler-colonialism prioritizes short-circuiting this flow in any way they can, including destruction of schools, libraries, public spaces; confiscating books, newspapers, archives, and all sorts of written materials; denying entry or circumscribing the movement of scholars and students; imposing and censoring Palestinian speech, newspapers, and other works.

In this way, Israel aims to maintain and solidify the fragmentation of the Palestinian body politic,  making it difficult for Palestinians to exchange knowledge with each other and with the outside world, and therefore strengthen their struggle for justice. Palestinians, however, remain some of the most highly educated people in the Arab world, and it is a testament to their will and ingenuity that knowledge and information is always prioritized, and remains central to the struggle. Of course, many libraries in Palestine face some of the same issues we face in the states, including reduced readership and budgets. We want to learn the ways Palestinians have attempted to craft accessible public commons – including community centres, libraries at schools, municipalities, and archives of all sorts all over the country. One need only visit the Prisoners Section of the Nablus Public Library, which holds books, writings, and other materials smuggled into Israel prisons and donated to the library by former prisoners, to understand the intense attachment of Palestinian society to knowledge.  In this we feel we will be learning far more from our colleagues from Palestine than we could ever offer, and we’re excited by that exchange.

Of course, this settler-colonial project of blocking flows of knowledge impacts Israelis as well, many of whom have grown seemingly unaware and unwilling to learn about their neighbors, and their own complicity and responsibility in denying and destroying the heritage of the Palestinian people. We do hope to visit and meet with Israelis who have attempted to re-introduce knowledge erased and to confront the structures that have trapped both Palestinians and Israelis. We’re also keen to learn from Israelis working on other fronts in the fight against settler-colonialism, including organizing against anti-African and anti-Mizrahi racism, as well as participating in working class and social justice movements in Israel.

RJ: What is the nature of the library system (if there is one) in Palestine?

LAP: There are several major university libraries in the West Bank and Gaza, including at Birzeit and Najah. There are public libraries in most of the major cities: Nablus, El-Bireh, Gaza. The Tamer Institute for Community Education, an organization that emerged during the First Intifada when schools and universities were forcibly shut down, some for years, is organizing a libraries network to connect them all together.

In numerous other spaces libraries are held, books accessed, archives organized and developed, and knowledge exchanged. So we’re hoping to visit national institutions like the Institute for Palestine Studies, the Qattan Foundation, as well as community centers and research centers in refugee camps, as well as Haifa, Lydd, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Hebron, Jaffa and elsewhere.

We hope to gain an understanding of how all these institutions communicate, what needs they have, what sorts of projects they’re currently working on, and what kinds of work they’re currently prioritizing. So the nature of library and archival systems is really something that we’re going there to learn about, rather than knowing about in any real detail beforehand.

If you would like to donate to the Librarians and Archivists Delegation to Palestine, please go to their website

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.