The Israeli filmmaker on the need to reclaim Palestinian books looted by Israeli forces in 1948 and why Israel’s internal conflict gives him hope for peace.
As the 1948 war which led to the creation of Israel was in full gear, a campaign was under way to steal Palestinians’ cultural patrimony. Israeli forces entered vacant Palestinian homes and removed over seventy thousand books, newspapers, and manuscripts which ultimately led to the premature death of a Palestinian literary and cultural movement. When Benny Brunner, a Dutch-Israeli filmmaker, discovered this hidden chapter of history and its implications, he decided the story must be told, the books a heritage that must be returned. In a war which led to the creation of seven hundred and fifty thousand refugees and a simmering conflict running for over sixty years, stolen books may seem like a trifle compared to other kinds of loss—lost homes, lost lives. But books, as the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges illustrated so well in his stories, almost literally contain the world. Brunner’s film The Great Book Robbery is the latest in a line of documentaries in which he challenges the Zionist narrative, a narrative he sees as dangerous and counterproductive. Where better to find a counter-narrative if not in the lost books of Palestine?
Raised to be a good Israeli boy, Brunner arrived in Israel, from Romania, at age five. His parents were socialist supporters of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister who announced the historic creation of Israel in 1948, and Brunner was taught to support his adopted nation. He served in the Israeli Army in his youth and never thought he would have reason to question the Zionist narrative, which insisted that Palestinians were not expelled in 1948 but fled because their leaders told them to leave. In this version they were promised a triumphant return once they had drowned the Jews in the sea.
Like many living in the midst of conflict, politics colored Brunner’s entire upbringing. One of his earliest memories is of heated political arguments between his father and uncle reaching crescendos of shouts. Brunner would go on to face his own political battle with Zionism. A turning point came after his participation in the destructive war of 1973 (in which Syria and Egypt attacked Israel in order to regain territories lost in the battle of 1967). “I began to realize that a lot of what we were taught at high school—the history and the Zionist narrative—was made up,” he explains. “These were just legends of nation building.” As a result, something changed for Brunner; in 1997, he went on to make one of the first known films documenting the Palestinian expulsion during the establishment of Israel—known as the Nakba—and openly admits he will always stand with Palestinians against injustices done to them by Israel. Al Nakba was praised by the renowned Israeli historian Tom Segev for acknowledging the complexities surrounding the expulsion of Palestinians during the creation of Israel and urging that Israelis accept some responsibility for what happened. No one could face such controversy untainted; Israeli cabinet minister Uzi Landau accuses Brunner of being part of an Israeli left fanning the flames of “Jew-hatred” in Europe.
Brunner’s parents were initially reluctant to accept his alienation from Zionism. But when he made his film on the Nakba family members knew there was no turning back. No amount of talking or arguing would change his mind. So they agreed not to talk politics any more. “Sometimes it’s hard to resist having an argument with my mother even though she’s eighty-five now,” he laughs. “She’ll say something like ‘Isn’t it terrible for those who live in Sderot.’” Sderot is the Israeli town targeted by rockets fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. “And I just can’t help responding, ‘Well, imagine how miserable it must be for people on the other side in Gaza.’”
Brunner moved to Holland almost twenty-five years ago but still visits the Middle East two to three times a year and continues to take inspiration from the region for most of his work. As well as a documentary on the controversial twenty-five-foot-high wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories, he has contributed two important films exploring the rise and disastrous fall of Israel titled It is No Dream (2002) and State of Suspension (2009). His most recent documentary, The Great Book Robbery, not only exposes the systematic looting of Palestinian books by Israeli forces. It also unearths a conundrum. Although Palestinians who fled their homes during the conflict in 1948 knew that many of their personal belongings were looted, few realized there was a systematic campaign to confiscate their books.
Between May 1948 and February 1949, thirty thousand books, manuscripts, and newspapers were seized from the abandoned Palestinian homes of west Jerusalem while forty thousand books were taken from urban cities such as Jaffa, Haifa, and Nazareth. Many of the books were later marked with just two letters—“AP” for abandoned property—and embedded in Israel’s national collection, where they remain today. This historical incident is particularly revealing as it sheds light on a Palestinian cultural movement consisting of literary cafés, cinemas, and theater which, in the haze of a bitter war, was lost but never mourned. It’s time, states Brunner, for this cultural movement to be revived—the books returned—and for recognition of the diversity of Palestinian culture beyond rural embroidery and traditional Arab dance.
—Arwa Aburawa for Guernica
Guernica: Your latest documentary in the making, The Great Book Robbery, is about the looting of Palestinian books during the Nakba. How did you come across this incident which, until now, was a hidden chapter in the war of 1948?
Benny Brunner: Two-and-a-half years ago I was in the region, shooting another film, and I came across an essay by an Israeli PhD student called Gish Amit, and I was shocked. I mean I was literally stunned because at the time I thought I knew all that there was to know about ’48 and the Nakba and I didn’t believe that anything could surprise me. And the story is really significant. It’s more than the fact that seventy thousand books were looted. I realized that the Nakba wasn’t just the seven hundred and fifty thousand people who became refugees or the villages demolished. It was also the destruction of a culture. It was obvious to me I had to turn this into a film.
History teaches us that underground currents which cannot be seen can have a big impact when the moment is right.
Guernica: I understand you’ve been speaking to Palestinians who either witnessed the looting or were impacted by it. What have you found?
Benny Brunner: As you can imagine, finding someone who witnessed these events is no walk in the park, and we are still busy with it. We did find people who witnessed the looting but we are looking for more. In fact we are busy campaigning to get people who witnessed the looting but also people who participated in the cataloging of the books to come forward and tell their stories. This work is actually two mini projects—the documentary itself, but also collecting these testimonies and getting interested people together to make sure the documentary makes it off the ground. We want people to tell us how they see the event, to analyze it and contribute, not only financially (although that would help), but with their stories. If you’re a Palestinian living in Palestine or even if you’re living in the diaspora and you have a story to tell us about these books, then please do get in touch. There were so many libraries that were looted or personal collections taken that it would be great to speak to people about those.
I think that there has been a lot of films about the refugee situation and the villages. But the cultural destruction of 1948 just hasn’t been talked about. I remember meeting a Palestinian who spoke to me about the changes for the Palestinians after 1948. He said that ’48 was just a hard cut because after it there were no newspapers, there were no literary publications, no theater, no cinema. Basically, it was a cultural desert. That’s the real impact of this event, that’s the real significance and I think that needs to be communicated. And if possible, efforts have to be made to resurrect the lost cultural world that was destroyed in 1948.
Writers’ associations, literary cafés, cinemas, newspapers, a lot of cultural activity was killed off in 1948.
Guernica: The book looting doesn’t paint a great picture of Israel during the 1948 conflict. Have you faced any negative responses or criticism for these facts surfacing through this project?
Benny Brunner: We managed to find two people involved in cataloging the looted books. Both of them are now retired professors from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and they refused to talk to us. They didn’t want to meet us; they certainly didn’t want to be interviewed. I don’t know what the reaction of the authorities will be or the response from the National Library. Once we go into production and I contact them for their response, I won’t be surprised if they don’t want to talk to me. But that’s okay, because it’s clear where they stand. In a way, the documents that Gish Amit found already tell us what happened. Documents from 1949 and 1950 refer to the collection of the books as an operation of cultural—how should I put it?—they think that they saved these books from cultural destruction.
They have a very positive view of what they did and internal documents at the Library did at first ask questions like: “Who do these books belong to? Are they our books? Do we keep them until the rightful owners come and ask for them back?” As time passed, they indeed became “our” books, especially as a vast majority of the books became embedded in the National Library’s large collection and it became impossible to trace every book unless you assessed them individually and checked for stamps, or people’s names written inside the books themselves.
I do believe that the [Palestinian] narrative is closer to what really happened compared to what the Zionist narrative is telling us.
Guernica: So the book looting, in this telling, has been cast as something positive or altruistic, done to save the books. Do you think that this is symptomatic of how the entire story of the Nakba was rewritten in nationalist or Zionist terms?
Benny Brunner: That’s an interesting point. I am sure that you can find parallels, absolutely. The Zionist narrative of 1948 or the official narrative (which, by the way, not many Israelis still believe these days) states that we didn’t kick the Palestinians out, they left on their own, their leaders told them to leave for a couple of weeks and they thought they’d be able to come back after they’d kicked the Jews in the sea. So it was rewritten to show the Jews in a more positive light.
It’s an interesting thought, although I do believe that the initial drive to confiscate the books was a noble one. Instead of these books being destroyed or looted by individuals, they wanted to keep them safe. You have to remember that there was a tremendous amount of looting taking place at the time in various parts of the country, such as Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa—everywhere where there was fighting and communities were fleeing. Even in Jerusalem, the Palestinians themselves were looting Palestinian homes. So the initial drive was noble. But very quickly it changed and the Palestinian books became “our” books, “our” cultural heritage, and the National Library is a very important Israeli cultural institution now. So indeed these books are part of “our” cultural heritage; they have been taken, and I think the books represent the loss of Palestinian cultural heritage.
Guernica: Why do you think that this aspect of the Nakba, the loss of cultural heritage, is still a relatively marginalized part of Palestinian history?
Benny Brunner: With this event in particular, it wasn’t really sidelined so much as people just didn’t know about it. For decades, the Palestinian leadership never really emphasized the cultural destruction that took place in 1948. The Palestinian authorities focused on the destruction of villages, which became a symbol of the Palestinian existence. But as you and I know, culture is not created in the village but in urban centers by middle-class people. So by choosing to focus on the village, the cultural destruction that occurred in the urban Palestinian communities was not seen.
Also, cultural loss is very difficult to quantify. I think it was a political decision very early on—I don’t know why—to focus on the loss of villages as opposed to the loss in the urban centers and the destruction of Palestinian communities there. Instead they highlighted traditional village customs such as the way people dressed in the village, the embroidery, the music they listened to, and their culture, which is very different from what was going in Haifa, Jaffa, Acre, and Jerusalem. What these events do prove is that in Jerusalem you had big private libraries where people collected many, many valuable books. There was clearly a very lively cultural scene in Palestine. That was lost in 1948 and this loss isn’t emphasized.
In one screening the mayor of Tel Aviv was there and he looked pissed. He stayed for the Q&A but in the middle of the questions he stormed out.
Guernica: In your documentary, you will be following the story of the books and their fate. In an ideal situation, what would you like to happen to the Palestinian books that were looted?
Benny Brunner: These books represent a destroyed culture. In the National Library there are about six thousand books that have been cataloged as “AP,” which means abandoned property. These books are a fraction of the seventy thousand books that were looted. Most probably what happened—we’re not sure yet as we’re still working on it—was that during the late nineteen fifties and early nineteen sixties these books were cataloged in such a way that any link to their owners was erased. Many were just embedded in the general collection in the Oriental department in the National Library—in other words in the Arabic section of the library. So it would probably be quite difficult to trace all the books. But even after all this time has passed, I think it would be a wonderful deed by Israel if the National Library returned at least those six thousand books that are clearly marked to a Palestinian university.
If Palestinians care about their past and making a serious attempt to revive part of the cultural heritage, they need to be a part of this. For example Arjan El Fassed [the GreenLeft Dutch politician and Palestinian activist] told me that in Canada there is someone who wants to print an unpublished manuscript that was written in Jerusalem before 1948, which I think is fantastic. One of the things we would like to do is republish some of the books that exist today in the National Library as a symbolic act of cultural revival. It’s a huge undertaking and we need every piece of help we can get. Rather than just saying “Yes, I think this is important,” instead take a stand, look into your family history and see if there is anything you can contribute to this project.
Guernica: Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian activist whose Jerusalemite family left behind its book collection in 1948, spoke of the need for a cultural movement on the same scale as the Jewish movement to recover art stolen during the Nazi period. Do you think this is possible?
Benny Brunner: Yes, and it’s really important to create this movement and have a discussion about it. What can be recovered today, realistically speaking, is six thousand books that are clearly labeled as “AP.” But I see this more as a gesture, a symbolic act. It’s not that these books will make a difference. It’s just necessary that the creative forces of Palestinians in Palestine and in the diaspora should be invested in trying to recreate the spirit of the time, because it was a time when things really took off. Writers’ associations, literary cafés, cinemas, newspapers, a lot of cultural activity was killed off in 1948.
Today, there is no state funding for theater or films in Arabic and there is no support for writers who write in Arabic. So a lot of what Israeli Palestinians consume comes from abroad, from Syria, Egypt, Lebanon. The cultural development of Palestinians living in Israel is not supported and I think it can do good to go back to 1948 as the year zero, to restart again and pick up where it ended. It should be a national project with all Palestinians involved. But it will need a leader with a vision and as we know the region is short on those.
There is an unshakable belief that Israel has to be militarily strong. But what about being strong as a democracy?
Guernica: You have been involved with a lot of political films looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What inspires you to work on these projects and how did your connection to the Palestinian situation come about?
Benny Brunner: Real life, I would say, is what inspires most of my work. Growing up in Israel exposed me to the issues in the region and so in the last fifteen to twenty years, I’ve dedicated my filmmaking career to the so-called Israel-Palestine conflict. Like many Israelis, I was a good boy and believed in the nation. I lived in Beersheba and was a Labour supporter. So I was very much a Zionist and grew up believing the narrative and believing the stories. But as time passed this slowly changed. The war of 1973, which I participated in, had an impact on me and was something of a turning point, I guess one of many. We were told so many stories about 1948 and the fact that we wanted peace, that it was the Arabs who didn’t want peace. But as time passed, I started questioning it all and just became more and more radical. University was a place which informed me a lot about the Palestinian situation. I got to meet people who were in the same place, who were questioning the narrative, and so I took up the Palestinian cause.
Guernica: You’re a Dutch citizen now.
Benny Brunner: I’ve lived in Holland for almost twenty-five years now. I left Israel for a couple of reasons but mainly because at the time there was only one state channel and so opportunities for me to be able to make alternative political films was almost zero. I moved to Holland via London where I stayed for around six months in 1986. It was the Thatcher era, after the Falklands war, and I remember feeling horrified at the level of nationalism there. People spoke about Argentinians as if they were subhuman. It was shocking. I burned a lot of my savings there looking for work, doing bits of freelancing. But during a trip to Holland, I fell in love with Amsterdam and I’ve lived there ever since. I remember that I didn’t even go back to London after that trip. I just asked friends to send on the very few belongings I had at the time. I still visit Israel-Palestine twice or three times a year, though, and most of my work is looking at conflict there.
Guernica: Do you ever get a sense that Israel has changed for the better since you first left it in 1986?
Benny Brunner: Dissenting voices were hard to find when I grew up in Israel. They are much more widespread now, especially since the Second Intifada in 2000. But let’s not delude ourselves. These voices are very much still at the margins of society. Online activists, refuseniks, are all growing. But on the other hand you have the fifty rabbis who are opposed to people renting their properties to Arabs. Reading the news doesn’t give us a lot to be optimistic about. But history teaches us that underground currents which cannot be seen can have a big impact when the moment is right. I don’t know what it will take for this change to happen—maybe for Israel to become a totally apartheid[-based], totalitarian regime. Or maybe the current government will collapse and usher in a center-left government. It’s really hard to tell.
Guernica: Your film Al Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe 1948 was arguably one of the first documentaries on the Nakba. How did you come across the history of the Palestinian expulsion and why did you decide to make a documentary on it?
Benny Brunner: Benny Morris published his book about the Nakba in 1988 [The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949] and it was a watershed moment for me, as it challenged the entire Zionist narrative [claiming] that we hadn’t expelled anyone, that they fled because their leaders told them to leave and were told that they would be able to come back in a few weeks “when we had drowned the Jews in the sea.” The book put an end to that and the questions weren’t about whether we expelled Palestinians or not any more. They were now about how many were expelled. Like many others, this was a book that had a great influence on me and so when the opportunity came I decided to turn it into a film.
It took some time, as the film came out in 1997. But I was astonished to realize that it was still the first film on the Nakba. In retrospect, it was stupid of me to be astonished, as until that time there was no historical documentation to be able to base yourself on. Benny Morris was at the right place at the right time when all these documents on the Nakba were released. He used [Israeli] military documents to extract information that had never been seen before and he was an important source of information. Even so, Morris is not a man of the left, and when you read the book you notice that at the end of each chapter there were conclusions which somehow contradicted the data and information that he had laid out earlier in the chapter. His conclusions would undermine his own findings by underplaying their significance. But he didn’t insist on putting his own conclusions forward in my film, so it was fine.
Guernica: As the first film on the Nakba, there must have been a lot of pressure on your documentary to fill the historical void. What were the reactions to the release of the film?
Benny Brunner: Well, positive! I guess it depends on who you ask. But it was screened in most of central and western Europe, and I toured with the film in the U.S., where it went to most of the East and West coast. I remember in one screening in New York, many Palestinian academics, graduate students, and others came, and were really eager to see the film, and in a West coast screening many Jews came to see it and for many people it was a real eye-opener.
Then I showed it in Israel and in one of the screenings the mayor of Tel Aviv was there. After the screening he looked pissed off. He stayed for the Q&A, but in the middle of the questions he stood up and stormed out. I guess you could say that there were some people who were not happy with my work. Of course. I remember that in another screening in Tel Aviv there were Palestinian Israelis from Jaffa, and they criticized the film from the other side and asked me why I left our certain incidents, why I didn’t include more things. They were also not happy with the film. But every film has its own time limit and so I made my choices. I wouldn’t change anything in the film.
Guernica: Was it a challenge to objectively portray the story of the Nakba accurately?
Benny Brunner: It’s a complete myth that you can be objective. I am the first to admit I am not objective, and that my sympathies are completely with the Palestinian side. I do believe that the narrative is closer to what really happened compared to what Israel or the Zionist narrative is telling us. I also think that it’s wrong to name the conflict the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To be more accurate, it should be the injustices done to the Palestinians—that’s the conflict. It’s a story of injustices. The lack of Palestinian leadership, and whatever happened there, doesn’t detract from the injustices done to Palestinians.
Guernica: Another project you have worked on looks at the wall dividing Israel from the Palestinian territories. There has been a lot of debate over whether this is apartheid or not. What do you think?
Benny Brunner: Oh, the wall is definitely apartheid—there’s no doubting that. I don’t think the Israelis have a master plan of how to do things. But they are masters of taking advantage of opportunities that open up for them. So when the opportunity came up for them to build this wall, they built the wall, and the first opportunity they have to expel people, they will expel people. Behind all this is a notion and national feeling shared by the majority of Israelis that the Israeli state is exclusively a Jewish state. It’s also the logic behind these letters from the fifty rabbis who have forbidden Israelis from renting to Arabs. The idea is that we have to keep the purity of the nation and that’s part of Zionism. If you look at the kibbutz organizations, which are the communal settlements which founded the state and provided much of the political and military leadership, they didn’t allow Arabs to join. I don’t know if there were any Arabs who wanted to be in them. But what is clear is that even without saying, it was known that Arabs were not allowed to be part of the kibbutz.
Guernica: Some of the most fascinating work you’ve done is looking at the impact of the conflict on Israelis themselves. State of Suspension traces what you say is the fall of Israel from the ideals which helped form the state in 1948 to where it is now. Could you talk us through that notion and why you did the film?
Benny Brunner: I basically felt the need to say something about the sixty years that had passed since Israel was created and I didn’t want to say that through a linear narrative but a mosaic of views and fragments put together. The online version is not the complete film and I still have a couple of scenes with two comedians—Israeli Jews—yet to add, as they help reveal more of the psyche of Israelis: the deep-rooted racist attitudes, the unwillingness to see fellow citizens—Arabs—as equals, and that they cannot find in their hearts a little compassion for the other side. There is a biblical sentiment which says, “Do not rejoice when your enemy suffers or falls.” But even this is ignored and they do rejoice at the other side’s suffering; and this takes away our humanity. We are hastening our own end, basically, and it’s that thought that brought me to make the film.
Guernica: There was one particular scene where a small group of young Israelis were discussing whether they would serve in the Israeli Army and although some were against the occupation of Palestine, they still felt some duty to fight for Israel and join the army. To me, that seemed quite contradictory. Do you think this internal conflict is widespread in the Israeli psyche?
Benny Brunner: I think these discussions and internal conflicts are really important. When these stop, it will be the end for Israel. As you saw, for many young Israelis, serving in the army is something which is very important. But there are dissenting voices, coming from women, which is interesting, that question the accepted logic. In many respects, Israel is a very vibrant society and the cultural output is amazing—arts, literature, Israeli cinema. But on the other hand, you have people voting for people like Benjamin Netanyahu. In the DNA of Israeli society is this belief that we have to be strong, militarily, to survive. That’s the common denominator, and it forces people to believe what the army and security chiefs are telling them. There is an unshakable belief that Israel has to be militarily strong. But what about being strong as a democracy? What about human rights? What about giving the peace process a chance? It’s not even considered. It’s like there is something wrong, like some of the vital organs of the country which help it question things don’t function, and the country is ill.
Guernica: Do you think that there was a specific point when things went wrong for Israel and it began to value military strength over everything else?
Benny Brunner: Well, 1967 definitely. Historically, it was a catastrophe for the state of Israel and we are paying the price now. The occupation is not only corrupting us and the Palestinians. It transformed Israel from what was basically an egalitarian society—okay, the Israeli Palestinians were discriminated against but its leading ideas were about building a just society—into what it is today. The death of Israel as an egalitarian country took place in 1967 and the death blow took place sometime in the eighties. The occupation took away all our energies, economic and creative. Everything went into the occupation, everything. And it’s still going there today in the settlements, the wall, the high-tech weaponry. Everything else is secondary to this. Maintaining this cursed occupation became everything. The intoxicating fumes of the victory of 1967 poisoned us and every generation that followed and now there are entire generations who know nothing else and see the occupation as a given. Of course, 1948 was the original sin. But if ’67 hadn’t happened or they immediately returned the territories, we would be in a completely different situation today.
Guernica: After twenty years of filmmaking, you have a great catalog of work. But if you had to be remembered for one thing as a filmmaker what would it be?
Benny Brunner: I don’t think I’ve made the film I want to be remembered for yet. No, let me think. I hope to be remembered for putting together a body of work that highlighted the injustices that were done against the Palestinians and how these injustices came back to haunt us. How it corrupted us and how it will bring about our own demise in the end. Also, I hope to be remembered as someone who dedicated time and energy in lighting up the darker corners of our existence.
Coming to Amreeka: Filmmaker Cherien Dabis on her feel-good (sort of) movie, Palestinians in the Windy City, and how personal experiences can trump political arguments.
To contact Guernica or Benny Brunner, please write here.