Anyone driving near Jerusalem’s government district cannot miss it. On a triangle-shaped lot bordering the Knesset, the Israel Museum and government ministries (did anyone say “location, location, location”?), a magnificent addition to the capital city’s landscape is taking shaper under a jumble of cranes, earthmovers and other heavy machinery: The National Library of Israel building.
In the scintillating promotional material posted on the library’s web site, the futuristic design is described as follows: The building’s curved, elevated and cantilevered form necessitates a contemporary take on the cut Jerusalem limestone found throughout the rest of the city …Openings and carvings, whose shapes are derived from a projection of erosions on ancient stone walls, are designed to minimize solar heat gain on the windows behind. The pattern is reminiscent of culturally specific imagery and text but remains abstract in origin. The mineral surface continues to the vitrine legs below…Uncommon in contemporary Jerusalem, the wood brings a human scale and detail to the pedestrian experience while linking the building to timber traditions important to the local vernacular from ancient to early modern times…Our design responds to the context and reflects the ambitions of the National Library of Israel. It is open and transparent but grounded in the traditions of great libraries and the city itself. As in the past, books will remain at the center…”
The National Library’s new building – which, like the Knesset and other monumental projects in Israel, is being funded by the Rothschild Foundation – is ambitiously slated to open in 2020.
But this institution has its foundation 108 years earlier in a historic decision by members of the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem Lodge to establish a library in Jerusalem that would be the home to the huge fountain of Jewish wisdom contained in its great written tomes. Led by visionary and pragmatic figures like David Yellin, Zeev Hertzberg, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Yosef Meyuchas and Yehiel Michel Pines – all leaders of the “New Yishuv” - who were inspired by the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Jerusalem Lodge (est. 1888) succeeded where two earlier attempts had failed to establish a sustainable library in the cradle of Jewish renaissance then stirring in the Land of Israel – Jerusalem – after libraries had been established by B’nai B’rith lodges in Jaffa and Tzfat (both chartered by the Jerusalem Lodge). Founded to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World and the Spanish Inquisition, the library in Jerusalem was named for the great Jewish statesman and scholar Don Isaac Abravanel, who led the convoy of denuded Jews out of the Spanish kingdom. It opened with 947 books donated by lodge members and other Jewish residents of Jerusalem. Two years later, 2,000 books from a defunct library established earlier by Eliezer Ben Yehuda – the father of modern Hebrew – were gifted to the B’nai B’rith Library, and in 1895, Dr. Josef Chasanowich augmented the collection with his private corpus of 10,000 Jewish books, sending them from Bialystok to Jerusalem. The library was officially renamed “Midrash Abravanel ve’Ginzei Yosef” (Abravanel Seminary and Yosef Archives”). In 1899, Theodor Herzl, in the name of the Zionist Congress, sent Chasanowich a congratulatory letter and a donation towards the library, to which Chasanowich remained committed. By 1886, the rented quarters had become cramped and the lodge began to plan a purpose-built facility which opened in 1902 to great fanfare. The building, which sits on B’nai B’rith Street in the center of the historic district surrounding Prophets Street, is still owned by the Jerusalem Lodge. In 1920, the collection was transferred to the World Zionist Organization and subsequently (in 1925) to the Hebrew University, at which time it took on the name Israel National and University Library. The next year, it opened in its new venue as the Israel National Library.
Leading historians have long recognized the role of the B’nai B’rith Library in the development of Jewish culture and education in Jerusalem and as the foundation of the National Library. Writing in The Book of Jerusalem, Yosef Salmon writes “…the ‘B’nai B’rith’ library…served at the time also as a community center for the New Yishuv in Jerusalem and eventually became the National Library…”. Dov Sidorsky, writing in Libraries and Books in Eretz Israel at the Close of the Ottoman Period, notes “The ambition to establish ‘the treasury of Jewish books’ in the city, which is a center for Judaism, indicates the primary purpose of the library and was a guiding light of the board of the B’nai B’rith library…” Writing in “New Jerusalem at its Beginning”, Yehoshua Ben-Arie writes, “Behind the idea of combining the two libraries in Jerusalem and the addition of Sirkin’s books to the ‘B’nai B’rith’ library in Jerusalem stood Zionist ideology about creating a national library in Eretz Israel.” Finally, writing in “Prophets Street, Ethiopia Neighborhood and Musrara Neighborhood”, David Koryanker writes “In 1892…the third attempt [to establish a library] … was crowned with success at the initiative of B’nai B’rith …The establishment of the library – the nucleus of the National University Library – was the fruit of a determined decision by Jerusalem intellectuals and Hovevei Zion in the Diaspora, who believed that a library is one of the important symbols of national renaissance…’”
The significant contribution made by the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem Lodge and subsequent B’nai B’rith lodges established in Jaffa, Zichron Yaacov, Tiberias and elsewhere at the end of the 19th century, to the Jewish renaissance in Eretz Israel, even before the establishment of the Zionist Movement, is indeed well-documented. These contributions include the establishment of the first Jewish settlement in the Jerusalem area (Motsa), the first Hebrew-speaking kindergartens and adult education in Jerusalem, hospitals and civic institutions. They also made clandestine missions to Jewish communities throughout the Levant with the purpose of drawing them into the modern era and harnessing their support for Jewish renaissance in Eretz Israel and fought the discriminatory decrees of the Ottoman authorities against Jewish immigration and property ownership. Many of their initiatives were designed to counter the Christian mission to the Jews, very active at that time. They laid the veritable building blocks upon which the “state in the making’ was founded at a time when Jerusalem’s Jewish population stood at a mere 15,000.
Together with Jerusalem Lodge President Zvi Rotenberg, and with the support of B’nai B’rith President Charles Kaufman, we are currently engaged in an effort to ensure that B’nai B’rith’s critical role in the founding of the National Library will be recognized in the permanent exhibit that will be a major feature of the new building, and we are seeking other opportunities to bring this proud history to the fore. As President Kaufman concluded in his letter to Library chairman David Blumberg: “This important legacy is too precious for us to ignore and I am sure that you too wish to strive for historical accuracy and recognition for the accomplishments of those who came before us.”
Ma’ase Avot Siman L’Banim (The actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children – Rambam).
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B'nai B'rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B'nai B'rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, click here.
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