What’s in a Name?

Introducing Yerusha at the National Library of Israel

16 Jul What’s in a Name?

How do you pronounce our project’s name: yeru-SHA or YER-usha? Your answer will depend on whether you follow European or Israeli pronunciation of the word; in short whether you’re a speaker of Modern Hebrew or not. Yet, last week at the National Library of Israel – a bulwark of the language if ever there was one – staff did the unthinkable: they switched to the European pronunciation.

How did this happen?

Last week, I was given the exciting opportunity to present Yerusha to the entire National Library of Israel Staff and to participants in the At the Source Training Programme for early career archivists and librarians. The project was well-received, with staff and programme participants understanding its worth immediately and asking questions to determine exactly its parameters. They were enthusiastic and optimistic about the planned future joining of the project with the National Library’s own Israel Archives network.

At first, the decision to unite Yerusha with the Network was a purely pragmatic one. The Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, which runs the Yerusha project, is headed by Lord Jacob Rothschild, who also stands at the helm of the Yad Hanadiv Foundation in Israel. Yad Hanadiv in turn serves as the driving force behind the revitalisation efforts that are currently underway at the National Library of Israel, as well as the construction of its new premises. As the development of the Israel Archives Network forms a part of these plans, logic had it that when we decided to embark on the creation of the Yerusha Portal, joining with the National Library’s pre-existing plans to build an inter-institutional archival portal only made sense.

However, my week in Israel showed that while logic was our original and guiding motivation, perhaps a deeper meaning has arisen in its wake.

There was a time not that long ago, when European institutions of memory viewed their Israeli counterparts as a definite threat. Their concern stemmed from the belief that Israeli institutions viewed Jewish European heritage as theirs by right: that it was Israel’s moral duty to rescue relics of Jewish life in Europe and return them to their rightful inheritors, the Jewish people. Over the course of the decades preceding and following the Second World War, there were many examples of instances where items and documents that had indeed been “liberated”. This situation was further complicated by the influx in some areas of new Jewish communities, who occupy the same cities and towns as the Jewish communities of the past, but who are not actually descended from them. In such complex circumstances, who do the historical objects and documents of former European Jews belong to? To the State in which they are found? To the descendants of the communities wherever they are now to be found, usually in North America, Israel, South Africa or Australia? And, what if – as is often the case in the post-Holocaust world – the grandchildren and great-grandchildren are dispersed across the globe? Should Israel take up the mantle as the keeper of the world Jewish heritage? There are no easy answers here, and sympathetic opinions are to be found on all sides.

Rife with moral quandaries and uncertainty, it was no wonder that collaboration in many cases remained a pipe-dream. Happily though, in recent years this reality has changed.

By dint of the new possibilities opened up by the digital era, there is no longer the same urgency surrounding questions of physical ownership. Digital copies of prized collections can be made and shared; divided collections can be reunited.

It is for this reason, perhaps, that the relationship Yerusha has forged between European Jewish collections and the National Library of Israel has transcended the practical, in order to become an example of healing and openness; the fissures of past suspicions seem to have been mended and in their place the European institutions seem willing to trust, learn from and entrust their Israeli colleagues with some degree of care for the heritage in the heritage in their possession.

For its part, far from taking the colonial approach of the past, the National Library of Israel is willing to accept the Europeaness of these important collections and, with its collaboration on YER-usha, to become a bit more European in its perspective, as well as in its pronunciation.

Robin Nobel is the Senior Grants Manager of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. R.Nobel@rothschildfoundation.eu

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