A Most Remarkable Jewish Library

Over the course of his life, Rabbi David Oppenheim (1664-1736) collected thousands of books, manuscripts, and documents, which the historian Joshua Teplitsky has called “history’s most enduring and remarkable Jewish library.” Reviewing Prince of the Press, Teplitsky’s recent book about Oppenheim’s collection, Rachel L. Greenblatt writes:

[This] was an era of private libraries, collected by princes and nobles, and Oppenheim was Jewish nobility. He was born to a wealthy, learned merchant family in Worms, Germany, the heart of Central Europe’s Jewish settlement from medieval times. He chose to pursue the rabbinate, a career that culminated in Prague, where he presided as chief rabbi during the last twenty years of his life. His close family circles included leading “court Jews,” financiers whose proximity to the rulers of German principalities propelled them to great influence in their own communities as well. . . .

This combination of Judaic erudition, wealth, and extensive social and rabbinic networks perfectly positioned Oppenheim to buy expensive books, an activity he had already begun in earnest by his late teens. He purchased from local sellers, bought up small collections, had books sent to him, received them as gifts, and commissioned manuscript copies. As he gained influence, his contemporaries would offer him books in return for contacts or favors.

From 1703 on, Oppenheim housed his collection in Hanover, Germany, far from Prague, where censorship and Talmud-burnings threatened. . . .  Among the thought-provoking gems of Prince of the Press is Teplitsky’s observation that, while away from his collection, Oppenheim carried a codex catalog with him, a list that functioned in some sense as a virtual replication of its contents. . . .

Once collected, books and their contents also traveled outward—scholars visited to consult them in situ, used them as sources of legal precedent and interpretation for rabbinic courts, or discussed them in correspondence. Printing houses published some of the manuscripts, distributing them ever more widely.

After Oppenheim’s death, the collection remained in his family until 1829, when it was acquired by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, where it remains to this day.

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More about: Books, Czech Republic, History & Ideas, Jewish history, Oxford

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat