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Rare correspondence between Sir Isaiah Berlin and David Ben-Gurion on “Who is a Jew?” donated to BGU

30 Jun' 2011
 
  

Copies of a series of letters between the late British political theorist Sir Isaiah Berlin and the first prime minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion discussing the question of “Who is a Jew?” were donated to BGU by Prof. Berlin’s stepson Philippe  Halban after a recent visit. Ben-Gurion had written to Berlin in 1958 and 1959 asking him to weigh in on the question of how Israel should define what a Jew is. Berlin writes that he was “greatly honoured” by Ben-Gurion’s decision to ask his advice on the matter. At the same time, he wrote that he did not think it meet that anyone outside the borders of Israel should comment on this internal matter. 

“I do not believe much good can be done by consulting anyone outside the frontiers of the State of Israel on a matter which is not only ultimately, but immediately, the administrative responsibility of the Israel government itself, and can be settled only by it and the Knesset,” he wrote in a letter dated January 23, 1959. In July 1958, after a stormy debate, the government decided that any adult who declared themselves to be Jewish and was not part of another religion would be registered as Jewish on their identity cards. At the same time, the government appointed a committee to decide how to treat children of mixed marriages whose parents wanted them registered as Jews. Ben-Gurion also sent a letter to 50 noted Jewish personalities all over the world soliciting their advice regarding the listing of religion and nationality, of which Sir Isaiah Berlin was one. 

The correspondence and some photos of the two of them together were recently added to the Isaiah Berlin Room in the Zalman Aranne Central Library. They were donated by Berlin’s stepson Philippe Halban after a recent visit to BGU to see the room.  Little known to many is that 90 percent of the renowned philosopher and thinker’s books have been integrated into the Aranne Library collection. Most of them are readily available on the public library stacks, making it possible, and even probable, that students doing research may have used a book that once belonged to Isaiah Berlin. 

Located on the 3rd floor of the Aranne Library, the Isaiah Berlin Room echoes his original study at the University of Oxford. A faux fireplace opposite his desk and a reproduction of a painting that hung in his office is complemented by Berlin’s own books, arranged in the same order. There are also copies of Berlin’s own works, as well as books about him and his writings. Outside the room, an exhibit of books personally dedicated to Berlin by such wide ranging notables as Gershom Scholem, Richard Nixon, Anna Akhmatova and Lord Weidenfeld of Chelsea, are displayed.  

But how did the great Isaiah Berlin’s library end up at BGU? While a great admirer of Israel and of the Negev, Berlin lived his life in Oxford, England and it was surely more likely that his library would be left to his college. And yet, after Berlin’s death in 1997, then Chairman of the University’s Board of Governors Lord Weidenfeld approached his widow Lady Aline Berlin and her son, Philippe  Halban, about the notion of donating his library, comprised of several thousand volumes, to BGU. The two were receptive to the idea and Prof. Ilan Troen was invited to view the library. 

The two asked Troen why Berlin’s library, particularly the large collection of books in Russian, should come to the Negev. Troen replied that there were probably more Russian-readers in Beer-Sheva than in Oxford or London, the other two locations Lady Aline and Halban were considering. Lady Aline and Philippe Halban eventually decided to send Berlin’s library to BGU through the Berlin Charitable Trust and the Ben-Gurion University Foundation in the UK. They had two stipulations: that the books be placed in the appropriate section of the library so that they could be used rather than become a monument to the revered thinker.  To commemorate Berlin, they asked that a reading room be established in his name. In both cases, it is the University community which has benefited from their generosity.​