Library that helped bring Nazis to justice to relocate

Funding will also create new Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism. Matthew Reisz reports

January 14, 2010

A library that helped alert the world to the evils of Nazism and bring war criminals to justice has found a new home at the heart of the University of London. In 1933, Alfred Wiener set up the Jewish Central Information Office in Amsterdam to publicise what was happening in Nazi Germany.

When he and his collection moved to London in 1939, its resources were made available to British intelligence. What became the Wiener Library now contains 60,000 books and 1.5 million pages of archival material.

Yet it has long been constrained by financial pressures and what the director, Ben Barkow, described as "an IT network for cataloguing that is far from state-of-the-art". Funding from the Pears Foundation will enable it to relocate to a new Bloomsbury site in 2011 on a long lease from Birkbeck, University of London.

In order to build what David Latchman, the master, called "a framework for interactions with the Wiener", Birkbeck is establishing next door, as part of its School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy, the new Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism. A director is to be appointed before Easter.

Trevor Pears, executive chair of the Pears Foundation, said he hoped that the institute's "voice will be heard on any and all forms of racism and xenophobia".

So why the focus on anti-Semitism?

"We carried out mapping research that identified several UK universities offering courses with a focus on 'racism'," he said.

"However, I am surprised that this institute will be the first of its kind in the UK and only the second in Europe, bearing in mind that anti-Semitism is a hatred that has persisted and mutated for arguably two millennia.

"Is there nothing to be learnt from a hatred with such a long pedigree, with its sometimes lethal results, that could have relevance to others and to society?

"Perhaps it has something to add to understanding some of the challenges facing newer immigrant communities in the UK, such as accusations of 'dual loyalty' or not 'really being British'.

"The UK is a wonderful country to live in, regardless of your background. However, I do believe that pockets of far Right anti-Semitism remain, that there is an emerging phenomenon of 'far Left' anti-Semitism and worrying anti-Semitism growing within some parts of the Muslim population here."

The library and new institute will be located in Russell Square, a few hundred yards from the Institute of Education, where the Pears Foundation has co-funded the Holocaust Education Development Programme.

Mr Barkow sees the development as propitious for "evidence-based Holocaust education, and education in the areas of racism and anti-Semitism".

But he is also aware that it may seem "undesirable" to people who argue that charges of anti-Semitism can be used to disarm legitimate criticism of Israel.

Professor Latchman is keen to counter any such fears: "It's not an institute to say there are lots of anti-Semitic things going on in British universities and outside, there's lots of anti-Zionism - we need something to combat that. It's not a propagandist institute to condemn the University and College Union boycott and things like that. It's not a community-defence institution.

"It is about looking at what is going on in a cool academic way: what is the issue of anti-Semitism in Britain, Europe, wherever?"

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