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An Open Letter to Newberry Library Leadership Concerning Genocide in Gaza and Destruction of Cultural Heritage Sites


An open letter urging the Newberry Library leadership to stand with those who are resisting oppression and confirm that their fundamental mission and principles inform their actions on every level, including what funding they accept.

Image: Black text that reads "An Open Letter from the Newberry Library community" on an orange background, with black brackets framing the text.
Image: Black text that reads “An Open Letter from the Newberry Library community” on an orange background, with black brackets framing the text.

Dear President and Librarian Dr. Astrida Orle Tantillo and Newberry Board of Trustees: 

We are over one hundred people in the Newberry community, including staff across departments, fellows, scholars and friends of the library writing to you regarding the Newberry’s role as a global leader in knowledge keeping and sharing and regarding our current relationship with donors, specifically the Crown family. The Crowns are connected to and complicit in funding the genocide in Gaza, that has killed over 30,000 Palestinian civilians, through their financial stakes in weapons manufacturing. Furthermore, we are troubled by the institution’s general silence concerning the genocide, which includes the killing of cultural workers and the destruction of sites of cultural heritage. We urge Newberry leadership to consider whether accepting funds from donors who stand to gain financially from arming genociders promotes academic freedom, inquiry, and a deeper understanding of our world. 

In the 2020 article The Newberry and Restrictive Covenants, the Newberry acknowledged the following: At the Newberry, we believe deeply that historical context should inform how we respond to contemporary crises. This includes examining the library’s own history and investigating institutional complicity in structural racism. We must continue this institutional examination wherever necessary. In January, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found Israel’s acts in Gaza to be genocidal. The ICJ included the United States and private individuals, companies, and institutions who benefit from the genocide as potentially complicit. We are concerned that the Crown family’s donations make us complicit in this genocide.

The Newberry is “a portal to more than six centuries of human history, from the Middle Ages to the present…Our community of learning includes historians, genealogists, visual and performing artists, writers, graphic designers, teachers, students, and many, many others.” Readers and scholars travel from all over the world to access our collections, which include some materials on Palestinian culture, history, and the Arabic language. As cultural workers representing an institution held in high esteem both locally and internationally (in particular one in which a core collection strength is related to Indigenous Studies), we must stand against the genocide, epistemicide1, scholasticide2, ethnic cleansing of the Indigenous people of Palestine by the Zionist settler colonial state that operates under an apartheid system, and the targeted destruction of cultural institutions and those who work within them. 

Raphael Lemkin coined and defined genocide as both vandalism (cultural destruction) and barbarity (mass slaughter). Vandalism includes the destruction of religious, intellectual, and artistic institutions, “because they represent the specific creation of genius of such groups.” This is currently taking place in Gaza. As reported in a recent article published in The Nation: “According to UNESCO, over 195 heritage sites have been destroyed or damaged in Israel’s ongoing assault. The Gaza Media Office said in December that 200 of the 325 ancient or archeological sites registered across the enclave had been destroyed…. The intentional destruction of cultural heritage is a hallmark of occupation and colonial violence.” Israel’s genocidal vandalism has also killed dozens of cultural workers. As stated by Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor: “Those targeted include 17 individuals who held professor degrees, 59 who held doctoral degrees, and 18 who held master’s degrees.” These deaths leave a tremendous and devastating impact on society as a whole, and more specifically on the academic, cultural, and educational communities of which we are a part.

The Newberry’s internal ethical goals also call us to take action. Our Land Acknowledgement reminds us of “our commitment to addressing the ongoing legacies of dispossession and settler colonialism, as well as our relationships with the city, the land, and the environment…”. This statement is a recognition of our duty to address the devastation caused by settler colonialism (Zionism is an ongoing settler-colonial project), both historically and currently, locally and internationally. As part of this duty, the Newberry should denounce the genocide and violence of settler colonialism on the Indigenous people of Palestine and the assaults on Palestinian academic and cultural heritage institutions. As the Librarians with Palestine statement acknowledges: “freedom in Palestine is intertwined with the global struggle against racism and imperialism. These forces stand between us and a world in which all peoples can exchange information and ideas. As information workers who strive to foster dialogue and learning, bringing down these barriers is our highest calling.” 

Many local, national, and international libraries, archives, and institutions have released statements condemning the destruction of libraries, library collections, and property and the disruption of educational processes. Other statements include the commitment to no longer platforming organizations actively involved in the censoring of Palestinian and anti-Zionist Jewish artists (e.g. The Poetry Foundation) until they call for an end to the genocide and occupation. Still others no longer support institutions with ties to the intentional and targeted killing of cultural heritage workers, librarians, archivists, university professors, journalists, and poets, along with hundreds of teachers and thousands of students. As workers in a cultural institution ourselves, we know a full cease-fire is required: institutions and their holdings would be worthless without the very people who steward and provide access to them.

The Newberry has also made a commitment to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to advance scholarship and open our collection to everyone. As written in our own Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statement: “The Newberry’s commitment to [DEI] is essential to our mission: providing free and open access to a collection spanning more than six centuries, building and sustaining communities of learning, advancing and disseminating knowledge, and acquiring and preserving materials that represent a range of perspectives and experiences— including those that historically have been underappreciated, marginalized, or silenced…” The historically marginalized Indigenous people of Palestine are being silenced and attacked at this very moment. If our DEI goals are truly serious, we must speak out in defense of their perspectives, experiences, and lives. Otherwise, as a recent article in The Nation says, “DEI programs mostly become just conversation.”

Now the Newberry Library has an opportunity to ensure that its funding is consistent with its stated Mission and DEI principles. Several departments have already made efforts to shift spending from large corporate entities to smaller and/or local businesses in order to invest in and serve historically underrepresented groups. It is not enough to rethink how we spend institutional money. We must also apply the same principles to our funding. While we recognize the complexities of funding a cultural institution, we also ask our institution to interrogate how our donors’ money implicates us in circumstances that do not align with our institutional values. Accepting such funds undermines our mission and the sustainability of our institution. 

The billionaire Crown family, donors at the Annual Fund/President’s Cabinet tier, has become the 34th wealthiest family in the United States by directly profiting from US imperialism. The largest single source of Crown family wealth derives from the Crowns’ ownership stake in General Dynamics, the fifth largest weapons contractor in the US. General Dynamics is a long-time supplier of weapons to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and has been an eager participant in Israeli atrocities and war crimes towards Palestinian civilians. Recently, General Dynamics officials gloated about the uptick in weapons sales to the Israeli Zionist occupation: “The Israel situation obviously is a terrible one, frankly, and one that’s just evolving as we speak,” said Jason Aiken, chief financial officer and executive vice president at General Dynamics, during one interview.. “But I think if you look at the incremental demand potential coming out of that, the biggest one to highlight and that really sticks out is probably on the artillery side.” This means that the Newberry benefits when the Zionist settler state military in Palestine drops General Dynamics bombs on 2.5 million displaced Palestinian civilians,destroys libraries and archives, and annihilates family homes. 

We, concerned Newberry staff, Scholars, and friends of the library, demand that the Newberry leadership:

  • Publish a statement calling for a permanent cease fire.
  • Cut ties with the Crown family and refuse all future Crown family funding and donations.
  • A public statement acknowledging the relationship to the Crown family similar to the library’s involvement with Restrictive Covenants here in Chicago.

We urge the Newberry Library to stand with those who are resisting oppression and confirm that our fundamental mission and principles inform our actions on every level, including what funding we accept.

Finally, since the genocide in Gaza began, many institutions of higher learning, including cultural ones, have seen widespread retaliation against cultural workers who oppose the genocide and destruction in Gaza. There is now fear of backlash among workers who would like to speak out. As workers of this institution, we hope Newberry will keep a higher moral and professional standard. We ask Newberry leadership to listen to our concern with respect, and not retaliate against any staff member. 

Signed, over one hundred people in the Newberry community, including staff across departments, fellows, scholars and friends of the library.

1 The killing of knowledge systems.
2 The systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of the educational life of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.