Some years ago, in a series of lectures on nationalism, delivered, appropriately enough, in Belfast, Eric Hobsbawm imagined an evocative “intergalactic historian,” an extraterrestrial visitor who arrives on planet Earth after a thermonuclear war has destroyed all life. Since the technology of advanced weaponry had enabled the belligerents to destroy people rather than property, our visitor is able to consult libraries and archives for the cause of the catastrophe. We can imagine him reading and sightseeing in Herder’s library in Weimar or in Garibaldi’s on the island of Caprea, off Corsica, where the Italian national hero spent the last years of his life in a little house facing France and not Italy, because, as a guide once told me, he could not bear what his compatriots had done with Italy after his retirement. At the end of his tour, Hobsbawm writes, the intergalactic visitor must conclude that “nationalism” had been the gravedigger of our planet.
Perhaps our historian would also have passed through Jerusalem, the capital of a country that is almost permanently at war for reasons of its own national interests or those of its neighbors and, according to a recent report on the BBC, may possess as many as two hundred atomic and even a few thermonuclear bombs. I imagine him walking down Balfour Street, named after the British statesman who promised that the British government viewed with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, with the understanding that nothing would be done to prejudice the rights of the Arabs already living there. Balfour is a quiet, leafy street that cuts through a pleasant residential Jerusalem neighborhood. To his left, our historian would note the official residence of the Israeli prime minister, a bleak, forbidding stone block, more like a bunker or beflagged fortress, watchtowers on each corner, searchlights, and grim-looking guards whispering into cell phones.
In sharp contrast to this sobering sight, he would see directly opposite a true marvel of Bauhaus architecture—the lovely, delicate, wonderfully proportioned façade of the Schocken Library. The building was designed in 1935 by Erich Mendelsohn, a refugee from Nazi Germany best known internationally as the architect of the Einstein Tower in Potsdam, a landmark of modern architecture. In designing the Schocken Library Mendelsohn drew his inspiration from the open landscape surrounding the city, a vista of bare mountaintops and the soft contours of solitary Arab villages still perched on the hills in 1935, fitting perfectly into the landscape and so pleasing to the eye, if only from a distance. Mendelsohn also designed all the details within the building, elegant steel banisters and door handles, bookshelves in blond lemon wood, tables, chairs, umbrella racks, and Bauhaus-inspired washrooms and mezuzahs. The library, with its delicate, pristine lines, walls chiseled in rosy Jerusalem stone, and elliptical glass-enclosed staircases and windows, is perhaps the most memorable modern building in the city.
The library was commissioned in 1934 by another German refugee, the fifty-eight-year-old Salman Schocken …