Will Jews Lose Their Online Library?

By Dr. Mitchell Bard

As reader of eJewish Philanthropy, you are probably one of the tens of millions of people who have used the Jewish Virtual Library without realizing this website is the work primarily of one person whose dedication to Jewish education has sustained it for two decades on a shoestring budget. Chances are you were looking for information about Jewish history, politics or culture and Googled an inquiry and clicked on one of the first links that appeared, unaware that you could have simply typed in JewishVirtualLibrary.org and found the answers to questions on everything from anti-Semitism to Zionism. Sadly, soon that may no longer be possible.

Today, the Jewish Virtual Library has roughly 25,000 entries and more than 10,000 graphics. More than 30 million, yes million, visitors have come to the site from more than 200 countries and territories in the last three years. More than 700,000 individual users each month look to the JVL for information. When I started this project 20 years ago as part of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise’s mission to educate Americans about Israel, I had no idea it would become the “go to” source for Jewish educators.

In 1997, the web was not yet ubiquitous. It was still a novelty but everyone recognized it was going to be important in the future and Jewish organizations started to build basic sites to create an online presence. I also noticed that when I asked my assistant to research any topic he would furiously type on his computer keyboard and, a few minutes later, tell me that he could not find the answer to my query. I’d point to the bookshelf behind him full of hundreds of volumes and ask if he thought of consulting a book. It never dawned on him. Instead of going to libraries or picking up the telephone (the ones that used to sit on desks), students immediately looked to the internet for answers and assumed they did not exist if nothing could be found immediately online.

I took this as a challenge. Information about Israel was sparse, hard to find and not very good. I decided that students needed a place to find the answers to questions they had about Israel. Most people were creating portals that would contain links to sites all over the web on different topics. Using them was frustrating because you would have to bounce all over to find what you were looking for and then the material might not be useful, either because it lacked sourcing, credibility or was badly written. I set out and succeeded to create a one-stop that would alleviate the need to search the entire web.

It was clear that it would be overwhelming to start writing an encyclopedia of Israeli history from scratch so we started with the book, Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict. I had written the last edition for AIPAC and given it more scholarly credibility by adding sources for the facts. With minor modifications, I took the facts and used them to create a web site we called the Jewish Online Research Center (JSOURCE).

Immediately it became clear that the problem of finding information about Israel also applied to learning about Judaism, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and Jewish history, so I decided we need to add material on those topics as well. As a Ph.D. in political science who has published two dozen books on the Middle East and the Holocaust, I have the knowledge to contribute original articles on a wide range of topics for the library; however, it made no sense to reinvent the wheel when others had written about those subjects, so I asked the best sites if they would allow us to reprint their material with attribution and a link back to their sites. Fortunately, most organizations generously agreed and that has allowed us to add material from dozens of sites and saved thousands of hours of labor. Still, I had created a monster. JSOURCE was now designed to provide answers to questions students might have on any subject related to more than 5,000 years of Jewish history.

Thanks to the generosity of donors, we redesigned and rebranded the site as the Jewish Virtual Library with wings on the Holocaust, Biography, Women, Israel, Travel and other topics. In January 2017, we relaunched the site with a new database format, brand new look and more user-friendly navigation, which is easier to access on mobile devices.

Over the years we have added thousands of primary documents such as declassified State Department, British Foreign Office and CIA documents. Holocaust survivors sometimes offer us photographs that no one else in the world has in their archives. The Library of Congress gave us permission to put online their Judaic Treasures exhibit. We also collect information on the relationship between Israel and each of the 50 states, documenting how each state benefits from trade, military contracts, business cooperation and academic research collaboration with Israel. We keep statistics on everything from immigration to Israel to the number of settlers in the West Bank. As you might imagine, keeping these updated is a fulltime job by itself.

One of the other distinctive aspects of the JVL is that the information in the articles is hyperlinked to other entries in the Library so it is possible to learn more about the topics referenced. This created another logistical nightmare because more and more terms can be hyperlinked as the Library grows, but this must be done manually and takes an inordinate amount of time.

It has also been fascinating to learn about our users and their interests. The most frequently asked question every year is: “Was Hitler Jewish?” Visit the JVL to find the answer.

Our principal audience may be Jews, but we are able to educate a much broader audience than most other projects. Our global reach is amazing, with visitors coming from more than 200 countries/territories. We are probably one of the few “Jewish” resources that is regularly accessed from Arab and Muslim countries.

One teacher expressed what many have told us: “The JVL is the go-to source my students use for fact-based research pertaining to Judaism, Israel, and the Holocaust.” Unfortunately, the JVL is taken for granted. If you ask people if they have ever used it, they say they use it all the time, but have no idea who produces and maintains the Library.

The JVL has been a labor of love, but love is no longer enough. The Jewish community could lose an invaluable educational resource. We need new ideas and funding sources to ensure the long-term viability of the library.

Dr. Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of AICE and author/editor of 24 books including Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Arab Lobby, and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.