Erasing history: Israeli state archives kept secret

Files in the Israel State Archives|Ofer Aderet

Ninety-five per cent of the Israeli state archives are concealed from public access. The suppression of history is a precondition for the all-round falsification of history of the enforced dispossession of the Palestinian people – “to make possible the Zionist lies about ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ and to weaken Palestinian resistance as much as possible.” The state’s own chief archivist has condemned the widespread censorship of historical documents containing information that the public has a right to know about | Four articles 

Haaretz Editorial (January 18) – It was hard to believe that the manifesto posted this week on the website of the Israel State Archives was written by a state official subordinate to the Prime Minister’s Office. The text, by the outgoing chief archivist, Dr. Yaakov Lazovik, gives expression to all those values that the state has been trying to destroy in recent years – democracy, liberalism, humaneness and transparency.

With sincerity, directness and courage, Lazovik described the ills of the agency he runs. Israel isn’t dealing with its archival material in a manner befitting a democracy, he said; most of the documents in the archives are inaccessible to the public for no reason, and unreasonable restrictions are imposed on studying the little material that is available.

Lazovik condemned one of the most sensitive issues under his purview – the censorship of documents on state security grounds. The idea he presented might seem radical although in a properly run country it would be obvious: Censorship should be used solely to protect “immediate, operational interests,” and not to sweepingly suppress historical documents.

This would especially apply to documents that shed light on embarrassing incidents and events that aren’t a source of pride to the country. There are such events in the history of every country. It’s enough to cite two examples: Photos from the massacre at Deir Yassin (1948) and documents relating to the massacre at Kafr Qasem (1956) are both being kept closed to public scrutiny.

Lazovik’s piercing words speak for themselves. “Here and there, Israelis committed war crimes [] If Israel commits acts that a court here or abroad would deem unacceptable, Israeli citizens should know about them and decide whether they agree [] Disclosure of facts about conduct is a necessary condition for the existence of a democratic society, not a danger that must be avoided by withholding information.”

In recent years, Lazovik has overseen the archives’ digital revolution, which allowed the public access to documents on the missing Yemenite children and the minutes of the cabinet meetings from the Six-Day War. Examining these materials, which were sealed until recently, illustrates his claim that there was no reason not to release them decades ago.

Conservative elements, including the military censor and the ministries’ legal advisers, are trying to put a spoke in the wheels of the information revolution Lazovik has led. One hopes that his stinging words will spur a public, academic, legal and political debate on how to make the state archives more open and its documents more accessible.

Related reading on this website:

Salvage or plunder? Israel’s ‘collection’ of private Palestinian libraries in West Jerusalem,” February 14, 2016

“People of the (stolen) book: Did Israel’s National Library engage in systematic theft,” January 3, 2015

“Stolen books, stolen identity: What did Israel do with Palestinians’ literary heritage?,” January 24, 2013

Plunder and erasure – Israel’s control over Palestinian archives,” August 16, 2017


Ninety-five per cent of Israel State Archives files concealed from the public

Chief archivist says a million files have not been documented because staffing remains low | OFER ADERET

Employees search for documents at the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem, Israel | Michal Fattal

(November 2, 2017) – About 95 per cent of the material in the Israel State Archives is concealed from the public, with no practical way to open it because staffing remains low, state archivist Yaacov Lozowick said this week.

Speaking at a meeting of the Knesset Science and Technology Committee, Lozowick said that over decades of backlog had developed of 3,000 man years in allowing access to the documents, with the gap growing every day. Lozowick said the backlog meant that the archive holds about a million files whose contents had not been documented.

Lozowick, who is retiring from the archive soon, said that not only is most of the archival material hidden from view, the reasons why are not clear.

The entire discussion is concealed from the public. The public cant understand why its open one way and not another, he told the committee.

The public cant see either the material or the discussion about whether to open it to the public. That discussion, Lozowick said, is being held by a small group of state employees.

According to the committee, in the digitalization project that began last year, about 70 million pages have been scanned, out of 400 million pages in the archive.

Lozowick said that because of limited staffing, priorities had not been set on what should be scanned. He said the materials that the archive scans and makes accessible to the public are the ones people apply to see using the state archive’s website.

We don’t know what interests the public, he told the committee. The public knows what interests it.

Lozowick also addressed reports on Channel 2 and in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth that documents are being leaked containing information that is restricted amid invasion-of-privacy concerns. Lozowick said that so far only two justified complaints had been received and the archive had dealt with them.

The public wants to see the material more than it fears [leaks], Lozowick said. He also discussed the problems he says are inherent in the digitalization of the files.

There is no way to expose archival material without leaking material that shouldn’t be leaked. Exposing archival material has to contain mishaps, he said, adding that Israeli society had to decide whether it wanted the material to be open at the cost of mistakes here and there.

He said that since the establishment of the state in 1948, the decision had been not to have the archive open to the public.

Also present at the meeting was Ilana Alon, who heads the archive of the Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry. She said that nearly all the material in the IDF archive is closed to the public.

According to Alon, out of 1.1 million files, the public has access to only about 50,000. Still, that material is very important, Alon said.


Looted from Beirut 35 years ago, now on display in Tel Aviv

‘Looted and Hidden’ digs through the archive of films taken by the Israeli army in 1982, and shines light on more property stolen by Israel: the history of Palestinian cinema | RAMI YOUNIS*

A still from the film “Looted and Hidden.”

(December 4, 2017) – Rare images from the archive of Palestinian films and photographs, documenting decades of Palestinian history from before 1948 and after the Nakba, are finally seeing the light of day in a new film by Rona Sela — curator, researcher of visual history and culture, and lecturer at Tel Aviv University. Nearly all of the images from the archive were confiscated when the Israeli army raided the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s offices in Beirut in 1982, taking documents and photographed material.

The materials have now been unsealed by Israel’s Military Censor and are now accessible to the public in the Israeli army’s archives.

Sela spent hundreds of hours in the military archives to make the film, which uncovers a significant amount of documentary and cultural material: photographs and films about the lives of Palestinians before and after 1948 and in the diaspora, as well as voice recordings of Palestinian artists and producers that were censored and hidden from the public. This is an invaluable collection, which Sela’s film makes accessible in order to reveal another chapter in the story of the denial and suppression of Palestinian history.

Sela smartly chose to base her film on the rare images themselves. She builds the story of the film as a correspondence between herself and a number of Palestinians, and even an Israeli soldier who served in Beirut. The relatively short film is moving: it is hard not to wonder how these images would have influenced the development of Palestinian cinema had they not been stolen and made inaccessible to Palestinian producers.

Films by Palestinians consistently make waves and win prizes internationally, against all the odds and despite Israel’s cultural warfare against Palestinian artists. It is not a stretch to say that the potential of Palestinian cinema could have been even greater had parts of its history not been hidden from the eyes of the world.

Similar to the destruction of Palestinian urbanization in 1948, the theft of Palestinian visual culture is another attempt by Israel to control the historical narrative and erase Palestinian history. Palestinian urbanization was halted and all of the most important Palestinian cities—Jaffa, Haifa, Lod, and Ramle—were emptied of nearly all of their residents to make possible the Zionist lies about “a land without a people for a people without a land” and to weaken Palestinian resistance as much as possible.

Sela’s film succeeds at showing that Palestinian cinema never ceased to innovate, and that Palestinian producers were never afraid to document and tell their own stories, as well as stories of resistance to the occupation, in cinematic language that fit the period and spoke to the world.

Even more than the film’s cultural significance, its documentation of Palestine as a developed Arab society is likely to greatly interest the wider public. In this sense, Sela’s film is a politically brave, activist production. Sela has spent the past 20 years investigating and documenting Palestinian visual culture in her books. Now, she is sharing her important findings as a documentary film that will touch the heart of every Palestinian and should cause every Israeli to feel a sense of shame.

“In the past, I researched Zionist propaganda from before the establishment of the state of Israel,” Sela said, explaining what motivated her to make the film. “One of the central motifs that reappeared again and again was the image of the Jew who arrives to a desolate area, as if the land had waited for the Jew to arrive and make it bloom.”

“This led me to research the documentation of Palestinian history,” Sela continued. “I searched through materials here and abroad to reveal to anIsraeli audience that Palestine existed here before 1948.”

What is striking in Sela’s work over the years, and specifically in this film, is the central emphasis on visual elements. As a researcher of visual cultural, Sela demonstrates that she “understands the importance of visual images in the building of consciousness and national identity, and the importance of culture and history in every society.”

Sela’s film provides decisive proof that Israel has always used any means possible to erase visual documentation of Palestinian history. It exposes Israel’s theft of the archive in 1982, and reveals, for the whole world to see, another hidden chapter of Palestinian history.

“Looted and Hidden” was shown as part Zochrot’s 48mm Film Festival: From Nakba to Return.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

*A Palestinian writer and activist, Rami Younis graduated From Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he started his political activism with the “Tajamoa” student group (National democratic union of Palestinians). He is one of the founders of the Palestinian activist group, “Khotweh” (a “step” in Arabic), which was very active on the issues of home demolitions and Palestinian identity in Lyd and Ramleh, mixed Jewish-Arab cities in occupied historical Palestine, especially among youth. Rami started his professional life in the pharmaceutical and tech industries. He later served as a parliamentary consultant and spokesperson for Palestinian member of Knesset Haneen Zoabi. On one of his many travels, Rami found himself being asked why people don’t see more Palestinian travelers. After thinking about it for a second he coined the phrase: “Because we’re preOCCUPIED with other shit,” which he hasn’t stopped repeating ever since.


After Six-Day War, Israel censored dozens of textbooks and newspapers – and tried to silence correspondent

Declassified documents show Prime Minister Levi Eshkol supported wiretapping ministers’ phones to prevent leaks, but said in that case, he would ‘decree silence on myself in romantic matters as well’ | OFFER ADERET


Prime Minister Levy Eshkol and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan visit an Israeli army camp in the West Bank with other officials after the Six-Day War, 1967 | Ilan Bruner/GPO

(November 16, 2017) – In the months following the Six-Day War in 1967, a significant portion of the ministerial discussions was devoted to the education Arab pupils would receive in the occupied territories.

Documents detailing the minutes of these meetings were declassified by the Israel State Archives on Thursday. Yaakov Sarid, then the Education Ministry director general (and father of Yossi Sarid), reported that his ministry had censored dozens of Arab textbooks, including math books, that contained inflammatory material.

Ministers also sought to impose censorship on Israeli newspapers that didn’t toe the government line or that published leaked security information. Reading the minutes of the discussions, one discovers that Education Minister Zalman Aranne expressed surprise with the military censor’s decision to allow the publication of a cartoon by Ze’ev (Yaakov Farkash) showing an Arab teacher throwing the Jewish education minister out of his classroom. “It would be proper if the newspapers wouldn’t deal with the Education Ministry, but with the Arabs,” he said.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, meanwhile, tried to get Haaretz’s military correspondent, Ze’ev Schiff, fired. “I asked my bureau chief to look into the possibility of suspending his right to be a military reporter,” Dayan said. “How can he be a military reporter if he doesn’t observe the state’s security laws?”

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan fly over the West Bank after the Six-Day War | ILAN BRUNER/ GPO

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol added, “I see Schiff walking around in the dark corners of the ministries I remember a case in which there was a meeting until very late, and when I came out I saw Mr. Schiff standing under a bush. He was waiting there and had known about the meeting.”

To prevent leaks of security information to journalists, Dayan proposed tapping government ministers’ phones. Eshkol thought this was a bad idea, but said he wouldn’t oppose it.

“I don’t think that if I wanted to give information, I would necessarily use my home phone,” he said. “I would go to a public phone, or I’d sit in a café or I’d just say something to someone and tell him to pass on the information. That’s why wiretapping won’t solve the problem.”

Still, he said, “If it is decided to wiretap ministers, I will cooperate with the move. But then I will have to decree silence on myself in romantic matters as well.”

Along with censoring books and newspapers, the ministers discussed taking action against various people deemed to be “inciters,” and the minutes include talks on deporting some of them. In one such discussion, Justice Minister Ya’akov Shapira spoke of a Muslim cleric who along with his assistants was accused of incitement against Israel. “I would take these guys and send them to the Sinai desert; that too, violates the Geneva Convention,” he said. “I would settle them in Sharm e-Sheikh, so they could roast in the sun.”

Police Minister Eliyahu Sasson said that lacking another option, “We’ll send him and five others like him to Mitzpeh Ramon.”

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