Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Have Israeli Archives been Hiding Files?

Over the weekend Shai Hazkani published a long article in Haaretz about Israeli crimes in 1948 and attempts to cover them up, first by David Ben Gurion and now, in recent years, by the archives. I'm not going to deal with the content of the article itself. However, I was perturbed by Hazkani's claim that unpleasant files which had been opened in the 1990s have recently been re-sealed, even though in the meantime historians had seen them and quoted from them. Given that I"m the State Archivist, I received a number of enquiries from various folks: "Tell us it ain't so, Yaacov!"

So I looked into the matter by contacting Haaretz and eventually talking to Hazkani so as to understand what he was describing. The answer is troubling.

First, it's not the censor. There is a censor in Israel, but she and her team don't deal with influencing historical narratives, only with stopping publications which contain an immediate danger to Israeli security, and they're watched closely by various agencies, chief of them being the Supreme Court. They have a very narrow mandate, and they stay within it.

It's not the State Archives, at least not as a policy of blocking uncomfortable or unpleasant documentation. The readers of our blog may have noticed this. However, it turns out there have been cases where declassifiers have re-sealed files, when their directives have been sharpened. Finally, there are the declassifiers at the IDF Archives: when I asked them they confirmed that indeed, some files have been re-sealed because of their content.

So Hazkani at Haaretz was right.

Now what? Since I stopped being a blogger and became a civil servant, I acquired authority and responsibility, but lost the luxury of simply speaking out on whatever topic crossed my mind. (I also mostly stopped bogging). On this matter, also: I can no longer simply say how I think things need to be without much chance of influencing them to be that way. I need to address the full complexity of the matter, and deal with all the stakeholders. I can hope to change things within my sphere of authority, but I must use the tools the system has given me, not those I used to use. It's trade-off: I may be able to change things (and I many not), but I can't simply spout opinions.

So on that note I'll have to end this report, at least until - and if - there's something else to report on.


Silke said...

Wouldn't the most likely explanation be that whoever declassified the reclassified ones in the past had been a bit over-enthusiastic?

I am getting a bit tired of this over-suspiciousness of everything that isn't open open open open aka this constant demand for a Wikileak-compatible society.

Yaacov said...

Hi Silke,

This issue here isn't wikilieaks-like data. It's files which were officially declasified many years ago (when the events were more recent), which were then re-classified after historians had seen them and used them extensively. An attempt to control a story which is already well-known.

Every democratic country in the world has some secrets, and thus some archival files, which don't get opened for a long time, or even a very very long time. There are democratic countries which still have closed files from many years before the creation of the State of Israel. But that's not what this case is about.

Yaniv said...

Thanks for posting. That's a real shame. What specifically do you mean by " it turns out there have been cases where declassifiers have re-sealed files, when their directives have been sharpened" has it happened in the state archive? Does it include material that has already been footnoted in history books?

Finally, to the best of my knowledge the law says that even IDF material has to be declassified after 50 years. Only material which can expose intelligence sources can be classified for 70 years. Isn't it unlawful to reclassify after so many years (or at all)?

Silke said...

yes, Yaacov

I understood all that well - I live in a country in which anybody addicted to radio as I am gets the same facts told innumerable times with a little detail added here or there or just looked at it from another angle.

therefore - whatever happened whoever messed things up if they were messed up as a rule I am getting more and more allergic to this culture of "auf sie mit Gebrüll" and/or "mea culpa, mea maxima culpa".

People make mistakes, stupid mistakes and incomprehensible mistakes and very often for reasons that at the time are considered to be very good ones and I'd like to know a lot more of how the story developed before I'd jump to hinting at something let alone jump to conclusions.

PS: are there any thrillers or romances dealing with archivars' work as compared to librarians?

It could be a good subject to make it known to a wider public that you are surrounded by countries which offer very scant access to their archives or none at all I've ever heard of.

Silke said...

the Brits have, as I understood it, discovered a room where secret documents dating back to the time of Edward VIII's abdication including wartime notes by leading personnel discovered.

I contrast the laid back attitude in which they discuss this discovery to the attitude in which something similar in Israel would be discussed.

The Brits seem just to not even to contemplate the idea that anything other than human nature being what it is might have happened.

I think that by being willing to suspect oneself of something one is complying with the demands of the inquisitor. And that is not conducive to remining presumed innocent.

Silke said...

is there any outcry anywhere?

And Belgium destroyed many of its export documents from the period, leaving large gaps in what should be a public record. (Mr. Spleeters characterizes the destruction of these records as “illegal.”)