Monday, April 25, 2016

Left-wing activists pile onto the Israel State Archives

Prequel: I warmly recommend reading my previous post, from a month ago, before reading this one. (Clearly, I don't blog often). That one was about how a left-wing NGO called Breaking the Silence and its defenders claimed that its working relationship with Israel's censor proved there couldn't possibly be anything wrong with BtS. A delicious irony to keep in mind as you follow today's installment.

A while ago I read William Doyle's The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Besides the good overview it gave of the events, I came away with an interesting thought he presented near the end of his tale, about the motivations of the Jacobins. Once people shed their allegiance to  traditional modes of thought and belief, and began to pride themselves on their pure rationalism, they often came to believe that their own understanding of the world, being rational, was the only possible one, and eventually, the only legitimate one.

Which means replacing the old systems with a new one made no-one any more tolerant. Instead of burning heretics at the stake, they guillotined them; the progress was in the decreased amount of pain inflicted upon the non-believers as they died.

Recently I've seen an example of the righteous indication of some of our own Jacobins from close up (no executions were involved, thankfully). It began when I announced, in February, that the approaching launch of our new website would mean the end of ordering paper files to the reading room. The catalog would be online, along with millions of pages of the scanned files; readers interested in seeing files we hadn't yet scanned would order them online and we'd upload them as quickly as possible.

The response, I admit, surprised me. There are any number of serious problems to the way the Israel State Archives (ISA) has functioned over the past 60 years, with the result that access to the documents is limited. No one ever took me to task for most of these deficiencies, and the staff and I have been laboring to correct things not as a result of public pressure but because we see tremendous room for improvement; we have been fortunate in convincing the powers that be in the relevant ministries that although the correction will require significant funds, it must be done. Launching the new website was to be the first time the general public would begin to see the improvements we've been laboring on for a number of years.

Well, within a week of announcing the imminent changes I was inundated by complaints from researchers, perturbed that those of them who regularly come to the reading room in Jerusalem would soon be required instead to remain at home and use the Internet. Assuming it was all a comic misunderstanding, I invited anyone who was worried to come to a meeting where I'd present the new website and answer any questions. (The website was already online at an unmarked URL). We spent a number of hours discussing the issues, at the end of which one of the researchers announced that he'd been convinced: it's a magnificent project you people are doing, he said.

Well, no. The campaign of letters of complaint grew, and soon was spearheaded by some of our NGOs. One sent me a six-page legal letter admonishing us, then wasted no time waiting for our response and leaked the document to the media. The thrust of the argument: 1. Nothing can replace the value of paper ind if we try we're effectively hampering historical research in Israel; 2. The fact that some security-related documents will be submitted to the censor will likewise be the end of free inquiry (never mind that this is the law, and isn't actually new). 3. The authorities will inevitably use this new ability to control who sees what to ensure the "wrong" people don't see the "wrong" documents.

No recognition that most of the documentation isn't open, and the entire effect of our actions is to open some of it immediately online, and the rest of it ASAP, while prioritizing the materials requested by readers.

On the day the new website limped online (I expect the teething problems to continue for another few weeks - this isn't a simple operation) the media swung into action. Haaretz went first. Then came 972 Magazine, online home for Israelis who really don't like most things their country does. Both writers had requested to talk to me, and neither had waited until the bureaucracy authorized me to respond. Once I did, the fellow at 972 found we're actually not as evil as he'd first reported, though interestingly his Hebrew-language report on our conversation was subtly more positive than its English-language version.

The kerfuffle soon attracted the attention of non-Israelis. Dan Williams of Reuters demonstrated the difference between journalism and activism, carefully talking to people and assuring he had the facts right. His report was considerably more balanced; he didn't find a tale of the Israeli authorities out to muzzle free inquiry but rather a tempest in a tea-cup.

The prize for Jacobinism went to a group of notionally professional and cool-headed American academics: the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). I saw no indication that anyone there reads Hebrew, nor made any attempt to contact me to learn what was going on. I don't think they even visited the website they were so robustly damning. They must have been contacted by some of our locals who cannot be bothered by nuance in their dash to damn us, and from these informants they gleaned a hodgepodge of data to draw the most damning indictment on what we're doing which they then publicly castigated us for.

The benefit to their intervention was their willingness to publish my response. So now there's an online, English language description of what we're doing, at the MESA website, and also on the ISA blog.

Ah yes - and the website itself, warts and all, is here. From now on, things will only improve.