Monday, April 16, 2018

How to prove you don't have a sister, or The insidious assumptions of Israel-critical journalists

The first half of that caption is a common hebrew saying, noting how it can be impossible to disprove baseless allegations. After all, perhaps when your father was 16 and drunk late one night he had an encounter which ended up in your having a (half) sister you've never heard of? How could you possibly prove otherwise?

Earlier today a journalist sent me a series of questions about stuff that happens at the Israel State Archives, of which I'm still the boss until the end of next month. The first question or two were informative, if not particularly well informed, as a short visit to our website could have shown. But then she got down to business, with questions that already contained her theses; and her theses contained fundamental assumptions not only about the ISA, but also about how things work in Israel in general.

Here are her questions and my answers. Judge for yourself.

·       Is the State Archives open to people to visit in the reading room or are all documents only accessible on line? What happens if a person is looking for a document or documents that are not currently digitized?

As a general statement access to the archival holdings of the Israel State Archives (ISA) is via the archive's website, which has two interfaces, one in Hebrew and one in English, each of which uses the same search engine on the same collections. Individuals who demonstrate a specific need to see the original files can view them in the archives office building, in a specially designated room which you might call a reading room, except that most days it's empty because few people see the need to visit it. Files which have been partially redacted, for whatever reason (security, privacy, copyright), can be viewed only digitally as the redaction is done digitally. Whenever anyone requests to see a file which has not yet been checked or digitized or both, the file is sent immediately to be digitized and then to be checked; upon completion the scan is uploaded to the website and an announcement with the link is sent to the person who made the request. The file remains thereafter online for everyone. On average 10-30,000 newly processed pages go online every night.

·       Is there an online catalog they can use to see what documents are housed by the archive?

Of course. Right here. For obvious reasons most of it is in Hebrew, irrespective of the language of the documents themselves.

·       In the future might the Reading Room re-open?

It is of course conceivable that a future State Archivist might decide to re-open the reading room, thus incurring significant hassle to serve the needs of 15 people a day, even as the website serves 1-3,000 people on most days (365 days a year). Since checking the files for security/privacy/copyright issues is done on the scanned version of the files, it's hard to see who might benefit from such a move; as noted previously, individuals who can explain why they need to see a specific file may see it, if there are no redacted sections, even now.

·       In the case of materials from 1948 War of Independence, are some files classified because of “privacy” of the Palestinians who may have been harmed in the battles? I.e. civilians who may have been raped or injured?

I don't know. As a general statement, privacy rules make no distinction between ethnic groups, citizenship or anything else. If the redactors deem a piece of information as requiring protection, it will be redacted irrespective of any other consideration. I have never come across a single case, nor heard of one, in which privacy rules were applied according to any such criteria; nor have I ever heard of any directive to do so. Were such a practice to be demonstrated, the courts would undoubtedly forbid it – but I've never heard of such a case so it's never gone to court.

·       In the past (when the archives were accessed through the Reading Room) some Palestinian and Israeli Arab historians and researchers have said that when they have requested information on 1948 related unclassified files in person they were told they were blocked from accessing file. They claim it was bias by the archivists who did not want to give information to them because they were Palestinian or Israeli Arab. Do you have any comment on this?

I have never heard of such a practice. It would of course be illegal, and highly unlikely that an archivist on the staff of the ISA would take upon himself (or herself) to do such a thing, knowing that it could not be defended were there to be a complaint. If you'd like to supply me with specifics, rather than vague and unspecified hearsay, I would be happy personally to look into each case. I would add that in the current system, whereby requests for files come in from the website, there is no way for the archivists even to know who ordered which file, what country they are in, nor what their gender, ethnicity, age, profession or anything else might be. The most they can see, if they make the effort (which they rarely do because there is no significance to the fact), is an e-mail address and whatever name the person invents. I myself have invented multiple fictitious e-mail identities with which to submit requests and test our systems and processes. No one has ever tried to ask me who I am (who I are?).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Would this piece be linked to the recent Haaretz story by Dina Kraft ?