As Israel's history fades away in cardboard boxes, gov't plans a national museum

Archiving the State of Israel's historical documents is a monumental task.

state archive 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
state archive 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Dr. Yehoshua Freundlich gently opens a heavy cardboard binder to run a practiced eye across the fading paper. "Here are the signatures," he points. "See how Sadat and Begin signed in English alongside the Hebrew and the Arabic?" He sighs. "I wish I could show this to Israel's children." The page under Freundlich's gaze is the original Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and it is sitting on a table in a tiny one-room laboratory in south Jerusalem where old official documents are repaired by an equally tiny staff - only one person is on duty this Sunday morning, working to repair a crumpling, yellowed stack of letters from a German bank in Jerusalem in the 1880s. Freundlich is Israel's state archivist, directing the 60-person team tasked by a 1955 law with collecting and safekeeping Israel's official documents. It is a monumental task. Founded by former prime minister David Ben-Gurion in 1949, the State Archives inherited the archives of pre-state governments, the British and Ottoman administrations, to which it has added much of the paperwork produced by Israel's government agencies for 60 years. Housed in a rented warehouse in Jerusalem, the collection runs to 400 million pages packed away in cardboard boxes stacked 10 high on metal shelves that stretch 42 kilometers. The collection includes Israel's most secret documents, including daily operational records of the security agencies, which are locked down under armed guard in a large room-sized safe. But the purpose of the State Archives is not merely storage. They contain the most detailed records anywhere of Israel's dramatic history, from the original Declaration of Independence to the records of the welfare services, from the minutes of momentous cabinet discussions to aliya records and state investigative committee reports. But, Freundlich explains, this treasure is hidden from view. Two separate guarded entrances lead into a south Jerusalem office building where, on the third floor, one can find the small "reading room" of the archives, used mainly by scholars and totally inaccessible to the public. For decades, archivist after archivist - Freundlich is no exception - has dreamt of building a real museum, an educational center in which the artifacts of Israel's history can be brought to life. "Israelis don't know their history," he complains. "Schoolchildren and soldiers are taken to Yad Vashem or to the Begin Center. It's always Holocaust, Holocaust, Holocaust, and when they learn history, it's the history of one sector of Israeli society, [former prime ministers Menachem] Begin or [Yitzhak] Rabin. We're the only Western country that doesn't show its history to the world, to its people, in a real museum." This is a real lacuna. Israel is the only country in the West without a national museum that brings the national archives to bear in telling the national story - or the many narratives of that story - to the public. Even developing nations such as Malaysia, Tunisia and Rwanda have such institutions. If all goes according to plan, this vacuum may soon be filled. A few months ago the government established a task force to plan an ambitious and resplendent new project: a State Archives museum in Jerusalem. While Freundlich, a PhD in history, would settle "even for a humble building" that would enable him - finally - to bring Israel's history to the public, Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel, also a former history teacher and chair of the government task force, is thinking on a much bigger scale. "In 60 years, we haven't learned to sanctify the national and Jewish story of this land," believes Yehezkel. "Our national tradition is locked away in boxes - audio, video, papers that tell the story of our nation's birth are being lost, damaged. We're one of the few countries in the world with no national history museum." Worse, while the material in the State Archives is merely hidden from the public consciousness and ignored, some priceless artifacts of Israeli history are actually being ruined. In a recent visit to the Academy of the Hebrew Language, Yehezkel was taken to the academy's basement, where the academy stores furniture and objects belonging to the inventor of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Academy staff showed Yehezkel the famous notes in which Ben-Yehuda revived a language that had been largely unspoken since Nebuchadnezzar. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "The notes are kept in plastic salad boxes - lunch boxes. They're held together with rubber bands. It's not okay that we're not frightened that these precious materials are being destroyed." While the task force Yehezkel heads is months away from completing the planning of the new museum, the outlines are impressive. Yehezkel wants to see a museum complex erected on the hill that divides the Knesset from the Israel Museum. The complex would house the National Library and State Archives, and possibly also the Academy of the Hebrew Language and the Jewish Agency's Central Zionist Archives, where the history of the pre-state Zionist movement is told in half a million photographs, 50,000 maps and 3,000 films. Asked if the initiative would survive a change in the national leadership - a fair worry considering the unstable political situation - Yehezkel said he had incorporated the new museum's establishment into the job description of the cabinet secretary. "This will be part of the cabinet secretary's duties no matter what happens to me," he promised. The building looks set for funding from Jewish donors from around the world. Already, one unidentified Diaspora donor has committed $50 million to the project, while others have expressed a willingness to contribute once the planning is completed. "This will be a living museum," Yehezkel says, "full of people, of children from Israel and the world. For the first time, you'll be able to spend a day there experiencing our national story."