Think about it: The State Archive

The problem with the situation in Israel today is that there is little trust between the academics and the State Archive, which is under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Books (photo credit: HANAN COHEN)
(photo credit: HANAN COHEN)
The last time I paid a visit to the State Archive was several months ago. I was looking for some information relating to the Constituent Assembly before the first general elections, and I had a fairly clear idea where the information ought to be located.
At the archive I was received by a stern archivist of Russian origin whose knowledge of the period I was interested in was virtually zero, and who seemed to have brought her sense of public service with her from the Soviet Union. I was not given access to an index, and I left the premises at Har Hotzvim in Jerusalem empty handed. All I could do was remember with nostalgia previous visits to the archive 50 and 20 years ago, when a professional and attentive staff usually found what I was looking for, or could give me a convincing explanation for why it was not available.
The public was recently informed that the archive’s reference room has been closed and that from now on anyone wanting documents from the archive will have to order them via the Internet, and then wait for several weeks until they are scanned and sent by e-mail.
There are several problems with this, at least from the point of view of a historian. First of all, one needs a highly detailed index to find specific documents, and such an index is not currently available to the public. Secondly, any experienced researcher will tell you that one can rummage through many cartons of documents, and of thousands of documents only one might be relevant. I recently had such an experience in the Knesset archive, where I managed to find a document everyone doubted existed, in a pile of cartons of unlisted documents in the Knesset’s cellars. The document contained a list prepared in 1950-51 of 19 proposed basic laws that together would constitute Israel’s future constitution. In the State Archive I would never have found what I was looking for.
But if the problem were merely one of historians and political scientists looking for obscure documents for their research projects – dayenu.
The problem is much more serious and complex, and parts of it were dealt with by the State Comptroller recently. The first problem is that the State Archive is under-staffed and under-budgeted.
Next is the fact that the archive does not receive all the documents it is supposed to receive by law, from all the ministries, authorities, organizations and institutions. No one knows how much documentation is lost for this reason.
Then there is the problem of the digitalization of old documents, which started rather late and is proceeding very slowly. Someone has calculated that at the current rate the job will take centuries.
One cannot even get a reliable figure for the number of old documents that require scanning. The last figure I found was 400 million. That sounds ridiculous given that only the documents concerning the Yemenite and other children who disappeared in the early 1950 are reported to number around 1.5 million.
Next is the problem of where the physical documents are stored. Massive storage facilities were to be constructed in Arad in the Negev, but for reasons never disclosed, the project was shelved. The current location of the documents in Jerusalem is totally inappropriate.
Another problem concerns the policy regarding what documents are to be open to the public, and what is to remain closed, for security or other reasons. It is said that only five percent of the documents that exist in the archive are open to the public.
Israel is not the only country where many documents are kept closed to the public for many years, at the behest of the censor. In the late 1960s I was one of dozens of Israeli researchers who filled the Public Records Office in London, after British law was changed and it was decided to make documents available to the public after 30 rather than 50 years. I remember that after I had xeroxed dozens of documents relating to the British Mandate of Palestine, I returned to the PRO to see additional documents, only to discover that in the time that had elapsed the documents in the section I was interested in had been closed again, for undisclosed reasons.
Another issue is that the proper functioning of State Archives is one of many indicators of a well-functioning democracy, in the sphere of freedom of information. What is currently going on in Israel in this sphere is reminiscent of the archival policy in Putin’s Russia.
The problem with the situation in Israel today is that there is little trust between the academics and the State Archive, which is under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office. The fact that the state archivist, Dr. Yaakov Lazovik, recently stated that as far as he is concerned the needs of historians are no different to those of the general public that occasionally requires documents for practical purposes, was interpreted by some as being political, which might or might not be the case. However, the mutual recriminations are very real.
Some concerned academics are planning to raise the issue in the Knesset.
I somehow doubt whether the Knesset can do anything about it, and whether the minister concerned (Benjamin Netanyahu) gives a damn.
The writer is a political scientist and a retired Knesset employee.