Communing with 300 million pages of documents
A rare look inside Israel's State Archives.
In a rented building in the heart of Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood, surrounded by garages, an improvised parking lot and an illegal garbage dump, stand the State Archives. "We're not very proud of the building, but it's been our home for the past 20 years. We hope to soon move to a more respectable place," says Ruti Abramovitch, the deputy state archivist.
Last week the State Archives published dozens of classified documents, including minutes of cabinet meetings and secret Mossad reports, relating to the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli sportsmen. Yesterday, the archives opened its gates to journalists and allowed us a rare opportunity to peek into the place responsible for safekeeping the State of Israel's history. The intent was clear: to do away with the dusty, old-fashioned image of the institution, active since 1949, and present a new, cleaner and transparent style.
"We're civil servants. Our duty isn't only to passively safeguard the historical materials, but also see to it that the public, whom we serve, should know about these materials and make use of them," Abramovitch says. And yes, keeping up with the times, the State Archives already boast a Facebook page, a Twitter account, two blogs (English and Hebrew ) and a YouTube channel.
Still, its not that simple. "On the one hand, it's our interest to reveal and publish material. On the other hand we're subject to limitations, laws and regulations, and therefore it's very likely that we refuse requests to review materials," she says. According to the Archives Law, sensitive materials concerning security, foreign affairs and individual privacy are withheld from the public eye for decades.
Thus, for example, protocols of the Ministerial Committee for Security can be published only 50 years later. Cabinet meeting protocols wait 30 years. Private letters are withheld for 70 years, based on the assumption that the author will probably be dead when that period elapses.
The State Archives include 150,000 boxes held in an area of approximately 9,000 square meters. The boxes hold some 300 million pages. And still, the archives don't receive all the materials they are due: tens of thousands of documents remain in ministries and various authorities due to the archives' space shortage. This problem should be solved soon, when the State Archives storerooms will be moved to Arad and a new building in Jerusalem will house the offices and reading rooms.
The big scan
The State Archives also plan a further change of approach, hoping to "massively scan" most materials. Some 2.2 million pages - of the 300 million total - have already been scanned. The chief state archivist, Yaacov Lozowick, says with a smile, "We have a thousand-year gap to fill."
According to law, all state institutions must transfer their documents to the State Archives as soon as they're done with them. That includes the Knesset, President's Office, Chief Rabbinate, government ministries, courts, police, state comptroller and investigative committees. Some personal archives are also transferred to the State Archives, including those once belonging to Golda Meir, Yitzhak Ben Zvi and Itamar Ben Avi. The only institutions that run their own archives are the Mossad, Shin Bet and the Commission for Atomic Energy.
"If you want to know exactly what Ehud Olmert said before reaching a decision concerning an event that might have happened - such as an attack on a facility in Syria - we have the answer," Lozowick says proudly. "Eventually, one may find out what really happened in the Netanyahu-Obama talks, or what is written in the confidential appendixes of the Winograd Report. We have it all here."
A few minutes' drive from the archives' central building, we reach the storage facility. "This is a classified building, a security installation that is prohibited as far as taking photographs or revealing its location," says Maya Rabaniyan, who is responsible for the State Archives' foreign relations. The public never arrives at this building, and only archive workers who passed special security screening are allowed to enter the building or remove materials.
Journalists were allowed in due to the initiative by Eran Ruflidis, who is responsible at the Prime Minister's Bureau for relations with the State Archives. Abramovitch adds to the sense of privileged peeks into utmost secrecy. "The whole building is a safe, and within the safe there is still another safe," he says: that's where the most sensitive materials are kept, such as the original copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Very few people have ever had the opportunity of opening the second safe, which includes other important documents such as Israel's peace treaties ("unfortunately, we don't have too many of these," Abramovitch notes ), and various reports of inquiry commissions.
But there are endless other treasures at the secret storage room: Adolf Eichmann's diary, for example, which he kept during his trial in Jerusalem. Several years ago Eichmann's family asked to take possession of the diary, but was sent only a photocopy. Eichmann's diary isn't alone: The gun Yigal Amir used to murder Yitzhak Rabin is also there, together with the bullets that killed the prime minister and the classified segments of the inquest into the murder.
Yet another piece of history in the safe is the original November 1947 UN document declaring the establishment of two states in Palestine. And there is also some comic relief, such as a letter from the Herzliya local council dated 1947, proposing that Herzliya be declared the capital of Israel.
Near the exit one can see a strange artifact: a glittering gold crown. "This is a gift from the king of Thailand to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir," explains the Shin Bet security guard. Usually, such artifacts are auctioned, but some, such as this crown, are thought to be worth keeping.