About two weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed regulations restricting access to government archives. As Barak Ravid revealed yesterday in Haaretz, 50-year-old materials that were to be opened to the public for historical study will now remain classified for two more decades.
The decision was preceded by intense pressure from the defense establishment and intelligence services on the state archivist, Prof. Yehoshua Freundlich. The archivist accepted their position, and said "these materials are not fit for public viewing."
The information that remains classified deals, among other things, with the expulsions and massacres of Arabs in the War of Independence, Mossad operations in foreign countries, surveillance of opposition politicians by the Shin Bet security service in the 1950s and the establishment of the Biological Research Institute in Nes Tziona and the Nuclear Research Center in Dimona.
The material was not accessible to the public previously, and the new regulations merely put a retroactive stamp of legality on the closure of the archives, which until now was sealed illegally. The state archivist warned that some of the classified materials "has implications over [Israel's] adherence to international law."
His words suggest that the state will be seen as an outlaw if the past deeds of the security and intelligence services are made public. But his explanations are not reasonable. Israel, which this year celebrated its 62nd birthday, can and must confront the less than heroic chapters in its past and reveal them to the public and for historical study. The public has a right to know about the decisions made by the state's founders, even if they involved violations of human rights, covering up crimes or harassing political opponents by security means. The country is mature and strong enough to absorb the criticism that could arise if, for example, previously unpublished testimonies are discovered about the events at Deir Yassin.
The role of the security establishment and intelligence services is to protect the state in the present, not to hide the past. The new regulations, prepared in response to petitions by journalists to the High Court of Justice, reverse the trend of openness set in the Freedom of Information Law, which the Supreme Court called "a guiding law." Israelis should study history as it happened and as it was documented, not just a censored and prettified version.