Ninety-five Percent of Israel State Archives Files Concealed From the Public

Chief archivist says a million files have not been documented because staffing remains low

Employees search for documents at the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem, Israel.
Michal Fattal

About 95 percent of the material in the Israel State Archives is concealed from the public, with “no practical way to open it” because staffing remains low, state archivist Yaacov Lozowick said this week.

Speaking at a meeting of the Knesset Science and Technology Committee, Lozowick said that over decades of backlog had developed of “3,000 man years” in allowing access to the documents, with the gap growing every day. Lozowick said the backlog meant that the archive holds about a million files whose contents had not been documented.

Lozowick, who is retiring from the archive soon, said that not only is most of the archival material hidden from view, the reasons why are not clear.

“The entire discussion is concealed from the public. The public can’t understand why it’s open one way and not another,” he told the committee.

“The public can’t see either the material or the discussion” about whether to open it to the public. That discussion, Lozowick said, “is being held by a small group of state employees.”

According to the committee, in the digitalization project that began last year, about 70 million pages have been scanned, out of 400 million pages in the archive.

Lozowick said that because of limited staffing, priorities had not been set on what should be scanned. He said the materials that the archive scans and makes accessible to the public are the ones people apply to see using the state archive's website.

“We don’t know what interests the public,” he told the committee. “The public knows what interests it.”

Lozowick also addressed reports on Channel 2 and in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth that documents are being leaked containing information that is restricted amid invasion-of-privacy concerns. Lozowick said that so far only two justified complaints had been received and the archive had dealt with them.

“The public wants to see the material more than it fears [leaks],” Lozowick said. He also discussed the problems he says are inherent in the digitalization of the files.

“There is no way to expose archival material without leaking material that shouldn’t be leaked. Exposing archival material has to contain mishaps,” he said, adding that Israeli society had to decide whether it wanted the material to be open at the cost of mistakes “here and there.”

He said that since the establishment of the state in 1948, the decision had been not to have the archive open to the public.

Also present at the meeting was Ilana Alon, who heads the archive of the Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry. She said that nearly all the material in the IDF archive is closed to the public.

According to Alon, out of 1.1 million files, the public has access to only about 50,000. Still, that material is “very important,” Alon said.