Activists: Israel State Archives Buries History to Save Government From Shame

Documents that shed light on difficult events in the state’s history are still classified, years after the period of restriction expired, activist group that documents Israeli-Palestinian conflict says.

Documents from the State Archives being digitized.
David Bachar

Human rights activists have accused the Israel State Archives of concealing historical documents on topics that would embarrass the government.

In a report to be published next week, and revealed here for the first time, an organization called Ikvot (“Traces”) – whose members are activists documenting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – accuse the State Archives of blocking access to materials that are of public interest, even after the restriction period is over (this is usually anything between 15 and 70 years, depending on the sensitivity of the material).

“Documents that shed light on difficult events in the state’s history are still classified, years after the period of restriction expired,” says the report, written by Lior Yavne and Dr. Noam Hofstadter.

Earlier this year, for example, they say they tried to access files compiled by a committee examining the 1990 riots on the Temple Mount, when 17 Palestinians were killed by Israeli police officers. The archives allegedly refused to provide the documents, giving no reason, even though 25 years had passed since the incidents.

They were also reportedly denied access after requesting documents from 1948-1949 relating to Israeli Arabs, even though restrictions had long been lifted on the files. After the activists insisted, the file was described as classified – although no reason was provided. This also happened when they activists tried to access files labeled “Occupied territories,” from 1967-1968. They were told the files were closed due to security considerations and will only be reopened in 2019.

Documents from the State Archives being digitized.
David Bachar

Occasionally, access was denied due to bizarre technical reasons – such as it being the vacation of a volunteer who worked at the archive.

Access to police files depend on their examination by a police representative who shows up once a week. He was away for six months in 2015, which meant no police files could be examined during that time. Because of the backlog this subsequently caused, no guarantee of gaining access to new files could be given after that.

It turns out that new requests for access to documents are examined at length, even if the materials have already been declassified. For instance, when Yavne tried to access police documents from the 1970s, which he needed for his research into the conflict, he says he was told they were inaccessible until 2042 – “for security reasons and issues of privacy.”

What really lies behind this concern about state security? It’s not always clear. People from Ikvot discovered a forgotten clause in a recommendation made by a ministerial committee that dealt with viewing classified archival material. The clause says: “The state is prohibited from divulging information that could harm relations with other minorities, and which could serve as a basis for filing charges against the state.”

This meant the blocking of access to any documents dealing with relations between the state and its Arab citizens, or missing Yemenite children from the late 1940s and early ’50s, or gay men and lesbians, and more.

Documents from the State Archives being digitized.
David Bachar

“This clause limits access to any material that deals with discrimination and exclusion,” said Yavne, “preventing anyone subjected to this from using these documents in an attempt to seek redress from the courts.”

However, it’s not clear if the State Archives are abiding by this cause. According to the report, chief archivist Dr. Yaakov Lazovik said this is the only document that lists criteria for declassification of documents. But in a conversation with Haaretz this week, Lazovik said he didn’t remember the document, and that his only criteria are the prevention of harm to state security, foreign relations and privacy.

“None of us try to protect the state from being shamed or to prevent politicians from being harmed,” Lazovik said. “We try to open anything that can be declassified, except what needs to remain concealed.” Any denial of access can be appealed, he added.

Nevertheless, using state security in the broadest sense leaves room for criticism. “I believe that sunlight is the best cure for wounds, and that material from 1948 should be declassified,” says Hashomer Hatzair archivist David Amitai. “If we’re a strong country, we should be able to deal with unpleasant events and see ourselves as we were, with all that’s depicted here: expulsions, looting, murder and rape,” he said.

Amitai points to another problem at the State Archives. “Absurdly, they sometimes reclassify documents that have been open for years.”

Dr. Yaakov Lazovik.
Michal Fattal

Although Prof. Menachem Klein from Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, praises the service at the archives, he is also critical of its alleged declassification policy. “Documents that have already been quoted in research are sealed again. That’s totally unreasonable – the chickens have already flown the coop.”

Klein adds that he doesn’t understand why documents relating to foreign consulates can’t be declassified.

Ironically, a huge, ongoing digitization project may be part of the problem. So far, around 40 million State Archives documents have been scanned, which is about 10 percent of the total. Lazovik describes the project as a “real Zionist enterprise.”

Lazovik says the digitization process – which is being performed by ImageStore Systems in Petah Tikva – brings documents to the attention of censors, noting that there were some cases in which the archives had declassified documents that should have been censored. “That happens here and there, but not too often,” he says.

“If anyone wants to change things, they should get the law changed. All the conspiracy theories, whereby we’re hiding a lot of material, are simply untrue,” Lazovik added.