Battle Over Memory: Israel State Archives Issue Order to Hand Over All State Documents

Archivists warn that documents removed from public archives could disappear from public eye ■ State archivist threatens penalties for archives holding classified material

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Documents about the missing Yemenite children affair at the Israel State Archives, 2016.
Documents about the missing Yemenite children affair at the Israel State Archives, 2016.Credit: Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Israel's State Archives are demanding that all state-related documents that were composed by various national institutions and are now located in other archives be handed over to them. In a letter written by state archivist Ruti Abramovitch earlier this month to directors of other archives, she also included a veiled threat, by which “any archives holding a document defined as classified may be subject to severe penalties, including imprisonment.”

Her letter evoked concern, puzzlement and criticism among directors of other archives, large and small, public and private. The Association of Israeli Archivists warned that documents removed from public archives and transferred to the State Archives could disappear from the public eye for a prolonged period. “Their fate will be unclear, as will any accessibility in the foreseeable future,” warned David Amitai, the chairman of the association, in a reply he sent to Abramovitch, which was obtained by Haaretz after its dissemination among public archives directors.

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The association’s concern stems from the fact that most of the documents in the State Archives are inaccessible to the public due to technical, bureaucratic and other limitations, even when there is no legal impediment to their exposure. Abramovitch notes in her letter that she has seen reports of visits to other archives which included exposure to state materials. She adds that according to the law, such materials should be located in the State Archives and in the agency in which they were composed (such as the Interior or Defense ministries): “Classified state materials should not be in the hands of unauthorized persons, and the law stipulates heavy penalties when this is the case, including incarceration.”

State Archivist Ruti Abramovitch.
State Archivist Ruti Abramovitch. Credit: Screenshot from Knesset's YouTube channel

Mentioning such penalties is highly unusual, and they are not known to have ever been imposed in the past. Abramovitch ends her letter by demanding that archives directors return such material. “Such material, which has ended up in other archives unlawfully, should be returned to the State Archives,” she wrote.

The letter was sent in connection to last year’s ruling by the Supreme Court, which determined that historical documents composed by state employees should be placed in the States Archives. The ruling came in a case in which the State Archives tried to block an auction house from selling a draft of the Declaration of Independence. Justice David Mintz wrote in his ruling that “this historical document is part of the cultural assets of the state, testimony to our past and part of our collective identity.” He noted that a key issue in the ownership of cultural artefacts is the obligation to restore them to their rightful owners.

FILE Photo: David Ben-Gurion reads the Declaration of Independence of the state of Israel, 1948.
FILE Photo: David Ben-Gurion reads the Declaration of Independence of the state of Israel, 1948. Credit: Zoltan Kluger/GPO

Along with concerns that transferring such documents to the State Archives will close them off to public perusal, even if they were previously accessible in other archives, the Association of Israeli Archivists note other problems that arise from this demand. They say that state documents can lawfully be in the possession of non-state agencies in cases in which a person or agency to which the documents relate received and kept a copy.

The association believes that Abramovitch’s letter should be first addressed to private agents, such as traders and auction houses which handle and sell many historical documents that describe the state’s activities, since there is great danger that this material will be lost.

In a conversation with Haaretz, a senior official who is familiar with the State Archives voiced sharp criticism of the move. He said that the archivist, or the person allowing himself to dictate orders to her, is trying to close off the possibility of studying the history of Israeli governments. “This is an attempt by the state to take over the historical discourse in Israel through a monopolistic domination of all documents. This shows a lack of understanding of historical research and of public discourse in a democratic country,” said this official.

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