Israel May Declassify Jewish Agency Archives Dealing With Racist Absorption of North African Jews

Justice minister announces intended move after airing of new documentary 'The Ancestral Sin', which delves into sore spot in Israeli history: The treatment of immigrants who came to Israel in the 1950's

Immigrants who came to Israel from north African countries in the 1950's. Image from the film 'The Ancestral Sin'
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Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced Sunday that she intends to make accessible to the public controversial archive files attesting to discriminatory behavior by the Jewish Agency during the state's establishment. The files in question regard Israeli authorities' treatment of early immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African countries.

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Shaked, who chairs the Knesset committee for archive materials, made her decision following the recent airing of a documentary film titled 'The Ancestral Sin,' which revealed racist and discriminatory attitudes Israeli authorities had toward immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African countries that they sent to development towns in peripheral Israel, mainly in the south and desert.

As seen in the film through personal and rare testimonies as well as the use of historical documents, the new immigrants suffered from systematic neglect and had to contend with difficult living conditions in the undeveloped towns that suffered from lack of infrastructures. 

Image from the film 'The Ancestral Sin'
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The award-winning film, which was directed and produced by David Deri (an Israeli filmmaker whose parents were subjected to such treatment when they immigrated to Israel from Morocco and sent to live in Yeruham, a development town in the Negev), was initially released in May 2017 as part of the DocAviv Festival, an Israeli documentary film festival taking place annually. In February 2018 it was picked up by the Reshet 13 television channel, which has been airing it as a documentary series broken down into four episodes.

"The Ancestral Sin" displays archive files and state procedures the film claims it declassified by the film for the very first time. The emergence of these sensitive documents inspired a demand by politicians such as Interior Minister Arye Dery and Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev to open the archives to the public in order to reveal all the materials dealing with this issue that have been gathered over the years. 

David Deri, the director and producer of 'The Ancestral Sin,' speaking about his film in Sderot.
\ Ilan Assayag

"There is no reason for materials that deal with the country's history not to be revealed. We will go over the documents and recommend publishing them, as long as they do not include matters that could jeopardize state security," the justice minister said in a statement she released on Sunday.

Despite this development, it remains unclear whether there truly are classified materials pertaining to this issue, and if so, how extensive they are.  

Dr. Avi Picard, a historian from Bar Ilan University who advised creators of the film, claims that the materials showcased in the film had already been revealed, and are not at all classified. According to Picard, the special spotlight that was aimed at the files sparked renewed interest, but didn't unveil anything previously unknown.

"The creators are bringing to prime time television what was previously known only to people who bothered to study and read [about this topic]," Dr. Picard wrote in a Facebook post he published this month.  According to him, "the sources highlighted in the film and in the promotion videos surrounding it come from archives that are open to anyone who wanted to investigate for over 20 years. Nothing has been hidden from the public, especially not [with the purpose] to prevent people from knowing about what happened there."

Trailer for the film 'The Ancestral Sin'YouTube

Speaking about the Jewish Agency, Dr. Picard stressed: "I can say this with full responsibility- the protocols of the management of the Jewish Agency from the 1950's were revealed at least two decades ago."

Most documents in the State Archive, no matter what they refer to, are still not accessible to the public. The reasons for this in most cases is not an intentional attempt by the state to hide information, but rather technical and bureaucratic issues.

Among other things, the archive does not have the human resources to examine the material before it is opened to the public. This must done to make sure that publication does not harm national security or infringe on privacy.

Huge numbers of documents are preserved in the archive that have never been opened to the public because no one has ever examined them. These probably include materials associated with immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African countries.

There are also legal matters to consider, among them privacy issues, which prevent the archive from opening up some of the documents to the public. Among such documents are those containing the names of immigrants arriving in Israel on a specific day.

Materials connected to immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African countries might also be found in the archives of the Shin Bet security service, which is entirely off-limits to the public, or in the archive of the Jewish Agency, which will need to decide whether to open it up.

If the government decides to instruct the State Archive to make all of its materials on immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa accessible to the public, the archive can do so after getting rid of the various roadblocks and then present, in a concentrated and user-friendly way, all of the hundreds of thousands of documents that the public has so far not yet seen.

In 2016, following a similar demand that surrounded a different affair - the case of the missing files about the Yemenite children who disappeared in the 1950's - the government decided to release publicly all state archive documents that for decades were inaccessible.

Following this decision, Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi was appointed to examine the materials preserved in state archives. After Hanegbi's appointment, thousands of documents were published to the state archive's official website. Last week it was revealed, however, that some of the files about the affair have vanished and their whereabouts are unknown to this day.