Historians Struggle as Israel State Archives Deadlocked by Legal Restrictions

Archivist accedes to order to obey law and let depositors of archival material decide on each request to view it – a practical impossibility

 Israel State Archives
Ofer Aderet

A bitter legal battle between the State Archives and the attorney-general has all but paralyzed the institution, severely handicapping the work of historians, journalists and other users. State Archivist Dr. Yaakov Lazowick recently told historians that service has all but shut down, and warned that researchers seeking material will likely have to wait about two years.

Historians with whom Haaretz spoke confirmed that their work has suffered a crippling blow, all but stopping entirely.

This week the Archives council will be convening to discuss the situation.

The dispute centers on who is empowered to allow researchers, or anybody from the general public, to access and read unclassified documents kept at the archive – the entity that deposited the material (such as the Foreign Ministry or Israel Police) or the State Archives itself, which holds the material.

For decades the Archives had vetted all requests, using its own criteria for allowing or denying access. Sometimes it might consult with the depositor’s legal counsel.

Dr. Yaakov Lazovik.
Michal Fattal

In June, Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri sent Lazowick a warning, explaining that the Archives’ practice was illegal, and that access to material required the depositor’s permission. Nizri demanded that the law be obeyed, and that every request to see material be forwarded to its depositor, who would decide. Last week the Archives, in answer, announced it would immediately stop allowing most of the material in its collections to be viewed, and was handing over responsibility to the depositors, as the letter required.

The practical meaning of the announcement is an almost complete shutdown of the Archives for historians, other researchers and the public because the various government ministries and other bodies that deposit their archival materials there are in no way prepared, neither in funding or manpower, to handle all requests to examine materials they have deposited in the archives.

Lazowick, who recently announced he is leaving the post and is waiting for a replacement to be named, last week called on the public that uses the Archives to aid in his battle with Nizri.

“A week ago, we really stopped the services of the Archives, according to the instructions of the attorney general. To a great extent (not completely), we have stopped providing service. A researcher who wants to see a file will now have to wait for two months, or half a year or two years. The last is the most likely,” wrote Lazowick in a letter he sent to a number of historians, which Haaretz has obtained.

Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler from the Israel Democracy Institute, who was recently appointed to the Archives council, told Haaretz that Nizri’s instructions maybe correct legally, but the law itself is “absurd and illogical.” Giving the power to decide whether certain information will be available or not to the body that archived the material “is like letting the cat guard the cream,” she said.

Altshuler warned that various government institutions could abuse these new instructions and prevent the public from viewing materials for improper reasons, such as a desire to hide certain incidents or hide corruption.

Lazowick’s insistence on ignoring the existing regulations and acting on his own to release the materials may be legally incorrect, but is right, says Altshuler. It is correct “as far as the spirit of the Freedom of Information law is concerned, the transparency, historical research and the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty.”

Archivists, historians oppose deputy AG's order

Lior Yavne, executive director of the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, which works to release archival material related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, told Haaretz that the right to freely examine materials in the State Archives has for years been “carried on the back of a starved and limping camel, and the new instructions are the straw that will break its back once and for all.”

The chairman of the Israel Association of Archivists, David Amitai, warned of an almost complete halt of archival work at the State Archives. This will be a “direct hit” to the public’s right to access the materials that belong to it, he said. The change “contradicts the obligation of professional archivists to provide maximal exposure of such materials according to the international treaty on archives, the principle of accessibility and as is proper for democratic and civilized societies,” said Amitai.

Prof. Miriam Eliav-Feldon of Tel Aviv University, chairwoman of the Historical Society of Israel, told Haaretz that the situation could completely stop historical research of the State of Israel and the pre-state period.

Over the past few years, Lazowick has completely changed the way the State Archives operate. The major change is the digitization introduced just a little over a year ago. Now those who want to inspect materials from the archives can no longer come to the reading room in Jerusalem and go through the physical materials, but must order a digital scan of the material using an online form on the archives’ website.

Many researchers have complained that the changes make their work much more difficult because of the long time it takes between the request and the the scanned material’s availability. In addition, anything requested is also uploaded automatically to the State Archives website and made available to the public too. As a result, it must first be approved by the military censor.

In response to such complaints, Lazowick says the digitization has greatly increased the public’s use of the Archives. “The results speak for themselves,” he wrote in a letter to historians recently. “Instead of providing 5,000 files a year to researchers, the archives puts out 2,500 a month, and this does not include the 14 million scanned pages already on the website,” he says.

The State Archives contain hundreds of millions of pages in total, and it is estimated it will take about another 20 years to complete the scanning project. Most of the material is unclassified, and a small part is censored for national security or foreign policy reasons, sometimes going all the way back to the War of Independence. In addition to professional historians and others, the general public uses the Archives too, whether for personal or other reasons, such as searching for their roots and family history.

A few historians told Haaretz the opening of the State Archives to the general public on the internet has “awakened sleeping dogs.” They say various government officials now fear massive, uncontrolled exposure of documents, including many with security or political implications. This is the reason the attorney general has suddenly remembered to enforce the law concerning the release of materials form the archives, said the historians.

Lazowick declined to be interviewed on the issue.

The Attorney General’s Office told Haaretz that the attorney general is responsible for ensuring that laws are obeyed, and if there is a need to change the law on archival materials in the State Archive, then the law should be changed – but the existing law cannot be violated.

The Prime Minister’s Office, which is responsible for the State Archives, refused to comment on the matter, other than to say the assumption there was any political involvement in the matter was mistaken.

A senior government official involved in the matter recently told Haaretz that to the best of his knowledge, no political interference was involved in the matter, and it was only a “war between civil servants, some of them senior.”