Israeli Military Censor to Post Officer in State Archive Office, Worrying Historians

Move intended to boost efficiency and improve public accessibility, but archivists and historians fear it allows for excessive involvement of the Israeli army

FILE Photo: A worker at the State Archives scans documents, 2016.
Dudu Bachar

The military censor will soon assign an official to be seated at the state archive office in Jerusalem, a source familiar with the situation told Haaretz.

The archive and censor’s offices say the assignment will boost efficiency and improve public accessibility of the material. But archivists and historians worry about a dangerous juxtaposition of a military office charged with concealing information and an office that’s supposed to be improving publication of historic records, and caution that there’s no parallel situation in any Western countries.

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Ruth Abramovitch, the newly appointed state archivist recently informed employees of plans to tighten relations with the censor and said a representative of theirs would be placed at the archive in Jerusalem’s Har Hotzvim park. In response to a question from Haaretz the archive, which is a part of the Prime Minister’s Office, said “the state archive is a law abiding institution and as such works as necessary in accordance with emergency regulations.”

A source requesting anonymity told Haaretz that this is a “strategic change” in terms of how the archive defines itself in that it is “subordinating itself completely to the censor and even admits that emergency regulations take precedence over the archival laws.”

The source said that “in effect, censorship is spreading to many realms beyond its authority. The archive is not supposed to be under its aegis.”

But censorship sources told Haaretz that the criticism is misplaced because a representative posted at the state archive, one of them saying it “will provide a constant response, online and on site” with the aim of “making the process more efficient and making it simpler and shorter.”

In the meantime it’s a pilot program and if it turns out to be ineffective then the current system of sending archival material off site for censorship review will resume. The archive’s official response said “the archive will do it can to improve work flow in order to make the archival material more swiftly accessible for public consumption.”

FILE Photo: A worker at the State Archives scans documents, 2016.
Dudu Bachar

The picture is a little more complicated, though. There are thousands of files at the archive most of them from the Prime and Foreign ministries, which were opened to the public dozens of years ago but have not yet been examined by the censor. This is because the censor is supposed to check information intended for publication, say on the archive’s web site, which didn’t exist when the documents were initially released to researchers.

In recent years following digital reform at the state archive, any document requested by a researcher is posted automatically on the web site and therefor immediately subject to the censor’s approval. The ensuing circumstance has been problematic. Thousands of documents requested so far have not been posted on the internet because they have not yet been examined by the censor but have been available to researchers to look at on a personal computer. Now, according to the archive’s new instructions, documents that re approved for public view will be closed anew pending a censor’s review.

Censorship sources stress that this is the only way to carry out the law but other sources caution against the potential delays of dozens of years in making archive material accessible that is already technically open to the public.

“The question is whether it’s good for a democratic country for the censor to be seated at its official archive with the ability to have ongoing contact with archive workers to make sure they are operating under the censor’s standards,” a source said.

“This amounts to a loss of the right to independent professional review by archivists and making them subject to the censor, a hair-raising phenomenon,” the source added.

Other sources wonder at the legality of placing the state archive under military censorship review. They point to court rulings according to which the censor can only prevent publication of information that would pose immediate and certain danger to state security, and not for example, letters dealing with the expulsion of Arabs in 1948 by the IDF.

As exposed in the past by Haaretz, the censor does not hesitate to censor documents at the state archive and has on more than one occasion erased material that has nothing to do with state security.

Lior Yavneh, director-general of the Ikvot Institute that handles the exposure of archive material related to the Israeli-Arab conflict, points to experiences where sometimes the censor seals information “on the basis of erroneous understanding of the law and rules related to the exposure off archive material, and not necessarily to defend security which is the reason they have the authority under the law” to review the material.”

The question is why is there a need to station a censorship official at the archive office where security sensitive material is immediately sealed shut for dozens of years, and the material under discussion is in any case very old.

Yavneh said: “The work of the censor in general is not transparent and a user who requests material will not know whether some material was withheld because the censor intervened. Archive users will not have any mechanism to defend their rights when the censor decides to withhold archival material.”