Jewish Agency's Sharansky: Open Archives on Immigration of Jews From Mideast and North Africa

The information could provide more detail on the Mizrahi Jews who suffered in 'development towns' early in Israel's history

Head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, at the government's weekly cabinet meeting, June 25, 2017.
Mark Israel Salem

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky has expressed support for making public all archival documents on immigration by Middle Eastern and North African Jews in the state’s early years, as a way to help learn more about the sending of such Jews to so-called development towns in the country’s outskirts.

Sharansky’s remarks come in response to calls for the disclosure of documents in Jewish Agency files on the subject after the treatment of  Mizrahi Jewish immigrants was highlighted in “The Ancestral Sin,” a documentary series on Channel 13 television.

The documentary has again focused attention on the institutional discrimination that Middle Eastern and North African Jews faced in Israel in the 1950s, but the film claims that some archival material has not yet been made public. Following its founding in 1929, the Jewish Agency became the central organization facilitating immigration to Israel.

“I support putting every archival document relating to aliyah at the disposal of the public, not only from the 1950s but from all the waves of immigration to the present,” Sharansky said. “Anything relating to the aliyah and the absorption process in Israel of immigrants from the entire Diaspora and from every period should be made accessible to the public in a transparent and open manner. The only exceptions, of course, are documents containing classified operational information.”

As he put it, “This is also the right thing to do to enable an open public discussion, and so that we can learn not to repeat the paternalistic approach that in the past characterized the approach of the officials who handled aliyah and absorption. This approach caused major injustice and damage to Israeli society.”

“The Ancestral Sin” presents personal testimonies and uses historical documents showing that immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East suffered systematic neglect in undeveloped areas of the country.

It is not yet clear which documents have not yet been made public and where they are stored. Records on the subject are available in the Israel State Archives and the Central Zionist Archives, which has documents from a number of institutions including the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization.

On Sunday, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said she intended to open the Jewish Agency archives to the public, saying she would raise the issue with the Knesset Archives committee, which she heads. Her comments followed demands by other officials, including Interior Minister Arye Dery and Culture Minister Miri Regev, to open the archives.

“There is no reason for materials that deal with the country’s history not to be revealed,” Shaked said. “We will go over the documents and recommend publishing them, as long as they do not include matters that could jeopardize state security.”

Officials at the State Archives are waiting for direction from the government before thoroughly going through the material. Wide disclosure would require the government to help the archives overcome bureaucratic and technical obstacles and provide funding and personnel for the undertaking.

One problem is that many documents are off limits to the public to protect the right to privacy, including immigrant lists, or for security reasons, in the case of documents held by the Shin Bet security service. In addition, some documents may be the work of various government ministries, including the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and the Interior Ministry, in addition to the Prime Minister’s Office.

A publishing of the materials would require extensive cooperation among various agencies. On Sunday the State Archives tweeted that its staff would do whatever it could in this regard.