Israel's Chief Archivist: State Concealing Embarrassing Documents Under Guise of Security

In a scathing attack, outgoing chief state archivist says the state 'is not handling the material in a manner befitting a democratic state'

Employees search for documents at the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem, Israel.
Michal Fattal

Israels outgoing chief archivist warned that most of the contents of the state archives is closed and will never be opened, in a report that was unstinting in its criticism of bodies that he said obstruct the organizations work.

In a scathing report issued Monday, Yaakov Lazovik summarized the issues faced by the Israel State Archives, which is subordinate to the Prime Ministers Office.

Dr. Yaakov Lazovik.
Michal Fattal

Israel is not handling the material there in a manner befitting a democratic state, said Lazovik, who announced his retirement eight months after more than six years on the job. He said that most of the material in the archives will never see the light of day, and the remainder will be opened under unreasonable restrictions, without transparency or public oversight.

Lazovik will remain in the position until a replacement is found. A call for bids for the position was issued only recently.

He claimed that under the cloak of national security concerns, the state conceals from the public material, much of it unrelated to security issues. This includes material that could prove embarrassing to the state, such as human rights violations or that do not add to the states honor.

In a democracy one cant hide information simply because its embarrassing. Its forbidden because Israels representatives — elected officials, public servants, soldiers, diplomats or spies — work in the name of and on behalf of the states citizens, and a basic democratic duty is to allow citizens to voice their opinions about these representatives, Lazovik wrote.

He adds that no one will be hurt by the publication of the truth, even about unpleasant past events in the countrys history. Israeli society survived — some would say got stronger in the wake of — the collapse of the narrative of the flight of Arabs in the War of Independence, with its replacement in the 1980s by a more nuanced picture, he wrote.

Anyone whose commitment to the state as a citizen or whose support for it as a friend is so weak that revealing the truth would shake it is only broadcasting his insecurity, Lazovik wrote.

According to Lazovik, Israelis have committed war crimes. The Shin Bet security service was involved in education in the Arab sector; Israel treated its Arab (and other) citizens in a manner that doesnt dignify a democratic state. If Israel commits acts that a court here or abroad would reject, Israeli citizens should know about this and decide whether they agree with them. Disclosure of the facts is a necessary condition for a democratic society.

Lazovik was also critical of the length of time for which defense-related documents remain classified. Why are they sealed for 50 years? he asked, referring to the minutes of meetings of the inner cabinet in the period leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War, which were only unsealed last year.

While reading them, one must ask what harm would have been caused had these documents been released 30 or 40 years after the events. There may be some scraps of information that should remain under wraps, but why wait two generations with the rest?

Lazovik proposed examining the involvement of the military censor in the archives operation. One can understand the need for censorship in our circumstances, but letting censors decide on nonoperational matters is unprecedented in the democratic world.

Lazovik also noted that public interest in the state archives has grown, with 500,000 users in 2017. The archives digitalization project has put 19 million pages, out of a total of 400 million, available on the Israel State Archives website. This increased usage, however, has led to growing resistance to releasing more material to public access.