Opinion

What Is Israel Hiding About Its Nuclear Program in the '50s?

Israel’s censors may indeed protect state security but they also conceal information that might embarrass public officials

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Dan Keinan

Publications in Israel are subject to censorship. That’s no secret – this article, too, had to go through censorship before reaching you. But this troublesome fact doesn’t come under enough criticism, particularly considering that censorship is no longer commonly practiced in democracies.

The office of the Chief Press and Media Censor, better known by its previous name, the Israel Military Censor, is a unit of Military Intelligence that operates under Part VIII of the Defense (Emergency) Regulations of 1945, instituted by the British Mandate authorities. Even in 2018, Israel draws on those ordinances to prevent its citizens from knowing the whole truth.

In 1946, Yaakov Shimshon Shapira, who would become Israel’s first attorney general, said the Emergency Regulations constituted “the destruction of the law in this country.” Similarly, Dov Yosef, a future justice minister, wondered, “Shall we all be subject to terrorism under official fiat or shall freedom of the individual exist here?”

Article 87 of the Defense Regulations stipulates: “The censor may by order prohibit” the publication of material “likely to be or become prejudicial to the defense of Palestine or to the public safety or to public order.” Under Article 97, “The censor may by order” require every person to submit “any matter intended for printing or publishing.” Note that “any matter” encompasses, for example, the manuscript of an article, a book on Israel’s nuclear policy even as far back as the 1950s, an analysis of Israel’s relations with African and Latin American dictatorships or a study on the Shin Bet security service’s activities in the Israeli Arab community.

No one questions the importance of censorship in wartime. The need to conceal descriptions of the movement of forces, for example, is not subject to critique. Nor is there any reason to be perturbed that the censor for years prevented the world from finding out about Israel’s 2007 bombing of Syria’s nuclear reactor. All told, that was a (relatively) recent event, and some of its details are still banned for publication.

The main problem is that the censorship systematically blocks the publication of studies of significant issues in Israeli history. In contrast to other democracies, the state intervenes actively in the study of the country’s past.

I am currently in the advanced stages of a nine-month (!) wrangle with the censors over the manuscript of a study on Israel’s nuclear program in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a sequel to my 2016 book “The Struggle for the Bomb” (in Hebrew) on the politics and history of that program. The new work is based on archival material that’s open to the public. The negotiations are taking so long because I don’t blindly accept the deletions being made by the censors (by law, I’m not permitted to state what information was erased). Absurdly, any interested person – Israeli or foreigner – has access to these archives, but all Israeli researchers are obliged to submit what they write based on those materials to the censors.

The censors’ authority is confined to Israel; studies and articles that are published here undergo emasculation, but those appearing abroad are exempt. It’s a simple matter to compare the various publications, discover what has been blue-penciled – and wonder about the essence of the deletions. Dozens of books have been published abroad by Israeli researchers without having gone through censorship. The censors are well aware of this, and do nothing.

And there’s nothing they can do. The Defense Regulations were formulated for a world that no longer exists. The censors like to argue that “every Israeli researcher is obliged to forward his studies to the censorship.” But in practice the censors don’t approach scholars who publish their work abroad. In fact, most of the researchers who publish in foreign languages don’t even consider the censor to be relevant to them.

A year ago I published an article in Haaretz on an attempt by Moshe Dayan to seize control of a nuclear device in 1967. The piece began, “A few years ago, a book was published in the United States that deals, among other things, with the history of the Israeli nuclear project. The author lives in the United States.” The article languished several weeks with the censor before I was allowed to publish it, and I’m still not allowed to say which words were deleted, even if anyone with a basic critical sense can figure it out for himself.

Earlier this year, Dr. Yaacov Lozowick, Israel’s outgoing state archivist, warned that “in a democratic country one must not conceal information only because it is liable to embarrass the state.” He added, “The defense establishment in Israel, and to a degree also the foreign relations apparatus, are interfering with the debate.” Indeed, the censorship is a tool that fulfills an important function for the rulers: hiding the truth from society about its leaders’ decision-making processes.

A perusal of the activity of Israel’s state censors shows that when it comes to historical research and information, they’re not protecting state security or the country’s foreign relations, but are mainly shielding policy that could cast public officials in a negative light.

As Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz once observed, censorship in Israel isn’t intended to hide security secrets from the enemy, but to hide the leaders’ actions from the people living in the country.