These Are the Top Secret Documents Israel Is Hiding in Its Archives

Why are we not allowed to know what Golda Meir said during the Yom Kippur War? What damage will be caused by publishing photographs from the Deir Yassin massacre? There are mounting requests to the courts to allow the publication of historical documents which Israel continues to classify as top secret

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Inside Israel's State Archives. It’s not only security-related files that are kept from the public.
Inside Israel's State Archives. It’s not only security-related files that are kept from the public.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum,Amnon Bar Tur, AFP ImageForum, Alex Levac, AP,
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

An unusual encounter took place last month at the High Court of Justice. On one side were three justices. On the other were individuals whose names remain under gag. On the agenda: access to classified archival documents in the possession of the Shin Bet, in an attempt to understand why the security service opposes their publication. The documents don’t touch on Israel’s nuclear program or the early־warning blunder in the Yom Kippur War – two issues to which the public is almost automatically denied access. They touch on the assassination of Dr. Rezso Kasztner (aka Rudolf Israel Kastner) in March 1957.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Chief Justice Esther Hayut sounded encouraging: “We’re walking the tightrope of revealing the maximum and on the other hand preserving the interests,” she said. Behind the word “interests” lurk notions such as “state security,” which arise repeatedly in requests to declassify archival material for public consumption.

Prime Minister Golda Meir is addressing the nation at the beginning of the Yom Kippur war, in 1973.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

What does the Kasztner murder have to do with state security? That’s what historian Dr. Nadav Kaplan, whose petition to the High Court led us to this point, is trying to find out.

Hayut’s promise that the justices are trying “to bring about the uncovering of additional documents to the extent possible,” is heartening. The purpose of the court’s dialogue with the Shin Bet, she noted, was “to conduct some form of discussion with the security authorities, in order to try to understand the precise reasons for not revealing the documents that are included in the classified material.”

Following this case with avid interest is former state archivist Dr. Yaacov Lozowick, whose term was characterized by a liberal approach to the declassification of documents.

“This is going to be a long, wearying struggle,” he says. “We won’t win by a knockout, only with small achievements that add up to something bigger.” In his view, the position of the security officials is not completely accepted. “They need to present reasons time and again, and in the end they’ll probably be forced to open something up.”

Rudolf Kastzner speaking at Israel Radio in the early 1950s.Credit: Faigl.ladislav / Wikimedia Commons

Plenty of people are awaiting the High Court’s decision in the Kasztner assassination case with bated breath. A number of hearings on important historical incidents have been held in recent years, all with one thing in common: A request that state archives, ministries or intelligence organizations be ordered to make decades-old documents available to the public. Some of the files are gathering dust on shelves; others have been cleared for publication only in part, with large sections still censored or redacted.

A petition concerning another historical incident concluded last month in almost inevitable failure. In that case, human rights activists, led by attorney Eitay Mack, sought to gain access to Defense Ministry documents concerning the security ties Israel maintained with the murderous dictatorship in Haiti between the 1960s and 1980s, which included arms sales. That petition argued that uncovering the information was of public importance, “in order to prevent – in the present and the future – Israeli security exports to those involved in crimes against humanity.”

The documents were also necessary to create the basis for a possible Israeli investigation into those responsible for the security exports to Haiti, the petitioners told Tel Aviv District Court.

The court, which examined the classified Defense Ministry documents, rejected the request. However, along with the familiar grounds of state security, other considerations were added, which some would argue belong more in the realm of public relations.

“This time, we got a look at the state’s arguments and the judge’s reasoning,” Mack tells Haaretz.

Judge Hagai Brenner evinced concern that making the documents public would serve the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. and cautioned against “foreseeable attempts by elements hostile to the State of Israel... to make use [of the documents] to defame Israel in the world.”

The Mossad, too, zealously guards historical files documenting its activity and demonstrates no desire to open them up to the public

Also, unveiling the documents could also hurt Israel’s image in Haiti, Brenner noted. Official Foreign Ministry documents which were appended to the petition displayed “a racist, patronizing and denigrating attitude by State of Israel representatives toward the residents of Haiti,” Mack says.

The need to address the racist approach evinced by representatives of Israel abroad, evident also in the case of several African countries, Brazil, and the indigenous peoples of Central and South America, was one of the grounds the petitioners cited for the importance of making the Defense Ministry papers public.

But in the court’s mind, that is precisely a reason not to make the documents public. They consist of surveys which “include the use of offensive terminology that was acceptable some 50 years ago” but isn’t any more, and is liable to damage the state’s image and its foreign relations.

A singular test case, which attests blatantly to the pointlessness of keeping the archives inaccessible, is that of the Riftin Report.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Sensitive subjects

“Israel’s military censorship is sensitive to three subjects,” says Prof. Uri Bar-Joseph, a member of the Yom Kippur War Center, a nonprofit organization that aims to unveil archival information about the 1973 conflict. His list includes exposing war crimes, which are liable to engender counter-responses or justify attacks on Israelis and soldiers; uncovering intelligence sources; and Israel’s nuclear program.

'Israel’s military censorship is sensitive to three subjects: exposing war crimes; uncovering intelligence sources; and Israel’s nuclear program'

The Yom Kippur War occupies a large number of shelves in the State Archives and in the archives of the Israel Defense Forces. About a year ago the Yom Kippur War Center petitioned the High Court of Justice to order the State Archives to release the minutes of cabinet and security cabinet meetings, the consultations and the diary of the wartime prime minister, Golda Meir. “There is no dispute and there can be no dispute that publication of the materials in the matter of the Yom Kippur War, including the decision-making process and the clarification of the true, factual situation regarding the war, is of tremendous historic and research value,” the petition stated. The case has yet to have its first hearing.

The Mossad, too, zealously guards historical files documenting its activity and demonstrates no desire to open them up to the public. One such file is that of Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy whom the espionage agency ran in Syria in early 1960s.

Cohen’s name recently made headlines again regarding efforts to locate his remains and return them to Israel. So 56 years after “our man in Damascus” was hanged in the city square, perhaps his family will get some comfort. Still, even if his remains are located and interred in Israel, it remains mysterious how the Syrians discovered his true identity. As long as the Eli Cohen file in the Mossad archive remains closed to the public, we will be left with the question. The answers could run the gamut from negligence by the Mossad which ignored signs of danger and didn’t order Cohen to stay in Israel during his last visit; to incautious behavior by Cohen himself; to a mole in the Mossad. There are also reports and testimonies about contacts he held with CIA agents and meetings with Nazi war criminals who collaborated with Syrian intelligence.

An Israeli helicopter evacuating wounded soldiers during the 1973 Yok Kippur war.Credit: Ilan Ron / GPO

Yet another historical event that remains partly under wraps is the massacre perpetrated by members of the pre-state underground Irgun in the Arab village of Deir Yassin, on the western outskirts of Jerusalem, in April 1948.

In 2010, Haaretz joined in petitioning court to order the army archives’ photographs relating to the massacre. The state argued that releasing the images, which according to testimonies document some of the Arab victims, could harm the country’s foreign relations. The court believed the state and, after viewing the photographs, rejected the petition.

“The fact that the state is keeping this closed just inflates the issue to mythic proportions,” says the filmmaker Neta Shoshani, who also joined the petition as the director of the documentary “Born in Deir Yassin,” for which she interviewed the last living people who took part in the massacre. “I’m positive that there is nothing in this material that will make people fall off their chairs, so go for it, let them open it already,” Shoshani says. “What could we see? Faded black-and-white photographs of bodies? Concealment is the dumbest strategy you can adopt. You don’t have to be afraid of the truth.”

Hush-hush civilian activity

It’s not only security-related files that are kept from the public. The Shin Bet also conceals considerable documentation of its activity in the civilian arena.

A singular test case, which attests blatantly to the pointlessness of keeping the archives inaccessible, is that of the Riftin Report

On the menu: spying on, and preventive activity, beginning in the 1950s among new immigrants to Israel from Arab countries who were placed in transit camps, and in the peripheral towns to which many of these immigrants were sent. Among this material is documentation of the Shin Bet’s activity in connection with suppressing riots fomented by Mizrahim (Jews whose origins lie in the Middle East or North Africa) in Haifa’s Wadi Salib neighborhood in 1959, because of ethnic discrimination. These files includes surveillance reports and records of wiretapping and “deterrent activity” by the Shin Bet against newly arrived Mizrahim under the rubric of “preventing political subversion.”

Similar activity apparently continued into the 1970s, targeting the Black Panthers protest group that operated in Jerusalem.

About two years ago, the historian Dr. Shay Hazkani petitioned the High Court of Justice, together with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, to make the material public. “Throughout the world there are demands to uncover documents related to the suppression of ethnic groups by intelligence apparatuses,” Hazkani notes.

In the United States, where he lives and conducts his research, attempts by the FBI to suppress the Blacks’ struggle for equality, including attempts to entrap Martin Luther King, have been fully exposed. In Israel, too, the Shin Bet admits to playing a central role in suppressing the Mizrahi protest movement, through a special unit created for that purpose.

In response to the petition, the Shin Bet informed the court that it had located “many documents” related to the subject in its archive. The case is still underway.

Inside the States Archives. Credit: David Bachar

“The organization’s ability to persuade the court that uncovering the documents ‘arouses fear of harm to state security’ is very regrettable,” Hazkani says. “It’s to be hoped that in the judgment, the court will not lend a hand to the Shin Bet’s typical behavior in which only its cronies, who are willing to paint the organization in a positive light, are eligible to receive documents. The documents belong to the public and it’s inconceivable for the Shin Bet to be given the power also to supervise the writing of history in Israel.”

Hazkani is currently researching the immigration of Moroccan Jews in the 1950s and the Shin Bet’s involvement in suppressing the Moroccan protest. Absent access to the documents about the Shin Bet’s activity in the transit camps and in Wadi Salib, telling the full story of those years will be difficult, he says.

One successful battle in recent years to declassify documents was waged over the affair of the missing Yemenite children.

In 2016, at a very late date and only in the wake of pressure brought to bear by social justice organizations, the State Archives made available to the public hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, most of which had been kept confidential for no reason. The documents did not enable the verification of allegations of the organized kidnapping of children, but they did reopen old and painful wounds.

Nona Dolberg (the Facebook alias of a woman who is researching the subject but does not want her identity known) is urging the state to take the next step and open up all adoption files from the early state period. At present, such files are accessible only to the families for reasons of privacy. The files contain a wealth of information about the fate of children who were later alleged to have been kidnapped from their families by the establishment. Dolberg has already proved more than once in her research that archival documents c an contradict allegations of kidnapping and put forward other explanations for the fate of these children.

Scanning documents from the State Archives.Credit: David Bachar

In some cases, for example, it turns out that children were put up for adoption because their biological parents abandoned them, or because the parents were declared unfit to raise children. “Perusal of the adoption files will dissipate the fog,” she says. “Because this wound is still so infected, it has to be exposed to disinfection by sunlight.”

73 years in the dark

A singular test case, which attests blatantly to the pointlessness of keeping the archives inaccessible, is that of the Riftin Report.

This month marked the 73rd anniversary of the document’s existence. Authored by Yaakov Riftin, a member of the pre-state Security Committee and the Knesset, the text details a series of executions without trial, the murder of detainees and torture during interrogation by the Haganah, the pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews.

Since it was written, the Riftin Report was kept in the IDF Archives. Attempts over the years to get it published were unsuccessful. The state claimed that its publication “is liable to stir an emotional furor and perhaps acts of revenge”; in addition, it would impact adversely on Israel’s foreign relations, “because some of the deeds that were done, mainly the murder of prisoners, and other deeds as well, constitute a violation of international law.”

One successful battle in recent years to declassify documents was waged over the affair of the missing Yemenite children

A breakthrough occurred in 2017, when the state archivist at the time, Dr. Lozowick, presented a surprising position in a meeting of the ministerial committee for permission to peruse classified archival material. Contrary to his predecessors, Lozowick favored allowing the report to be made public.

“The State of Israel is strong, the Israeli society is strong, and there is no reason not to allow its citizens free investigation of documentation of its distant wars,” he explained.

The committee overruled him, but in that same year the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research located a copy of the Riftin Report in the Yad Tabenkin Archive, and the present writer reported on it in Haaretz.

Last summer, following a request by Avner Pinchuk from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the censors suddenly announced that “there is no censorial hindrance to the report’s publication.” The report now appears on the Akevot website (with a translation into English).

However, dozens of appendices to the report, which apparently contain the testimonies that Riftin took in his investigation, as well as other documentation, remain off-limits.

“The historical documentation of the state’s activities belongs to the citizens – that is the point of departure,” says Lior Yavne, the Akevot Institute’s executive director. What’s really at stake, he says, is neither the state’s security nor its foreign relations: only the need to protect the self-image of the Israeli society and its “official story.”

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