State Archive Error Shows Israeli Censorship Guided by Concerns Over National Image

Minister's remarks in 1948 that he can 'forgive instances of rape' and Ben-Gurion's assertion that some Palestinian villages must be 'wiped out' were censored from unclassified docs, but exposed due to technical error

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Former PM David Ben Gurion and FM Moshe Sharett at a cabinet meeting in 1949.
Former PM David Ben Gurion and FM Moshe Sharett at a cabinet meeting in 1949. Credit: David Eldan/GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

What are the State Archive’s considerations in deciding to censor historical documents? Officially, it’s a matter of state security and Israel’s foreign relations, or personal privacy. But quite a few historians who peruse archival materials assume that the censor might be too quick to protect other interests, like Israel’s good name or the image of its leaders.

A peek at censorship behind the scenes is provided by a document from the War of Independence that the State Archive posted on its website recently. The document is the minutes of a meeting held in July 1948, when members of the provisional government discussed, among other things, war crimes committed by Jewish soldiers and civilians against Arabs. A few sentences from the minutes were censored, blacked out, by the Archive. But due to a technical glitch, a click of the mouse could remove the blackout and reveal the hidden text.

It turns out that Israel’s first agriculture minister, Aharon Zisling, who was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said in 1948 that he “can forgive instances of rape” committed by Jews against Arab women. Seventy-four years have gone by since then, but the State Archive still believes that the public must not know this. Here is the entire statement: “Let us say that instances of rape occurred in Ramle. I can forgive instances of rape, but I will not forgive other acts.” The next statement, which was not blacked out, now gains additional significance, and explains what the minister considered an act more serious than rape: “When they enter a city and forcibly remove jewelry from women and from their necks – that is a very serious matter.”

David Ben Gurion's censored remarks.

Twenty pages later, in the same discussion, once again the State Archive censor blacked out sentences. In that case, by a click on the mouse the blackout can be removed and the censored sentence revealed. This time it was Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who was speaking. In the censored version he said: “I am against the wholesale demolition of villages.” Now, the full statement is revealed. It turns out that he then added: “But there are places that constituted a great danger and constitute a great danger, and we must wipe them out. But this must be done responsibly, with consideration before the act.”

The minutes were posted at the request of Akevot Institute, which documents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and fights to uncover censored archival materials that have public and research importance. Its publication is presented in continuation of the research of the historian Adam Raz, a researcher at Akevot, who is following crimes committed by Jews against Arabs in the War of Independence, as he described in an article recently published in Haaretz.

Former Agriculture Minister Aharon Zisling at a cabinet meeting in 1949. Credit: David Eldan/GPO

The fact that the State Archive chose to censor the agriculture minister’s remarks about the rape of Arab women and the prime minister’s call to “wipe out villages” makes one wonder: Remarks in a similar vein, including identical sentences, have been published many times in articles, books and archival documents that are open to the public. A quick search of Google Books reveals that Zisling’s remarks about the rape of the women can also be read in their complete form in a catalog of an exhibition at the Haifa Museum of Art, which is found on the shelves of the large public libraries in Israel, including the National Library.

Alongside the blacked-out parts that can be revealed, the other 50 pages of the minutes now posted on the State Archive website are also interesting. Particularly harsh are the remarks by Minorities Minister Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit on the matter of ties between Jews and the Arab citizens in villages and cities conquered by the Israel Defense Forces. He said that he had hoped that as a minority “which suffered for thousands of years in the Diaspora, we would know to appreciate the minorities and set a humane and fair policy toward them. … We always declared our desire to live in peace with the Arabs, we declared that in our state there would be no racial or religious discrimination whatsoever, between one citizen and another.” But according to Sheetrit, this hope was set aside: “Unfortunately I must note that everything that was done (and this is well known to you) is not likely to be encouraging.”

Sheetrit subsequently describes expulsion, destruction, looting and false arrests. “We were all shocked at the first revelations of lawlessness and robbery, in which civilians also took part,” Ben-Gurion responded. “This happened especially in Jaffa and Haifa. All circles took part in this without exception. In Jerusalem educated circles took part.”

Bechor-Shalom ShitreetCredit: David Eldan/GPO

Ben-Gurion added that not only the army had transgressed. “I oppose those who attribute the robbery only to the army. The affliction is much deeper. The best of our people transgress in this. Non-combatants rob as much as combatants. I was shocked at this phenomenon. I did not think it would be this way, but that’s the way it is,” he said. However, he qualified his statement by saying that people are working too hard to “save themselves” because the official orders of the government prohibit these actions. The army, he added “is much fairer” in its attitude to the conquered people than “many veteran armies.” This statement was actually never censored.

The State Archive responded: “The State Archive decided to reveal and fully publish the stenogram, without any blackouts and confidentiality of the information in the text. A technical error led to the appearance of the blackouts – this error led to the possibility of moving them and reading the text beneath them. The State Archive is strict and will be strict to cover any information that the legislature has determined a reason exists to conceal it.”

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