Colonialism in the Israel State Archives

Rona Sela
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Boxes of documents in Israel's state archives, 2016
Rona Sela

In a report he published last week (“Why are these documents top secret and hidden in Israel’s archives,” April 4), Ofer Aderet raises an important topic: the way the government conceals documents in the Israel State Archives for decades by classifying them as confidential or top-secret. He cited the efforts of scholars and organizations to gain access to decades-old primary sources about episodes in Israeli history, some or even most of which are still under censorship.

In some cases, such as documents about Israeli military ties with Haiti’s murderous dictatorship in the 1960s, the Yom Kippur War and the Eli Cohen espionage affair, the material remains classified under the guise of protecting national security.

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Security agencies also keep documentation of civilian operations concealed: the use of surveillance and deterrent activity to suppress protest by new immigrants in the transit camps and so-called development towns in the 1950s; the Shin Bet’s suppression of protest by Moroccan immigrants in the 1950s and the riots in Haifa’s Wadi Salib in 1959, sparked by the police killing of a Moroccan immigrant; and the alleged disappearance of thousands of infants and young children born to immigrants from Yemen. The campaign to liberate this information from the clutches of the establishment seeks to democratize the archives in order to broaden academic research and open up knowledge to new analysis or interpretation.

The report does not mention, however, materials looted from Palestinians and from Arab countries that have been locked for decades in the state archives, and the fights to release them for publication. This includes not only security-related materials whose period of classification has expired (yet they remain hidden away), but also cultural treasures, such as the archives of photographers, cultural institutions and even art exhibitions seized starting in the mid-1930s that Israel continues to hold, under a veil of secrecy. Cultural and historical treasures that tell the Palestinian narrative – not the Israeli one – are controlled and hidden by Israel. They were not mentioned in the article. The issue has been silenced.

I preface my remarks by saying that the campaign by Israeli organizations to have material declassified is of utmost importance and significance, in order to understand the past and to correct our understanding of history from this moment forward. But Aderet makes a very clear distinction in the article even if he doesn’t do so explicitly. Everything that happened within the Israeli, Zionist realm – even crimes such as the massacre committed by the Irgun and Lehi pre-state underground militias shortly before Israel’s War of Independence in Deir Yassin, as well as material important to various Israeli communities – is significant, and there should be a campaign to open these files. But the Palestinian and Arab materials hidden in classified files in the Israel State Archives – the subject of a 15-year-old struggle to have them declassified and disclosed – were left out of the article, in a colonialist manner. They were not included in the list of necessary public campaigns. As a result, it is as if they were relegated to secondary importance.

In my own communications with the state archives in 2009 about material looted from Beirut – presumably photographs taken from the PLO’s Cultural Arts Center regarding the Palestinian narrative as well as graphics, cinema and other and visual art – the archivist Yehoshua Freundlich wrote to me, “I saw the collection. ... I ordered the director of the archives to return them to their owners after they are scanned.” It goes without saying that to this day these materials have not been returned. Some of them were made accessible only after I waged a drawn-out campaign.

But now, let’s return to the material created by Jews and Israelis, which may shed some light on the material created by Palestinians and Arabs seized as booty and held in Israeli archives, as both types of materials are handled by the same system.

Yaacov Lozowick, who succeeded Freundlich as state archivist and is mentioned in the article as having had a “liberal approach to documents declassification,” did not take any steps when he had the chance to change how things are hidden and erased and censored and disappeared in the Israel State Archives. He began voicing public criticism against the dangers of concealing archival material only after he retired.

Back in the day I sought his help to access a lot of censored material, some of which was seized and some of which was created by Jews and Israelis. For example, I asked for photographs taken by a Jew in Deir Yassin that were censored in the Israel Defense Forces archive. A transcript with the list of photographs was given to me by an Israeli soldier who was at Deir Yassin right after the massacre, saw the photos and testified that they proved there had been a massacre. That is apparently why the state extends their classified status every few years, although by law they should already have been made available for viewing.

The answer I received from Lozowick reflected the establishment’s “liberal” working methods – by means of exhaustion, bureaucracy, delay and deflection. Lozowick replied to my February 2016 request to unseal these photographs by saying: “Since the security establishment opposes unsealing the material,” the issue would be debated by a special session of the ministerial committee that deals with classified material, headed by then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. The photographs would remain classified until then. In September 2016 I received a response saying, “The committee has asked for additional clarifications in writing from various sources and has decided that until they are received and another discussion is held, the material shall remain classified.” The materials have since been classified again.

This was the same Lozowick who, a year or so after completing his tenure as chief archivist (in January 2018), wrote, “Disclosing facts regarding the rules is a basic condition for maintaining a democratic society – not a risk that must be averted by withholding information.”

As long as democratic and enlightened Israelis pat themselves on the back but remain tied to the old colonial idea, there won’t be any change. It will happen only when the struggle to unseal Palestinian and Arab cultural and historical materials that have been silenced and under occupation for decades and that can tell a different narrative is engraved on the public consciousness as a legitimate struggle, a necessary and moral one.

Rona Sela, a curator and researcher of visual history, directed the 2017 documentary “Looted and Hidden – Palestinian Archives in Israel.”

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