Keeping the State Archives Secret

The state’s own chief archivist has condemned the widespread censorship of historical documents containing information that the public has a right to know about

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Files in the Israel State Archives.
Files in the Israel State Archives. Credit: Ofer Aderet

It was hard to believe that the manifesto posted this week on the website of the Israel State Archives was written by a state official subordinate to the Prime Minister’s Office. The text, by the outgoing chief archivist, Dr. Yaakov Lazovik, gives expression to all those values that state has been trying to destroy in recent years – democracy, liberalism, humaneness and transparency.

With sincerity, directness and courage, Lazovik described the ills of the agency he runs. Israel isn’t dealing with its archival material in a manner befitting a democracy, he said; most of the documents in the archives are inaccessible to the public for no reason, and unreasonable restrictions are imposed on studying the little material that is available.

Lazovik condemned one of the most sensitive issues under his purview – the censorship of documents on state security grounds. The idea he presented might seem radical although in a properly run country it would be obvious: Censorship should be used solely to protect “immediate, operational interests,” and not to sweepingly suppress historical documents.

This would especially apply to documents that shed light on embarrassing incidents and events that aren’t a source of pride to the country. There are such events in the history of every country. It’s enough to cite two examples: Photos from the massacre at Deir Yassin (1948) and documents relating to the massacre at Kafr Qasem (1956) are both being kept closed to public scrutiny.

Lazovik’s piercing words speak for themselves. “Here and there, Israelis committed war crimes [] If Israel commits acts that a court here or abroad would deem unacceptable, Israeli citizens should know about them and decide whether they agree [] Disclosure of facts about conduct is a necessary condition for the existence of a democratic society, not a danger that must be avoided by withholding information.”

In recent years, Lazovik has overseen the archives’ digital revolution, which allowed the public access to documents on the missing Yemenite children and the minutes of the cabinet meetings from the Six-Day War. Examining these materials, which were sealed until recently, illustrates his claim that there was no reason not to release them decades ago.

Conservative elements, including the military censor and the ministries’ legal advisers, are trying to put a spoke in the wheels of the information revolution Lazovik has led. One hopes that his stinging words will spur a public, academic, legal and political debate on how to make the state archives more open and its documents more accessible.