Israel, a Country Fleeing Its Past

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Boxes of documents in Israel's state archives, 2016

Last Tuesday’s High Court of Justice ruling, which upheld the state’s argument that declassifying historical Shin Bet security service documents could “endanger national security,” is a major blow to historical research and the principle of the public’s right to know.

In its archives, far from the eyes of both the public and the state archivist, the Shin Bet stores a great many historical documents related to affairs of supreme public and national importance. Some of them remain controversial to this day. Others are still considered bleeding wounds in the heart of Israeli society.

Now, the agency can continue its policy of refusing to grant access to these documents even decades after they were written, basing itself on the words of Supreme Court President Esther Hayut. Hayut wrote that this is “sensitive material whose exposure, even now, could cause harm to national security.”

The public, including historians, researchers and journalists, will be forced to accept the Shin Bet’s assertion that its claim to be protecting national security is based on real fear of exposing the agency’s sources and working methods, and that this isn’t – as it has proven to be in the past – just an attempt by the state to obscure failures, hide crimes and avoid international embarrassment over controversial things done by its agencies.

The petition the High Court was ruling on in this case had asked that a historian be given access to documents relating to the Shin Bet’s activities in immigrant transit camps in the 1950s. Specifically, he sought documents relating to Shin Bet monitoring of activists in the first Mizrahi social protest movement, which erupted in Haifa’s Wadi Salib neighborhood in 1959.

The court said, rightly, that spying on Israeli citizens as if they were a security threat is problematic in and of itself. Nevertheless, it didn’t take the next step, opting instead to let the Shin Bet be its own master. The justices preferred to rely on a weak promise with no guarantee that the organization will look into the possibility of releasing censored versions of some of the documents it continues to hide about various events.

It’s too bad the court didn’t accept the position of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which was represented by attorney Avner Pinchuk. ACRI said a historical document should be held to endanger national security only if it is “almost certain” to do so. In other words, the Shin Bet should be required to prove why it thinks there’s a clear and present danger to national security rather than being allowed to hide behind vague claims. But the court preferred to rule that “each case should be considered on its merits.”

It can be hoped that when the court hears a similar petition seeking access to Shin Bet documents about the murder of Rudolf Kastner – which occurred during those same years and involves other issues of public interest, from the genocide of the Jewish people during the Holocaust to radical right-wing underground movements in Israel – the justices will demonstrate greater courage. In another few months, we’ll find out.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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