[Editors’ note: this post is part of our series on the theme of archive]

By Shira Robinson

It is no surprise that researchers and civil rights activists have decried the recent decision of the Israel State Archives (ISA) to close its reading room and invite the military censor to effectively overrule its previously autonomous declassification system. Notwithstanding the archive’s pledge to publish the entirety of its collections online over the next twenty years, these developments will be disastrous for the public’s ability to reckon with the core sources of instability that plague Israel/Palestine, including the 1948 war and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967.

Below is a document that illustrates the devastation that will be wreaked by the closure of the archives. It is the agreement, dated 10 June 1949, between Josh Palmon, the Prime Minister’s Advisor on Arab Affairs, and Archbishop George Hakim of the Galilee, in which Israel agrees to repatriate 500 Palestinian Arab Greek Catholic refugees, and to allow 2000 more document-less returnees to acquire the legal paperwork to stay in the country, in exchange for Hakim agreeing to combat further refugee “infiltration” and to speak publicly in international fora against refugee return (English translation is on p. 2). Hakim was an ardent anti-Communist, so ensconcing him as an Arab “communal leader” was very helpful in preserving Jewish privilege despite Palestinian protest. Without thousands of documents like these, I would never have been able to write my book.


[this document can be downloaded here]

But the recent restrictions do not take place in a vacuum: the erosion of the already deeply limited access to Israel’s archival record has been at least a decade in the making, following a period of relative openness in the 1990s.

I witnessed the start of this erosion up close, during my 16-month stint in the state and military archives from May 2001 through September 2002, while conducting research for my book on Israel’s twenty-year military rule over the Palestinians who managed to remain in the country after the Nakba and become citizens.

It was the height of the second Intifada, and a thin line separated those of us in the reading room in Jerusalem from the café explosions, F-16 bombings, military reinvasions, and mass arrests taking place in and outside the city. The atmosphere had not always been as tense. To be sure, during previous trips to the ISA in 1998 and 1999, I had always tried to neutralize my subject of study on the researcher registration forms. I used euphemisms like “Arab-Jewish relations” instead of “military rule,” a term that, I figured, would raise unnecessary suspicions and might cause archivists to reject my requests for documents. I also enjoyed the privileges of being an Israeli-born American Jew: two passports and the assumption of innocence (and possibly naiveté). I was certainly not granted access to everything I requested; but once the files I was allowed to see arrived at my table, no one bothered me about them.

When I returned to the ISA in spring 2001, I realized that the research climate had changed. To take a small example: on several occasions staff members approached me as I was reviewing documents written in Arabic—a language they could not read—to ask if the material posed a “threat to state security.” These were documents that had already been opened to the public. I wasn’t sure what seemed more preposterous: the fact that they might reclassify the files, or their assumption that we shared a definition of “threat” or “security.” The first time this happened, I was nervous but tried to play it cool. I was reading transcripts of the Haganah’s Arabic-language radio broadcasts to Palestinians during the winter and spring of 1948 – an exciting “find,” given that I had just completed Elias Khoury’s magnum opus, Bab al-Shams. I smiled and explained to the reading room director the content of what I was reading (he already had the titles of my files on his computer, but he seemed appeased). After that I learned to simply say “no, no threat.”

Later that year, I learned that the risk of reclassification was not hypothetical, and my word was not to be trusted. One day, the reading room director summoned me to her office to inform me that most of the files that I had reviewed over the previous three months were now deemed “dangerous” and being closed to the public. I argued with her about this. Although I had taken copious notes on these files on my laptop, I was still waiting for the photocopies of the hundreds of documents that I had flagged (this was in the era before digital cameras, and researchers weren’t allowed to make their own copies). The day before my encounter with the director, an article had appeared in Ha’aretz describing a new Haifa University dissertation by Yair Bäuml that had relied on some of the same materials, including police records. The article, and the fact of the dissertation, clearly had alarmed the archive’s higher-ups. I managed to convince the director to return to me some, though not all, of the material I had worked on. For days and weeks thereafter the official in charge of declassification at the archive would visit the reading room and stand over researchers working with “sensitive” material, presumably to double-check his decisions.

Just as striking as the state’s propensity to reclassify documents has been the Israeli academy’s longstanding complicity in the creation of a parallel regime of secret research. During my time in the archives, Ha’aretz reported on the practice of “secret dissertations”: that is, theses researched and written on the basis of classified documents, and supervised and evaluated by academics with security clearances. What is most disturbing here is not the fact that officers of government agencies, like the General Security Services (aka the Shin Bet), have received privileged access to the records of their employers. Rather, it is the fact that Israeli universities have been awarding degrees on the basis of the research conducted using these records, and that the public remains barred from reading it. With untold numbers of files likely to be censored from the public view in the coming months and years, we may see a spike in classified scholarship in the future.