On May 25, the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem hosted a day-long conference under the title. “To Whom Does the Past Belong? Archive and Society in Israel.” Three historians involved with the event — On Barak, Liat Kozma, and Avner Wishnitzer — shared their thoughts with the editors of The Nakba Files. To see our series of posts on the theme of the archives, click here.

(1) Could you say something about your vision for the conference? What was the need for a conference on this topic and at this time?

The conference was conceived as a collaboration between three circles – historians, archivists and civil society activists. We felt that we are engaged in or interested in similar questions and challenges, but rarely talk with each other. The initial purpose of the conference was to try to find common grounds. We founded The Social History Workshop in the fall of 2013 as a platform for public history, and in our blog we dealt from the very beginning with archives and their interface with society. Almost ten percent of our posts, written by historians and activists, were dedicated to the question of the archives, in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East – which actually brought both the Association of Israeli Archivists and Akevot: The Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research to us. Our organizing committee was composed of representatives of each one of these organizations, as well as the three of us, the co-founders of the Social History Workshop.


(2) Presumably much of the discussion related to recent changes at the Israel State Archives such as the closure of the reading room and the involvement of the military censor. Did any new information on this come out during the conference? How did the conference participants react to these changes?

The conference program was originally conceived before the recent reform in the archive, but of course was referred to by the chairs, many of the speakers and the audience. Two recent developments also featured in the discussion – Akevot’s report on access to  Israel’s major archives, and the State Comptroller’s report on the archives, published one day before the conference. Both reports confirmed that while investing resources in digitization, the Israel State Archives failed in carrying out some  of its other duties – including preserving recent digital material for future generations, instructing and supervising the country’s municipal and institutional archives, and allowing access to declassified materials. We therefore strove to share information we already have – from our experience as archivists, historians or activists. This, in itself, was a challenging conversation.

The closing panel hosted Dr. Yaacov Lozowick, Israel’s Chief Archivist, and was dedicated mainly to his recent decision to close  the reading room. It was eye-opening, in demonstrating the extent to which he saw our criticism and concerns as irrelevant. The archives serve the public, he claimed, and as a fraction of this public, our interest should not supersede that of the general public. Historians, he asserted, should not enjoy a privileged status as those mediating the past to the general public (what was once called “history”). Our claim that we were, and continue to be, the main users of the archive; and that digitization, which we fully support, does not have to come on the expense of the reading room – fell on deaf ears. Access to the original documents, he said,  will be allowed only in special cases, and only if the Chief Archivist is convinced that it is absolutely necessary.

Dr. Lozowick made it clear that he considers skills of archival work with physical materials as itself an obsolete relic of the past. When asked about his decision making procedure, he confirmed he consulted no one, neither historians nor archivists. When asked about the total budget required, he explained that the Israeli government dedicated 20 million NIS per year to digitization, 20 times the archives’ usual budget. He did not explain why 5% of this budget could not be dedicated to serving researchers in the Archives’ reading room. We believe digitization cannot (and should not) be promoted on the expense of access to original documents for reasons we have explained at length in our blog.


(3) What were the most interesting points of discussion where people either disagreed or had different approaches?

Like in any interdisciplinary first encounter, initial reactions tended to stress fault lines and methodological and conceptual conventions that separate and insulate one’s own field. One of our challenges was to bring these differences to the surface, in order to explore openly and collectively how they might be overcome or at least suspended. At first, even the proper Hebrew word for “archive” emerged as a bone of contention; and so did the jargon of many scholars of the archive and especially their tendency to draw inspiration and concepts from the work of Jacques Derrida. But here coalitions began to present themselves. For example, it seemed that historians and archivists shared an allergy for this kind of discourse and claimed that, its value as a philosophical exercise notwithstanding, it is a poor depiction of actual archival work.

As our discussions matured, it seemed that the more interesting and politically significant fault lines and questions are not interdisciplinary. For example, what should be done with disorder – sometimes actual chaos – in the archive? Or with clear biases in it (the archive’s misogyny, for instance)? Some archivists, activists and historians thought disorder should be ironed out and bias corrected, while others opted for preserving both as testimony of past dispositions and thought-frames.

Perhaps the most important tension was an outcome of such disagreement: we all seemed to agree that historically, state archives were not created for historians and activists, and that with their statutes of limitation they have a strong depoliticizing effect. Some archivists still think that the state (narrowly defined) should be seen as the main proprietor of the archive and understand their own role as custodianship, sometime mere clerical work (this was how Dr. Lozowick put it). Many others however, and here they are joined by most historians and all activists, regard archive-based history writing as an important public service, and the public as the past’s legitimate owner. Where this public might be found (only in Israel? Abroad as well?) was another source of disagreement.


(4) For those with an interest in the Nakba, it seems that archival restrictions cannot be separated from a broader political climate that aims to suppress Palestinian narratives, as with the Nakba fill. As a practicing historian, do you have any thoughts on these ongoing contestations over commemoration and documentation?

According to current archival regulations, “security” serves as a blanket justification for classifying archival materials for 70 years, a restriction increased about two decades ago – from the original 50. We now fear that toward the year 2018, the restriction period will be increased even further. We also find that “security considerations” color our interactions with our archives more generally. The criteria used and the justifications for classification and declassification – are not transparent, and these declassification policies affect any documents related to the 1948 and beyond.

As historians of Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, we have experience in the Egyptian and Turkish archives, respectively. In the Egyptian archives, 20th century documents are unavailable for research (either classified, uncatalogued or non-existent), forcing Egyptian historians to write their history without archives or to focus on early historical periods. In Turkey, the state-sponsored digitization project was used to block access to documents shedding light on the Armenian genocide. Our concern is that we might be heading in a similar direction – and that supposedly technical reforms will be used to block our access to the past.

In addition to the security mentality, there are more mundane factors that will affect the possibility of writing archive-based Palestinian histories more than other kinds of history. The poor transcription and cataloguing of Arabic names, for example, might be more pronounced in the brave new world of paperless historiography.


(5) Israel’s archives also include considerable materials that were captured during military operations against the Palestinians and Arab states. Moreover, Ottoman and British archival materials are arguably part of the patrimony of the Palestinian people as much as they are of the state of Israel. Did issues over ownership and cultural rights emerge in the conference? What kinds of responsibilities do you think historians have in relation to archives when rights to them are contested?

As a first conference in its kind, we touched on broader topics, such as the implication of digitization and the elusiveness of access to sources. Questions concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were thus part of a broader context and discussed in tandem with LGBT, disability, and human rights issues. One of the speakers, Dr. Adel Mana’, did present a paper dealing with the limited access Palestinian historians have to their own past – which is buried in Israeli archives. Another paper by Dr. Ayelet Zohar explored ways of augmenting the archival bias and limited access to materials, in that case concerning the village of Bir’im, with visual and architectural materials. One of the posters presented in the conference, by Dr. Rona Sela, addressed the confiscated archives in the Israeli archives. Articles in our blog by Dr. Sela, and Dr. Hillel Cohen addressed these questions as do we. The declassification of captured materials was raised during the Q&A with Dr. Lozowick and the issue of archiving Palestinian materials emerged as an interesting bone of contention between professional archivists and activists and historians.

This particular conversation, can and should continue in a similar setting – in which historians and archivists will be made aware of their blindspots and Palestinian historians, archivists and activists would present their perspective on equal grounds. To do this, the setting and composition of the organizing committee would have to be different from the present one, and can be one of our future challenges.