As part of its undertaking to expand access to Government Archives, Akevot is working to map the various impediments to public access to the documentation held in the government archives, to research the reasons they exist and act to remove them to enable the public to exercise its right to access government archives and their holdings.
Following publication of Akevot Institute’s report Silencing we have gathered to discuss Ministry of Defence’s DSDE division (Malmab) unlawful concealment of archival records.
Investigative journalist Hagar Shezaf on deciding central topics of report-based Haaretz feature, on the effort to get hold of the concealed records; on Ministry of Defense’s refusal to respond and the various reactions to the story.
Akevot Institute’s director Lior Yavne on the research behind the report, on the illegality of DSDE’s concealment of archival records, on self-censorship and the state of public access to government archives, including IDF and Shin Beth (GSS) archives.
Historian Dr. Shai Hazkani (University of Maryland, College Park) on the Historian’s frustration when finding previously-quoted documents are vanished from the archive, on DSDE’s archival efforts as an unlawful Track 2 and as a tool of shaping a favorable history, but also on grounds for optimism: History contained in archival records can never be made hermetically sealed.
David Amitay, Chair of Association of Israeli Archivists and Director of Hashomer Hatzair (Yad Yaari) Archive, on DSDE’s operation in his archive, on the role of the archivist vis-à-vis Security Establishment officials, on what is currently done as the illegality of DSDE’s archival project is made clear and the role of public pressure to opening archives.
Discussion – Part 1: Hanne Foighel, Amir Hallel, Dr. Rona Sela, David Amitay, Lior Yavne, Michal Henkin.
Discussion – Part 2: Prof. Galia Golan, Prof. Jacob Metzer, Asher Levi, Matan Kaminer, Prof. Avner Ben Amos, Shai Hazkani, David Amitay, Hagar Shezaf, Lior Yavne.
The report SILENCING: DSDE’s Concealment of Documents in Archives , released July 2019, summarizes the findings of two years of research by Akevot Institute.
Since 2002, teams, usually of two, periodically visit various archives in Israel. Archive staff know them as “State Archive declassifiers” or “IDF Archive Officials”. Others know their true organizational affiliation. The team instructs the archive director to give them certain files, sometimes large batches of files stored in the archives. The teams then go through the materials and order the director to place entire files, or individual documents, in a vault and deny archive users access to these materials.
Our research indicates that the teams are mainly interested in three issues: materials connected to nuclear issues; materials regarding the 1948 war, particularly those concerning the uprooting of the Palestinian population during and after the war, and materials relating to Israel’s foreign relations.
Several years ago, former Chief State Archivist Dr. Yaakov Lozowick, concluded that the law makes no provision for DSDE powers to operate in archives. Despite this finding, the DSDE continues this work and its officials still conceal files and documents in various archives with no legal power to do so and in contravention of the law. In the few cases in which we were able to review the content of documents removed by the DSDE, their publication proved to pose no threat to security, as also evidenced in the clearance for publication given by the Israeli Military Censor.
In its recommendations, Akevot Institute calls on the DSDE to end all operations in Israeli archives immediately and on the Deputy Chief State Archivist to inform public and private archive directors in Israel that they are under no obligation to follow DSDE instructions to remove materials. Akevot also recommended the Association of Israeli Archivists appoint a professional to advise archives on issues related to providing public access to records that appear to be sensitive.
Public access to historical records in Israel is subject to close monitoring by the security establishment. The IDF and Security Establishment Archive, the largest archive in the country, has so far opened only one percent of its records to public access. The General Security Service (Shin Beth) archive, which contains highly valuable historical records is completely closed to the public and does not allow any research of its materials. The Israeli Military Censor has recently posted an officer to the ISA, as part of what was presented as a pilot program, to review archival records before they are made accessible to researchers and the public at large. The ISA has been holding back on uploading records to its website, the only channel open for public access at the ISA, citing, as the reason, that they had yet to be reviewed by the censorship. The meager access to archival records kept in government archives results in private and public archives being a major source for historical research of the State of Israel. However, the report’s findings show Israel’s security apparatus denies public access to records kept in non-state archives, without transparency and without legal power to do so. The work of the DSDE in these archives impedes access to historical records, which is the foundation of reliable, independent research. The cumulative effect of this is distortion of public and political discourse about major chapters and events in the history of the country and its peoples.
Alongside preserving the records stored in it, the archive’s primary role is to provide the public with access to them. Akevot’s report Point of Access summarizes the findings of extensive research regarding the various barriers to access to Israel’s government archives.
The report surveys the findings and presents recommendations for improving access and having the Government Archives fulfill their legal obligations.
The report shows that due to the Government Archive’s policies, a paucity of the materials preserved in the Government Archives is accessible for public consultation: a mere one percent of all the materials in the Israel State Archive (ISA) and in the IDF and Defense Establishment Archive (IDEA). The report findings address, inter alia, the barring of public access to the lion’s share of documentation whose restricted access period has expired; routine extensions of barring viewing of archival records without legal authority; allocating limited resources for making materials accessible for viewing; failing to present complete catalogues to the public; inexplicable and nontransparent conduct by the archives in response to access requests; and the sealing of the GSS (Shin Bet) and Mossad archives.
The research on which the report is based includes interviews with numerous archive users, conversations with the state archivist, the director of the IDEA and other employees, consultation with experts in the field, information provided by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Defense in response to requests in accordance with the Freedom of Information Law, and other sources, among them: the case-law regarding access to archival materials, State Comptroller reports on the archives and various academic and other articles.
The first chapter of the report is dedicated to surveying the pertinent legal statutes: The Archives Law and the Access Regulations, court rulings in the matter from the last decade. The next three chapters cover the state of public access to materials in the Israel State Archive (ISA), IDEA and the Shin Bet and Mossad archives. The fifth and last chapter focuses on the importance of access to government documentation for the protection of human rights, and examines specific impediments to access materials related to human rights that are routine in the Israeli Government Archives.
The report paints a bleak picture: The entities that control access to archival materials regularly disregard their legal obligations, creating a reality in which the Government Archives in Israel do not uphold their obligation to allow public access to government documentation.
The value and role of the archive, as an institution that documents human and societal activities, are rooted in the connection between recognition of the past and of the present. The Government Archives contain documentation created and collected by public servants and elected officials for the benefit of the public, and with its funds. This material is designed to return to its rightful owners – the public at large – when the conditions prescribed by law are met. The public’s ability to enjoy access to the archive and the records it holds is an essential part of exercising the Right to Know, the right to access information regarding government conduct and operations. That is why it is also a critical component of freedom of speech; it is necessary for the existence of free and independent research, as well as to enable members of a society to become familiar with its sources and to decipher its current events. Access to the archive is also critical for the protection of human rights: Access to documentation regarding violations of human rights is part of the mechanism of accountability the state is obligated to provide the public and can assist in attaining remedy for those whose rights have been violated, and in preventing future violations.
The case law for access to archival materials is still sparse and limited. Most archive users do not resort to legal procedures when denied their request to consult a particular material, whether due to lack of resources, reluctance to fall foul with institutions they rely upon to perform their job, or the typical lingering of legal procedures versus the more pressing need for materials. Read More
In recent years the global archivist community, alongside human rights activists and legal experts, have started consolidating principles and guidelines for access to archives. The guidelines were drafted using glossaries, policy papers of state and inter-state bodies, and national and international courts’ case law. Read More