Israel recently published its catalogue of some 300,000 classified files, including thousands of documents from before the state was even founded. The very existence of the files had been kept a secret until recently.
By Asaf Shalev
Israel’s State Archives unceremoniously published the contents of its catalog of classified archive documents this past summer, posting them online in 363 separate spreadsheets. Buried in the catalog of classified archives were more than 100 files dating back to the 1800s, and more than 2,000 files that predate the founding of the State of Israel but which the archive has yet to declassify.
The very existence of the 300,000 classified files—their names, dates, and origin within the state bureaucracy—had been kept a secret, until now. One-fifth of the files, deemed too sensitive still by the government, were excluded from the disclosure.
“There were many people who were concerned about the opening of this catalog,” State Archivist Yaacov Lozowick wrote in a statement accompanying the release.
The classified catalog, currently housed on the website of the State Archives, is hard to find, difficult to access, and almost impossible to search through or analyze. In order to understand what lies in the cryptic files, +972 Magazine enlisted various data-research tools and analyzed the hundreds of thousands of entries.
One of the things that stood out immediately was the age of some of files. The oldest item, a Foreign Ministry document titled “Parker Report,” dates back to 1821. That’s all we know about it. In total, the catalog of classified archival documents contains 125 items from the 19th century, and about 2,000 documents from before 1948, when Israel was founded. Because we cannot access the files themselves, it is impossible to say why documents that predate the state are still classified over 70, and in some cases, nearly 200 years later.
In contrast, in the United States the FBI and CIA routinely release old records, even ones that cast those agencies in a negative light. It is also telling that, unlike the U.S. government archives, which are run as an independent agency, Israel’s State Archives is a branch of the Prime Minister’s Office, whose current occupant has proven to be no champion of transparency.
Documents from virtually every Israeli ministry appear in the catalog: each of the 363 original spreadsheets represent a different agency, sub-department, state-run company, and in a few cases, former senior officials who bequeathed their personal collections to the State Archives. Conspicuously absent are the Defense Ministry (aside from one cache of records produced during Israel’s first, short-lived occupation of Gaza in 1956), the military, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet security service. These institutions manage their archives separately, lest any documents wrangle free.
Almost three quarters of the files come from only three government bodies: Israel Police (28.2 percent or 71,874 files), the Foreign Ministry (24.2 percent or 61,620 files), and the Prime Minister’s Office (21 percent or 53,587 files). Next up are the Energy Ministry, the State Comptroller’s Office, the Israel Prison Service, and the Justice Department.
Some of file names alone are tantalizing. For instance, there was “Nine Years Out of 2,000” which turned out to be a secret book commission by the Mossad about the history of immigration from Morocco. Another is called “Shariah Court of Gaza,” 1913-1922. There is a set of Jordanian government documents apparently confiscated in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank, which had been under Jordanian administration.
Then, there are those still-classified archival files with labels like “anti-Israel organizations” and the “fight against anti-Semitism,” produced by Israel’s diplomatic missions around the world. There are files on Deir Yassin and Kfar Qasim, the two most notorious massacres carried out by Israeli forces. The catalog contains 13 files from the 1940s and 1950s about the assassination of Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat representing the UN Security Council who was killed by a Zionist militia in 1948. The sinking of Israel’s Dakar submarine, still a mystery, is the subject of another classified file.
But even many files without sensational appeal promise to contain valuable historical information. For example, there is the case of the Israeli Black Panthers, a 1970s group of radicals who demanded social justice for Mizrahi Jews. As part of my research for a book I am writing about the group, I knew there were police files on the Panthers from references found in a couple of academic articles and a Haaretz magazine feature. Eventually, I obtained the documents, but not from the State Archives (where I was told the Panthers files were unsealed by mistake and subsequently re-sealed).
These police intel reports, containing invaluable and rare documentation of the Panthers by various undercover agents and informants, came from two files, the only two state archives files on the Panthers that we knew existed. A search for the keyword “Panthers” in the classified database yielded the two file numbers, along with 21 other files — from various police precincts — containing the words “Black Panthers” in their titles. It would not have been possible to find them without searching in the combined database. Knowing that the files exist is far cry from holding them in your hands, of course, and the chance of obtaining those particular files is nil at the moment.
I recently filed a request for the remaining Panther files only to be told that the person authorized to review and release archival police records died in accident more than a year ago. A police spokesperson said in an email that a job opening for such a person would be posted “soon,” providing no timeline for the recruitment and hiring process.
‘A country without a history’
There’s a war of sorts going over Israel’s collective memory. One of main battles is being waged over access to state archives and the classified catalog is but one example. It is academics, journalists, independent researchers, and citizens’ groups on one side versus government gatekeepers on the other. Those aligned against disclosure are lawyers posted at government ministries, over-zealous record room clerks, and elected officials who smell in every cry for transparency a plot against Zionism.
Gadi Algazi, a historian from Tel Aviv University, built his academic reputation by extracting social and cultural histories from the clutches of archives dating back hundreds of years. These days, Algazi is better known by his students and friends for his preoccupation with the more immediate past. He recently conducted research into a long-forgotten protest movement and he gives occasional talks on what he’s found.
In the early 1950s, according to Algazi, residents of a transit camp for immigrants near Kfar Saba mounted a veritable political struggle demanding better treatment from authorities. Iraqi-born communists living in the camps riled up and then organized the community for a series of demonstrations and other actions. The police got called in and the whole affair was kept out of the papers and out of the wider public’s eye.
After a recent talk about the affair at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I caught a ride with Algazi back to Tel Aviv and in the car, he told me, “Israel is a country without a history.” What he meant was that we know very little about the machinations of power, money, and social status that congealed in the 1950s, the critical decade after the country’s founding. The policy decisions that shaped Israeli society and allocated resources and privileges remain an enigma to this day, he explained. The Kfar Saba story is a foray into a time when Israel intra-Jewish ethnic lines were drawn. The discovery of the event would not have taken as long as it did in a country with an appreciation for its past.
“For the vast majority of historical researchers, the documentation kept in archives is the central raw material,” said Miriam Eliav-Feldon, a veteran history professor and the chair of the Historical Society of Israel, speaking at an event confronting the crisis of access to public archives a few months later. “Without it, it’s almost impossible to find out what took place, what the intentions and motivations of the individuals were.”
The effort to “rescue archival access” was launched more than two years ago when the State Archives shuttered its reading room. That’s where patrons used to fill out request slips and were hand-delivered boxes of files. The State Archives decided that all of its materials would be digitized, however, and meanwhile, anyone who wants access has to search the online catalog and request the files be scanned and posted online. The plan may have been well intentioned, Eliav-Feldon said, but it has led to long and erratic wait times and a lack of transparency about what is being released. “It makes it impossible to get work done,” she added.
A short time into the digital revamp efforts, lawyers for the Prime Minister’s Office imposed a new policy that gummed up the research process even further. Now, each file that has not already been scanned and uploaded must first be vetted by the government body that generated it to begin with. Want to read decades-old correspondence from the public security minister? The archive has to get the ministry’s approval first. The same goes for police reports, health ministry minutes and any other stacks of papers collecting dust on a warehouse shelf at the State Archives. Aside from having no conceivable incentive to allow the publication of potentially embarrassing documents, government bodies do not typically keep archival professionals on staff.
The coalition of archival access seekers reflects in many ways the various public battles being waged over Israel’s past. There are the Nakba scholars. There are Argentinian and Chilean Jews working to flesh out the extent of Israel’s ties with Latin American military dictatorships. Then there’s the reinvigorated campaign to expose the abduction and disappearance of thousands of babies of Mizrahi families. Without access to official archives, much of that work simply cannot be done.
“Blocking access to the documentary record, to the memory cells of our recent past,” Eliav-Feldon said at the Tel Aviv University event, “does grave harm to our knowledge and understanding of our existence.”
You can search the catalog of classified Israeli archives (in Hebrew) thanks to the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research. The nonprofit organization performed its own web scraping and programming of the classified catalog, making the files searchable on its website. You are also welcome to download the database by clicking here and play with the data yourself.
Asaf Shalev is a journalist based in California. He is completing a book about the Israeli Black Panthers with UC Press. Find him on Twitter: @asafshaloo. Omri Kahalon, a software engineer, contributed to this report.
The data in numbers:
- Number of file names revealed: 254,734
- Number of files that are so sensitive even their names are still being kept secret: roughly 45,000
- What’s known about each file: Name, the government body that generated the file, and the year(s) covered.
- Date of oldest classified file: 1821
- Date of most recent file: 2013
- Number of files dating to the 19th century: 125
Top government offices represented in the catalog:
- Israel Police: 28.2 percent of files (71,874 files)
- Foreign Ministry: 24.2 percent (61,620 files)
- Prime Minister’s Office: 21 percent (53,587 files)
- Energy Ministry: 4.1 percent (10,331 files)
- Israel Prison Service: 3.5 percent (8,927 files)
- Public Security Ministry: 3.3 percent (8,445 files)
- State Comptroller: 3.24 percent (8,243 files)
- Justice Ministry: 2.6 percent (6,703 files)