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A Survey of Middle East Archives: Israel

Kian Byrne

In part four of a new series of blog posts, Kian Byrne surveys archives and research institutions in Israel.

Israel has long been home to some of the most accessible archives in the Middle East. One of the few country’s with a clear declassification law and a well-structured and organized state archives, Israel represents one of the best resources for historians interested in modern Middle East history.

Unfortunately, there has recently been some controversy over an initiative by the Israel State Archives (ISA) to digitize its holdings. Some historians have claimed that this initiative and related changes in policy seriously threaten scholars’ ability to access materials held by the archive, including previously declassified documents. Though the ISA is still the best resource for researchers hoping to work in Israel, there are some alternatives that could be of use.

The Archives Law of 1955 established the Israel State Archives as the repository for all documents of Israeli government ministries and as a branch of the Prime Minister’s Office. Documents deposited into the ISA are closed for 15 years before being available for public release. This time is increased to 50-70 years if deemed necessary for state-security reasons. However, users of the archive have been able to request special access to materials, which would be reviewed by the archivists and, if deemed non-threatening to national security, released in part or full.

The recent controversy over the changes to the ISA centers around a dispute over this declassification process. Previously, the archivists had the discretion to decide which documents would be released and which would not. In June 2017, this process was challenged by Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri, who warned then-state archivist Dr. Yaakov Lazowick that the ministry that created the file must first approve any document requests. Only a year earlier, Dr. Lazowick had embarked on an ambitious project to digitize the archive’s entire holdings. As part of this project, the archive closed the reading rooms, restricting access to the physical documents, and began reviewing each document for release, even previously available ones. The combination of these two changes has resulted in a devastating slow-down in the acquisition process.

The stated purpose of the transition is to make millions of documents open to the public and freely available online. The website, however, as it stands at the writing of this article, leaves a lot to be desired. The English section of the page is still largely in Hebrew, and the featured online collections do not have any documents available yet. The ‘Popular People’ page for Moshe Dayan, featured on the front page of the website, explains, “This item has not yet been scanned. The State Archives is running a multi-year process to complete the scanning of all complex items.” Users are able to request the document online by filling out the necessary form, but with the new steps involved in declassification, there is no way to know how long it will be before you receive the scan. Even the main collection featured on the site provides obstacles for foreign researchers. The Six Day War Files, which became open to the public in 2017 thanks to the 50-year rule, features cabinet meeting transcripts and correspondence with embassies in a number of different countries during the 1967 conflict as well as films, photos and radio recordings. Researchers are able to download original scans of the documents, but the metadata and webpages for each document is in Hebrew.

Perhaps the best resource available from the ISA is the Documents on the Foreign Policy of Israel series. Published by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the original series was called Israel’s Foreign Relations (much like the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series) and covered the years 1947-2001. The series was renewed by the MFA as the Yearbook of Official Documents and has four volumes covering 2002-2005. Unlike much of the documentation available through the main ISA website, many of the MFA files have been translated into English. The collections are broken down by date, with the first section covering 1947-1974, and the rest divided into 2-5 year blocks. Users are not able to download original documents, but can print out or save the translations for free. The MFA also ran a blog, Israel’s Documents, for a number of years that featured interesting collections and documents that could also be of use to researchers, though it has not been updated since 2016.

Although the ISA seems to have taken several steps back the last few years, it is still worth reaching out to the archivists, who are as helpful and knowledgeable as ever, for support in your search.

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has its own archive, the IDF and Defense Establishment Archives, separate from the ISA. Unfortunately, because it is a military institution, the vast majority of its holdings are related to national security issues and therefore unavailable to the public. The archive holds over 11 million files, but so far only 50,000 are currently declassified, primarily from 1957-1966. According to its website, of the one million files at the archive from the period of 1948-1966, only 300,000 even qualify for potential declassification.

For those undaunted by these numbers, researchers can request documents online by providing their name, ID/Passport number, and a brief explanation for the request and the type of materials needed. Classified materials must be approved by a special committee, headed by the archive’s director, which gathers three times a year. Researchers may also request a visit to the archive, located on the Tel-Hashomer base in Tel Aviv, to access the documents already available via the reading room’s computer stations. Upon arrival, researchers will need to describe their project and conduct an interview with an archivist who will decide what collections to make available. Once logged into the computers in the reading room, researchers can see the list of available files.

Given the relatively brief history of the Israeli state, most of the archives and institutions available to researchers focus on its early years, from 1948 to the 1970s. The first archive worth looking into is the Labor Party Archive in Kafr Saba, north of Tel Aviv. Known as Mapai until its merger into the Israeli Labor Party in 1968, the party of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, was the dominant political party in Israel from 1948-1977. The archive acts as the repository for all of the party’s papers. One of the highlights of the holdings is the ‘Our Ministers’ discussions, during which the Political Committee, made up of ministers and Knesset members, met to discuss the issues Israel faced and make policy decisions. These were primarily domestic issues, but there are plenty of files on foreign policy decisions as well. They also include the Ben-Gurion papers and papers of other key party figures, like Levi Eshkol, which are made up of notes, memos, letters and various personal documents. Mapai leaders were highly conscious of their role in history and assiduously documented all of their decision-making processes. The archive is open to the public and researchers can walk in without an appointment during business hours and only need to present an ID to begin working. The classified materials are subject to similar restrictions to those at the ISA, with classification periods varying from 30 to 100 years depending on the nature and sensitivity of the document. There are a good number of documents that have been scanned and published online, which are freely accessible to the public, though the website and document catalog are only in Hebrew. If you have any questions or would like to set up a research appointment, you can contact the archive at rchavoda@beitberl.ac.il.

There are additional files related to the Labor Party held at the Yad Tabenkin archive, which specifically covers the Kibbutz Movement. The Yad Tabenkin archive was founded in 1971 as a non-profit to document the history of the Kibbutz Movement and serve as its “research, conceptual, and documentary center.” Researchers can request documents online, in person, or by email at Eyun@yadtabenkin.org.il but can only use the materials in person. Researchers must fill out an archive order form to receive the requested materials, but the archivists promise to respond to each request and claim it does not take long to process. They will also hold onto reserved files for up to a month. Once inside, researchers can take photos of the materials using their phone or can request photocopies, print versions of digital materials, or digital copies. Each method of reproduction, other than the phone, comes at a cost and must be done by the archivists themselves; the archive will also only accept cash or check as payment. The document collections also include the papers of the Palmach, the militia organized around the Kibbutz, and the records of many long-time ministers such as those who served in the Golda Meir government. Their dates range from 1922-2000 and a Hebrew list of materials can be found online.

The Ben-Gurion Archive is yet another important resource for scholars interested in the early Israeli state period. The closest thing to a US presidential archive available in Israel, the Ben-Gurion Archive is technically a branch of the Israel State Archives. The archive contains more than 5 million items from the Ben-Gurion era and other aspects of the Zionist movement and history of Israel from 1900-1973. The archive was established by the Knesset in 1976 through the David Ben-Gurion Law and is maintained by the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism. The archive is primarily online and has a list of different archive sections, but arguably the most valuable collection are the Ben-Gurion diaries, which include notes from his meetings with foreign dignitaries and can help fill in some of the missing/classified files from the ISA. There are a number pages missing from these collections, particularly related to Israel’s nuclear program. To request files, researchers must email bgi@bgu.ac.il, which will provide two weeks of access for $15-$20, paid by check. The website has both English and Hebrew pages, but the documents are only in Hebrew.

The Likud Party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, has an archive in Tel Aviv referred to as the “Wolf Castle,” but it is quite difficult to find any information on its holdings. Founded by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon in 1973, the Likud developed partly from the militant group the Irgun. As an underground organization, the Irgun does not have the same physical record base as the Labor Party. Neither does the Likud. However, anyone interested in either of those highly influential and historically significant groups may still find it worthwhile to try to gain access to the Wolf Castle.

There are three more archives worth mentioning, however their holdings relate primarily to before the establishment of the Israeli state. The Central Zionist Archives (CZA) have a large collection of files documenting the history of the Zionist movement from Israel as well as the rest of the world. The list of collections can be found online and consists of organizational papers, personal papers, photographs, maps, and settlement plans. The Haganah Historical Archives (HHA), a subsection of the IDF Archive, holds the records of the history of the Jewish armed forces up to 1948 and a little after. The HHA in Tel Aviv has a large collection of documents of the National Command of the Haganah, the main Jewish paramilitary organization in the Palestinian Mandate as well the Palmach, the militia organized around the Kibbutz. Finally, the Avner Cohen Collection features dozens of oral history interviews with major figures in the history of Israel’s nuclear program.

Israel has played as significant a role as any country in the recent history of the Middle East and studying its perspective through primary document research is vital to understanding not just the country but the entire region.

About the Author

Kian Byrne

Kian Byrne

Program Assistant
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