The Promise and Limitations of Israel's Archives

By Shira Robinson
Submitted to Session P4521 (Archival Practices, Violence, and Memory, 2016 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
This paper will reflect on the use of the Israeli archives for writing the social history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Like all national archives, Israel’s state and military archives are bound up with the history of the state which houses its collections, not only in terms of categories used to organize records, but also in terms of what is open to the public and what remains sealed. Relative to its neighboring counterparts in the Arab world, the archives in Israel offer a tremendously rich and well-organized treasure trove of material on the twentieth century, especially since 1945. But relative to Western democracies that Israel likes to compare itself to—and to a certain extent despite its own laws—a large portion of Israel’s records remained sealed or heavily redacted.

Nowhere is this evidentiary paradox more stark and politically consequential than in material related to the question of Palestine—starting with the expulsion and flight of roughly 80 percent of the Palestinian Arabs from the territory that became Israel, the subordination of the small minority of Palestinians who remained through the formal military regime that Israel imposed on them until 1966, and Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967. It is critical to point out some of the empirical and ethical problems raised here. First, a significant amount of material is still sealed—and has been resealed in recent years. Second, Palestinian students and researchers in the Occupied Territories cannot enter Israel without a permit that is nearly impossible to obtain. Finally, Palestinian refugees outside the Occupied Territories cannot enter Israel at all for research purposes unless they carry a passport from outside of the Middle East.

The question of access matters a great deal because Israel continues to hold more written Palestinian records than any single Palestinian research institution. The reason for this goes back to the birth of the state itself, when Israel destroyed and/or confiscated Palestinian public and private libraries, printing presses, publishing houses and more. This process continued in Gaza in 1956, the West Bank in 1967, Lebanon in 1982, and East Jerusalem in 2001.

After discussing the question of access as it pertains to people, I will spend the rest of my time analyzing the legal framework of declassification in Israel and how a number of scholars have challenged the archives to open up documents previously denied to them.