Will Israel’s New Archive Policy Set Back a Generation of Scholarship?

Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extended the classification of certain national-security related state archives for an additional 20 years. Netanyahu’s decision came on the heels of a three-year legal battle waged by two Israeli journalists, Ronen Bergman and Yossi Melman. In an editorial, the liberal newspaper Haaretz warned that Israel “can and must confront the less than heroic chapters in its past and reveal them to the public and for historical study. The public has a right to know about the decisions made by the state’s founders, even if they involved violations of human rights, covering up crimes or harassing political opponents by security means.”

For more on the potential implications of Netanyahu’s decision, I turned to Benny Morris, a professor of history at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Morris is the author of numerous books, including The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge University Press) and, most recently, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Yale University Press). Morris answered questions by e-mail from Washington, D.C., where he is currently visiting.

Q: What do you make of the decision to keep security-related documents classified?  
A: Every closure of documents, every extension of periods of classification, is against the spirit of an open society. But Israel does live in a particularly difficult environment—and is at war with its surroundings, so more than most societies, there is justification for a tight archival policy. But the truth is that Israel’s archives remain among the most open in the world—far more open than Britain’s and France’s, and, in some respects, the United State’s (for example, the Israeli Cabinet maintains verbatim transcripts of its meetings, and opens them—97 % of the material—to public scrutiny after 40 years. The US doesn’t).

Q: Among the information that will remain classified are documents relating to Israel’s treatment of Arabs during the 1948 War, a focus of your scholarship. Might this cache of classified files deepen or alter our understanding of that event? Or do you feel like the picture is already very clear?
A: Most of the material on 1948 is open, including treatment of Arabs\Arab communities. That’s how I was able to write my books. Here and there, the officials managed to close material on atrocities and some expulsions. But other materials were opened and remain open—so it won’t really affect scholarship on the subject. (Often one finds a specific document closed in one file and open in another—even in the IDF archive itself.)

Q: The opening up of the Israeli archives in the 1980s created an opportunity for you and other so-called New Historians to pursue groundbreaking research into Israel’s past. Are you concerned that this recent decision will set back a generation of scholars?
A: What has been closed completely over the years, and now will remain closed for another 20 years, are the archives of the Mossad (foreign intelligence agency), Shin Bet (internal security service) and the Atomic Energy Commission and Israel’s nuclear program and plants. This means that no one will be able to write and publish histories of these organizations. In France, these files are similarly closed amd in England too. But in England they recently—a major innovation—allowed an outsider (insider), Prof. Christopher Andrew, to see the material for MI5 and use it, but without specficifying document and file. MI6 remains completely closed (except for in-house historians, like with the Mossad, whose work is never published). In terms of Israeli historiography this means that the intelligence and nuclear aspects of its political and military history will remain black holes for another 20 years (at least).

Q: Will this decision provide ammunition to those who advocate an academic boycott against Israel?
A: No, this should have no effect on academic boycotters. If they hate Israel, as most do, they will continue to do so, and have no need of this excuse (the chief boycotters, of course, are Arabs—all of whose archives, if they exist, remain closed to all researchers, being authoritarian societies and regimes. They certainly have nothing to complain about. To them, by contrast, Israel is a wonderfully free and open society).

Q: What are you working on these days?
A: It’s a secret. —Evan R. Goldstein

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