Monday, February 16, 2015

Google at the Israel State Archives

Google is really good at finding stuff on the Internet; as time passes, it gets ever better at finding the precise stuff we're looking for, and also offering us other related stuff we hadn't actually asked for yet but now that you mention it, hey, that's cool!

Now imagine the Israel State Archives, with literally hundreds of millions of pages of documents the public has never seen. Then imagine the ISA intends putting it all online. Having Google-like abilities to search for the precise needle in the haystack that will be what you need would be a cool thing.

Then keep in mind that the ISA really does intend to launch a new website with the first few millions of pages of scanned documents later this year (2015); and that from then on it intends to add additional collections (or fonds, if you prefer the hi-falutin archival terminology) on an ongoing basis.

You begin to see why the ISA might be interested in having in-house capabilities such as  Google knows to offer, focused specifically on our rich website.

Well, it just so happens this isn't science fiction. That yellow box pictured above is essentially the full power of Google, packed into one Yellow Box (so named because it's, well, yellow and a box). And earlier this month it was installed in the ISA system. From its perch there it will soon begin learning about the ISA materials, so as to devise useful search capabilities that will align queries with data in beneficial ways; then, when we go online it will also start observing patterns of how users behave on our website, and this should give us additional ability to offer useful search results.

It's been a while in the coming, but the ISA really is hoping to start offering a true online archives starting later this year.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

In the Shadow of the Gallows: Maurice Orbach and Israel's Attempt to Save the Egyptian Jews Accused in the Cairo Trial, 1955


This year will mark the 60th anniversary of many dramatic events in Israel's history. 1955 was a crucial year and a turning point in relations with Egypt, Israel's most powerful neighbour. At the Archives we will soon complete a collection of documents on foreign relations for that year, the last volume in our series on Israeli foreign policy up till 1960. Here we will bring you some highlights of this collection.

One of the reasons for the deterioration of relations with Egypt was the "security mishap" in 1954, which also led to a political crisis in Israel, the "Lavon Affair". Israeli military intelligence had set up a spy and sabotage ring of young Egyptian Jews in Cairo and Alexandria. In June 1954 they were activated to attack American and British targets, in the hope of preventing an Anglo-Egyptian agreement on evacuation of British troops from the Suez Canal zone, transfer of the Canal to Egypt and military aid from the U.S., in a Western attempt to court Egyptian ruler Colonel Nasser. In July 1954 some bombs were planted but the damage was negligible. After a bomb went off in the pocket of one of the agents, the members of the ring were arrested. The question whether Defence Minister Pinhas Lavon had given the order for the operation later became the centre of a political storm and affected Israeli politics for  years. However at the time the public was told nothing about the true background to the affair. Israel claimed that the Jews involved were innocent and Cairo was planning a show trial.

In the indictment published in October the prosecution asked for the death sentence for all of the 13 accused. Efforts by Israel and world Jewry to prevent severe sentences began immediately and continued until the end of January 1955. Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett was deeply worried that if the Jews were executed, public opinion would make his efforts to reduce border tension and to improve relations with Egypt impossible.


A key figure in these efforts was Maurice Orbach, a British Jew and a Labour Member of Parliament, who visited Cairo in November 1954 as the representative of the World Jewish Congress. After briefing by Sharett, Orbach met Nasser, who told him that the matter was in the hands of the public prosecutor, but he would consider a plea for mercy. Nasser also said he wanted peace with Israel, but could not take steps yet because of the internal situation in Egypt, where a plot to assassinate him by the Muslim Brotherhood had been uncovered. Afterwards there were direct contacts in Paris between Israeli and Egyptian emissaries.

The trial by a military court opened on 11 December in Cairo. Orbach met with Nasser again and messages were passed between him and Sharett (see our previous post on Sharett's letter  warning against the effects of a death sentence). Nasser's reply was that he would do everything possible to prevent "inflammatory sentences." He promised to prevent border incidents and agreed to a high level meeting with Israeli representatives. At the end of December Nasser sent another message, saying that Egyptian public opinion was also inflamed, especially in view of the trial and execution of the six Muslim Brothers who had attacked him. In the current state of tension a high level meeting was impossible.


Crowds hail Nasser in Alexandria after the failed assasination attempt, October 1954
Photograph: Wikimedia


At the beginning of January 1955 reports reached Sharett that "things in the Cairo trial were deteriorating" and he wrote to Orbach asking him to return to Cairo immediately. His adviser Gideon Raphael flew to Paris to brief Orbach for his trip. This time Orbach's reception was frosty. His report (the first pages appear here) shows how he gradually came to realize that Nasser was evading him and would not see him until after the trial. It was learned that the Egyptians would not announce the verdict until it was already confirmed by the Revolutionary Council. Nevertheless Sharett did not give up hope and Israel redoubled its efforts to persuade other countries and humanitarian bodies to intervene.


 On 27 January Egypt announced that two of the accused, said to be the ringleaders of the Cairo and Alexandria groups, Dr. Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar, had been sentenced to death. Two others were cleared and the rest received long jail sentences. The Foreign Ministry mobilized the U.S. Jewish community to ask for Eisenhower's intervention. However Sharett wrote in his diary that there was almost no chance of Nasser's pardoning the accused Jews, now that the verdict had been published. He asked himself if Nasser had deliberately deceived Israel, or had made promises he could not keep because of changed circumstances or opposition within the ruling junta. At the Israelis' urging, Orbach and Richard Crossman, another  British politician who had received promises from Nasser, sent him a telegram begging him to reconsider at the last moment.

 Sharett refused to allow public demonstrations in Israel, and insisted that if protests were made, they must be against the sentence, in order not to encourage the belief that the Jews were innocent. Even Prime Minister Nehru of India, which had no diplomatic relations with Israel, agreed to appeal to Nasser. But Nasser replied to Eisenhower that America too executed spies. It seemed that the international outcry only made him more determined to show his independence. On 31 January Marzouk and Azar were hanged. Sharett thanked those who had tried to help in a special meeting of the Knesset:
"The Government of Israel voices its contempt and horror at the heartless rejection by the rulers of Egypt of the urgent representations made to them, a rejection accompanied even, in some cases, by calculated deceit regarding what was intended.”

“At the same time, the government wishes to express its recognition of all who did what they could, by word and deed, to save human lives and prevent the gallows from casting its shadow over relations between peoples in the days to come."


Israeli stamp issued in memory of Moshe Marzouk

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Kennedy, Johnson and Maariv

We're working towards launching a new ISA website later this year. Among other preparations, a group of staff is working on a collection of the Cabinet transcripts from 1948-1967, which we hope to put online in its entirety. As we look at the documents, we'll try to put up some teasers, mostly on our Hebrew language blog; so if you read Hebrew and are interested in the classified discussions in Israel's Cabinet in its early years, feel free to follow us over there.

One of our staff blogged about the Cabinet discussions following Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. The first meeting was characterized by the same shock everyone else was in. A week later, however, on Dec. 1, 1963, Golda Meir reported at length. Golda was the Foreign Minister at the time, and it just so happened that she'd been in the US, and her colleagues were eager to hear her impressions.

Some of what she had to tell was generally known, such as her description of the funeral. Some was tinged by the Jewish Question. Golda and all the Jews she'd been in contact with were apprehensive that the assassin might turn out to have been Jewish: "It may not be rational that we were afraid he would turn out to be Jewish--why should he be Jewish and what difference would it make?--but that's the way it is. We were worried." Then she spoke about all the reasons to suspect there had been some sort of conspiracy, and was of course worried by the fact that Jack Ruby, Oswald's killer, was Jewish.

Then Golda went on to talk about Lyndon Johnson and Israel. She and Johnson knew each other from previous occasions, and once, when as Vice President he had been at some convention of diplomats, he had even invited her to lunch. She was proud to note that at Johnson's first reception after the funeral he had been very friendly to her. She then talked about her brief meeting with him the next day--and here she probably lowered her voice and told the rest of the Cabinet ministers she was about to divulge confidential information which they must keep to themselves. Johnson had told her that not only would he continue Kennedy's friendly policy towards Israel, if anything, he would improve the relations.

"That was in the paper," said Health Minister Shapira.
"It was in the newspaper?" replied Golda
"Yes. In Maariv," said Abba Eban.
"So you see, the leak didn't come from the Cabinet," noted Shapira.
"We've got unfair competition, it seems," concluded Zalman Aran, minister of education.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Horsing around in the Cabinet

On January 16, 1966, the Israeli Cabinet was discussing the upcoming budget (the budgetary year in those days was from April to March). Pinchas Sapir was the Finance Minister, and also--when he felt like it--a very stern fellow, who allowed no interruptions when he was talking. So he'd been lecturing for quite a while, and the Cabinet members had been siting docilely as Sapir had demanded, until at one point he mentioned that would have to talk to the governor of the Bank of Israel to ensure the BoI behaved as Sapir wanted. Zalman Aran, the minister of education, interjected that he had a personal connection to the topic of the interest rate. Sapir gruffly told him to shut up: "I requested that no-one interrupt me," but even Levi Eshkol, the prime minister, had had enough of being silent so he piled on: "We should decide that ministers can't have debts." Aran, glad that Sapir's decree of no talking had been suspended, agreed with the PM: "Yes, let's have an official decision about that!"

At which point Sapir reasserted his control--"I said no-one was to interrupt me"--and went on with his lecture about the budget.

Page 43 of the proceedings, here.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Weizmann-Feisal Agreement, January 1919: An Early Peace Agreement with the Arabs


During the First World War, Emir Faisal, son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, the Hashemite ruler of Hejaz (today Saudi Arabia) led a revolt against the Turks, made famous in the film "Lawrence of Arabia" (T.E. Lawrence). The revolt's British backers believed that Arab and Jewish nationalists could work together to build a new Middle East.
T.E. Lawrence at Aqaba, 1917
Photograph: Wikimedia
96 years ago this week, Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the World Zionist Organization, signed an agreement with Faisal for peace and co-operation between the two movements at the Paris Peace conference. Weizmann had already met Feisal in 1918, when he visited Palestine with a delegation of Zionists in the wake of the Balfour Declaration. You can see an account of their meeting by the British interpreter here.

On June 17, 1918, Weizmann wrote to his wife Vera in London about the romantic journey along the Red Sea past the "glowing mountains" of Sinai via Aqaba to the Anglo-Arab army in southeast Transjordan. Here he met Faisal: "the first real Arab nationalist I have met. He is a leader! He is quite intelligent and a very honest man, handsome as a picture. He is not interested in Palestine, but on the other hand he wants Damascus and the whole of northern Syria."

Weizmann and Feisal at their meeting in Ma'an , June 1918.
Photograph: Yad Chaim Weizmann, Weizmann Archives, Rehovot, Israel
Faisal was afraid that the French would try to take over Syria. Weizmann noted that he was contemptuous of the Palestinians and did not regard them as Arabs. He saw Faisal as an alternative to the Palestinian leadership which was hostile to the Zionists' aspirations. Although Zionist colonization would benefit the Arab peasants, they wrongly believed that the Jews would take away their land. Weizmann did not realize the depth of Arab nationalism, which was in its early stages but would quickly gain ground.

In December 1918, Faisal and Weizmann met again in London. In the interim, Faisal had captured Damascus, which he hoped would be the capital of the Arab Kingdom promised by the British, but his regime there was fragile. In their talk on December 11, Weizmann promised help from the Zionist movement. They agreed to cooperate against the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which divided Palestine into British and French spheres of influence and gave Syria to the French. An agreement was drawn up, signed on January 3, 1919, in which Faisal expressed approval for the Balfour Declaration and Jewish settlement in Palestine. Other clauses ensured freedom of religion and Muslim control of the Holy Places sacred to Islam. In the original, held in the Central Zionist Archives, you can see the reservation in Arabic Faisal added in his own handwriting, saying: "If the Arabs are established as I have asked in my manifesto of January 4, addressed to the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, I will carry out what is written in this agreement. If changes are made, I cannot be answerable for failing to carry out this agreement."

On February 6, 1919, Faisal appeared before the peace conference and demanded an Arab state, excluding Palestine from his demands. However, under pressure from Arab nationalists, he later retracted. In the summer of 1919, the first Syrian Congress proclaimed the Arabs' desire for a united independent Syria, including Palestine and Lebanon. In March 1920, Faisal was proclaimed King of Greater Syria. However, by July the French had driven him out of Damascus, and Syria became a French mandate. The British, who had just created the state of Iraq (a move leading to many current problems), compensated Faisal by making him its king. His brother Abdullah became Emir of Transjordan and later King of Jordan.

The documents and quotes shown here come from the Weizmann Archives in Rehovot and were published in the "Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann" series. In 1994, the Israel State Archives published some of them in Hebrew in its commemorative volume on Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

How Unique Was Israel Granting Asylum to Political Escapees in South Africa? Very.

Six months ago, we published on the Israel State Archives site and on this blog a collection of documents covering the relations between Israel and South Africa. As noted then, while collecting and researching the different documents, we came upon an interesting letter, sent by the Director General of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Dr. Chaim Yahil. In the letter, Yahil allows the legation in Pretoria to give asylum to political escapees, without prior authorization by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Israel State Archives employs former diplomats from Israel's Foreign Ministry. When we showed them this document, we were told that it is quite extraordinary, since this kind of authorization allowing a fugitive into an Israeli diplomatic mission is unprecedented.

We have found reinforcement of the uniqueness of Yahil's directive in another document, discovered while preparing the next project in our series of publications concerning Israel's relations with Africa during the 60's. In this document, we found that a previous request to provide political asylum in Israeli missions elsewhere had been rejected.

The request was made in a letter written by Israel's consul-general in Lisbon, Levy Alon, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We didn't find the original letter of Alon, but rather the response from his superiors, who categorically rejected his proposal. Because we lack his original request, we aren't entirely sure of Alon's intentions. Did he expect political opponents of the authoritarian government in Portugal to try and escape into the premises of Israel's consulate in Lisbon?

In any case, as we noted above, this letter rejecting Alon's proposal underscores the uniqueness of the relatively free hand given to the legation in South Africa, and the level of political risk Israel took on itself in allowing asylum there.

Here is the translation of the letter:
Jerusalem, October 15th, 1963

To: Consul-General, Lisbon
From: Deputy Director, West European Division
Subject: [right] of sanctuary in the mission
Your letter no. 103.1/6922 from July 22nd.

We passed the matter for clarification by the [Foreign Ministry's] senior staff, which decided to produce a standing order for Israel's diplomatic missions, in which it is stated that no political asylum should be allowed in any circumstances. This rule applies also to Jews. It is possible that in some extraordinary cases asylum will be permitted, pending on prior approval of the Ministry's senior staff. This is a summary of the order, and you will receive the full and accurate wording in a general circular that will be sent to all missions.

Therefore, your initiative served all [in the ministry].
Yours truly,
Nissim Yaish

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Missed Opportunity for Peace? Begin and Sadat Meet at Ismailia, 25 December 1977


 This week, when the Christian world celebrates Christmas, is also the anniversary of the second meeting between President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin. During Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 many journalists asked if Begin would be invited to visit Cairo in return. Sadat avoided the question while Israel occupied Egyptian territory, but he offered to invite Begin to his home in Ismailia, on the west bank of the Suez Canal, some 90 minutes from Cairo.

At the beginning of December, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Hassan Touhamy had met in Morocco to discuss a peace agreement (see the Mossad report on the meeting). Israel had agreed that Egyptian sovereignty over all of occupied Sinai should be restored. However Begin and Dayan wanted to keep the settlements Israel had built there and two air bases, Etzion, near Eilat, and Eitam, near El-Arish and the Rafiach Salient,  under Israeli control. Sadat refused.
In return for his gesture of visiting Jerusalem and offering Israel security within recognized borders, Sadat wanted the Israeli government to make a declaration that it would withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967 and seek a just solution to the Palestinian problem.  This declaration would enable him to make a peace treaty with Israel and to invite the other Arab states to join in. But the  government, especially Begin, who hoped to extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza, could not agree. Instead Begin drew up a plan for a temporary regime giving the Palestinian inhabitants autonomy and took it to Washington to be approved by US President Jimmy Carter. On 25 December Begin, together with Dayan, Defence Minister Ezer Weizman and a group of advisers and aides, went to Ismailiya to present the plan to Sadat. The records of their meetings are in the Israel State Archives.
 
The atmosphere at the talks was friendly. Sadat was celebrating his birthday and he welcomed the delegation to Egypt "perhaps the first time we sit together since Moses crossed the waters not very far from here. We sit together to tell the whole world that we are working for peace and that we shall establish peace." Begin wished him as many years as Moses lived - to the age of 120. He too was sure that the two nations would make peace. They had already agreed to set up a political and a military working committee.
 

Begin and Sadat after their first meeting in Ismailia
Photograph: Yaacov Sa'ar, Government Press Office

But then Begin began to outline Israel's peace proposals and the autonomy plan. He explained that the Palestinian Arabs would enjoy self rule and the Palestinian Jews security. His long explanation tired Sadat, who had no patience for details. Begin, attacked by the right for presenting a plan which might become the basis for a Palestinian state, felt he was making a great concession. But it did not meet Sadat's needs.
 
The Egyptians proposed a joint declaration on Israeli withdrawal, on the right of all states, including Israel, to sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence, and on a just solution for the Palestinians based on self-determination. After the legal experts had got together, Begin and Sadat met again. You can see in the record of their meeting how hard it was for each leader to understand the other's background and thinking: Begin, who was so deeply marked by his relatives' death in the Holocaust and by fear of Israel's destruction by the Arabs; Sadat, by his fight for Egypt's independence from colonial rule. He said that for himself, Israel and Egypt could reach a bilateral agreement. "But I cannot do it because Egypt is the leader of the Arab world. Yes, that is right. Egypt has always been the leader." 
 
(Dayan at Ismailia with Egyptian Foreign Minister Muhammed Ibrahim Kamel (on the right
(and Abd-el Meguid, ambassador to the U.N. (centre
Photograph: Yaacov Sa'ar, Government Press Office
 Begin refused to mention self-determination, which to him meant a Palestinian state ruled by the PLO, then a Soviet- backed terrorist organization. Sadat's Foreign Ministry advisers refused to back down, the meeting was a failure and the two sides issued separate statements. Dayan felt that an opportunity had been missed. But some of the formulations reached at Ismailia later formed the basis for the Camp David agreements. Begin finally visited Cairo in  April 1979, after the signing of the peace treaty.