Friday, September 28, 2012

Off for Sukkot

Blogging will pause until after Sukkot, in about 10 days. We hope you'll come back then!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Digitalization and Dying Archives

Here's a fascinating article in the New York Times about the closing of the Georgia State Archives. The article quickly moves from the unfortunate specific case of Georgia to the broader, even more unfortunate case of governments and archives in a world where most documentation is created digitally, lives digitally, and probably slips into a digital graveyard of unreadable formats without anyone really noticing so that most of it couldn't be transferred to paper no matter what. (How do you transfer a Twitter feed to paper? A database? A GIS system? The data from the drone which hovered above Bin Laden's hideout?)

The fact is that archivists and other folks have been thinking about these matters for a while already. But when archivists and adjacent folks think about such things they tend to do so in turgid language that even they don't read, and regular mortals don't even try. It takes a journalist to translate the discussions into a readable article that presents the topic clearly and without gobbledygook. The Times helpfully does so:
The records are often used to settle legal disputes. When two Georgia counties were in a fight over the sales tax revenue from a lucrative Bass Pro shop that straddled their boundaries, they turned to the state archives to settle things.
“The archives are like an insurance policy,” said Richard Pearce-Moses, director of the archival studies program at Clayton State University, which is near the Georgia Archives Building south of Atlanta. “There is a good chance we might never need to know where the county line is, but when we do, we really, really need to know.”
Increasingly, government records are being produced electronically, and agencies use a variety of software to collect and store them. But technology is changing so quickly that few protocols exist on how to gather and protect digital records from tampering. That applies to those once produced on paper as well as new forms of communication, like government Web sites and Facebook pages.
As a result, governments have to decide at what point an electronic birth certificate, for example, will be considered an acceptable legal document.
“A lot of this is untested in court,” said Sarah Koonts, the director of archives and records in North Carolina. “What kind of metadata do we need to have around an electronic record to prove it’s authentic?”
Oops! Metadata: an extremely important word no normal person uses. If you were an elected politician, where would you prefer to cut, in schools (everybody knows about them), public roads (everyone gets stuck on them), or in metadata? Me too.

The odd thing about Israel right now is that the government actually is allocating additional sums to metadata, or at least to the archives. This was touched upon back when Yair Rosenberg wrote about us in Tablet. If you read Hebrew and wish to plow through the legalese of a government decision, you can see how our situation differs dramatically from that of our colleagues in Georgia.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The creation of highly classified documents (or: what you won't find on this blog)

Blogging will be slow this week as most activities in Israel grind to a halt over Yom Kippur, and will then stop as the ISA and most government agencies take a break over Sukkot. Essential offices and organizations never stop, but hey, we're the national archives, not some security branch--even if we do hold endless classified stuff created by the folks who work far from the public's gaze.

Speaking of spooks and their elected overlords, there's a fascinating article today in the Washington Post about how President Obama does or doesn't consume his intelligence briefings. Here at the ISA, we do our best to refrain from making any political statements in the Israeli context; American politics isn't a topic we even pretend to understand. So we're completely agnostic about the issue of the article, which deals with how good Obama is at his job. The reason we think it's so interesting isn't the politics, but rather the discussion of how one of the most classified documents in America is created: the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB).

Among the findings of the article is that different presidents like to see different sorts of documents. Another is that some--Clinton, for example--read them carefully and then don't have much need for discussing them with some fellow, while others--Reagan seems to have been the extreme case--hardly read them at all and prefer listening. (The article doesn't go back as far as FDR, but since he was famous for listening and not reading in many matters, he probably did the same with his security briefings.)

Another interesting finding is that PDBs don't get declassified. Or maybe they will some day, but that day hasn't yet arrived. There are limits to transparency when it comes to what the spooks know and tell the leaders. Not everything is for public consumption--a sobering thought for the next time you read the daily newspaper or website and it tells you all about what this president and that prime minster know.

The article even has a link to a chapter of a book which describes some of the ways PDB's emerge. As a general rule, books are more intelligent than blogs and newspapers, so you ought to follow that link.

Is there an Israeli equivalent of the PDBs? There must be. Do we have them in the ISA? If so, we're not declassifying them. Well, maybe a week after the Americans do. The article does have some links to some of the very few PDBs which have been declassified ... in what's called a "sanitized" version. Here, see for yourself.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Immigrants to the British Mandate (Record Group 11)

So far at this blog we've presented specific documents, and occasionally small collections of carefully chosen documents. Today we'd like to talk about an entire collection which we've recently put online: RG (record group) 11, the immigration department of the Mandatory Government between 1920-1947. From the official description of the collection:

The Immigration Department, which began operating in 1920, dealt among other things with registration and change of names and naturalisation applications and processes. In addition to files with correspondence on these issues, this Record Group contains about 50,000 files of naturalisation applications. These files contain photographs and forms with personal details from 1934 –1948, mostly submitted by Jews who came to Palestine legally. However, there are also some files of persons born in the country who applied for Palestinian citizenship.
For the most part, the files are family files, that is, they contain the application forms and photographs of the entire family, indexed by the name of the head of the family (generally the father).
Valuable genealogical material is also to be found in other files of the Record Group which deal with the issuing of passports, visas, laissez-passer documents and the registrations of tourists and immigrants arriving in Palestine. The material in this Record Group is not complete as the offices of the Immigration Department were subject to attack by the Jewish underground organisations, and many files were destroyed during these attacks. Moreover, British officials destroyed or took with them an unspecified amount of material in the final days of the Mandate.

Translation: people who applied for citizenship in Mandatory Palestine are likely to be in those files, along with their family members, locals who vouched for them, and various other charcaters who pop up. There are many tens of thousands of names, along with photographs, and lots of biographical information. And there's information about immigrants, information about the places they're coming from, information about how they began to fit in once they got here ... a wealth of interesting stuff.

Sadly, while the collection is now online, and most of it is in English (the language used by the British authorites), it is not yet easily accessable. The current interface of the ISA's main website was designed in the late 18th century, and if you know Hebrew it's a bit clunky and archaic; if you don't know Hebrew it's, well, more clunky and archaic. This will be fixed, hopefully, by 2015, but it would be cruel to promise anything sooner. Still, here's the list of the files, and if you use the חיפוש באוספי הארכיון button, the search engine will accept queries in Latin characters and will give reasonable results for this collection.

For reasons of privacy protection, files from less than 70 years ago are not yet online. But if you think about the history you'll understand why most people had either arrived by 1940, or they never arrived.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Jewish New Year Greeting Exchanges From Presidents Carter and Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Begin

Rosh Hashana is already behind us, but it's not too late to recall some interesting New Year greetings held in the Archives. On the eve of the Jewish New Year (usually falling in September), leaders of countries friendly to Israel traditionally send a greeting to the President and Prime Minister of Israel and the leaders of Israel reply in kind.

Prime Minister Menahem Begin (1977-1983) served concurrently with President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) and President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and received such greetings from them. Here we present the exchange of greetings for the coming of the Jewish year 5740 (September 1979) and 5743 (September 1982). These letters were sent as electronic telegrams to the American Embassy in Tel Aviv and the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC, and then printed and sent to the recipients. Therefore they are not signed in pen.

The greeting of Carter to Begin on September 21, 1979 (file A-4348/6) was written a few months after the signing of the Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt (with Carter as a witness) on March 26. Begin answered Carter on September 25, 1979. He emphasized his hope to strengthen peace between Israel and the Arabs and friendship between Israel and the USA.
Carter and Begin conversing in the White House Garden, March 2, 1979.
Photographer: David Rubinger, National Photo Collection
On September 16, 1982 President Reagan sent a greeting to Begin (file A4348/12). It was sent after the outbreak of the Lebanon War (June 6, 1982) and after the "Reagan Plan" (August 31, 1982) which Begin had immediately rejected because it might weaken Israel's standing in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. Begin answered Reagan on September 20, 1982. In a laconic letter he expressed his wish to attain peace, security and liberty in the world. The two first issues were Israel's interests while the last hinted at Reagan's preaching against the "Evil Empire" – the Soviet Union.
Reagan and Begin at the White House, September 9.
Photographer: Ya'acov Sa'ar, National Photo Collection
These documents were collected during preparation of a commemorative book about Menahem Begin which will be published by the Israel State Archives in 2013.

Turkey Blows Hot and Cold: Our Publication on Israel-Turkey Relations in the 1960s

On 13 December 1964 Zeev Shek, director of the Western European division in the Foreign Ministry, wrote to Moshe Sasson, the Israeli minister in Ankara, about Turkish-Israeli relations as he saw them, summing up: "The Turks want everything from us. They see the fact that they are kind enough to accept [what we give] – as a sufficient reward, and are not willing to give us anything more. This attitude does not arise, God forbid, from lack of love for us, but more from the desire not to lose what might be lost from the Arabs".
Shek's letter is a good description of the frustration of Israel's policy makers and diplomats. Despite Israel's efforts to normalize relations, Turkey preferred to keep a low profile. As a Muslim state in the Middle East, which needed Arab support, particularly in the Cyprus conflict which dominated Turkish foreign policy from 1964 onwards, it was reluctant to raise the level of relations.
This is just one aspect of the tapestry making up Israel's relations with Turkey to be found in our latest publication on Israel-Turkey relations, 1961-1967, edited by a veteran diplomat who served there himself, Baruch Gilead. 314 documents tell the story, most of them in Hebrew. 22 documents or appendixes are in English, and seven in French. . There is a list of documents in English with a summary of the contents, and an English introduction.
For the last couple of years Israel's relations with Turkey have been in crisis. The documents show that even then relations were subject to sharp swings, and were at the mercy of the Turkish leaders, who would warm them up or cool them down as they saw fit. Sometimes pragmatic considerations were dominant. Turkey had an interest in economic cooperation with Israel, in trade and particularly in Israeli assistance in development. The two countries were also both enemies of Nasser's Egypt. Thus in March 1963  Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wrote to his Turkish counterpart Ismet Inönü, expressing his satisfaction over the Turkish decision to raise the level of relations to that of ambassadors – satisfaction which proved to be premature. In fact, this was not done until 1991.
When relations were good Turkish government ministers visited Israel. These invitations also resulted in some misunderstandings, as when the title of the visiting Turkish minister was wrongly translated and he was received by the minister of agriculture, Moshe Dayan, instead of Housing Minister Joseph Almogi. (Doc. No. 115). Subsequently both ministers were invited to Turkey. Cooperation in economic development reached a height in 1964.
But ties proved fragile when Turkish interests required improved relations with the Arabs and greater consideration for pro-Islamic elements in Turkey itself. Turkey wanted Israel to adopt a pro-Turkish policy in Cyprus while Israel preferred to remain neutral. In August 1964 an apparently harmless reply by Israeli President Zalman Shazar to an appeal from President Makarios of Cyprus, expressing Shazar's regret at the bloodshed resulting from the dispute between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, led to a major crisis in relations. Turkey also needed the votes of the Arab states at the U.N. debates on Cyprus, and Israel paid the price.

UN troops on duty in Nicosia, from our publication on Israel-Cyprus relations
 In 1965 relations continued to decline and were in fact frozen.  The tone of Sasson's reports became sharper, even describing the Turkish ministers as unreliable and misleading.
Nevertheless, Turkey did not break with Israel. This was particularly notable in the spring and summer of 1967, during the crisis period which preceded the Six Day War, the war itself and its aftermath. Despite Arab pressure, Turkey continued to maintain diplomatic ties and remained neutral. Although its votes in the General Assembly were not always favourable to Israel, Turkish Prime Minister Demirel declared that Turkey's position was neutral or even pro-Israeli.
These are only a few examples of the wealth of information in the publication, shedding light on the complex nature of Israel's relations with Turkey, then and now.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sabra and Shatila: One of Israel's Darkest Hours

30 years ago this week, Lebanese Phalangists murdered hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatila, two Palestinian camps near Beirut. The IDF had allowed the phalangists into the camps, and according to the Kahan Commission's investigation after the events, Israel bore indirect responsibility for the massacre because its troops controlled access to the camps, knew about the killings, and didn't stop them.

Morally, this was one of Israel's darkest moments.

Much of the military documentation of the 1982 war in Lebanon cannot yet be declassified. Some, however, can and has. The New York Times has an article by Seth Anziska, a researcher who spent time this summer in our reading room going through files, mostly of the Foreign Ministry, which show the tensions between American diplomats and Israeli leaders as the massacre was unfolding. It does not make for easy reading. Next to the article, the paper has put online almost 50 pages of the documents themselves, so that we can make up our own mind about their content. These are also not easy reading.

We're the national archive of a democracy. When we declassify sealed documents we must take into account the security implications, and we must also protect the privacy of regular citizens; but we aren't allowed to keep documents sealed because they make us look bad. On the contrary. It is our firm belief that by making clear the documents will eventually be made public, some officials will sometimes pause before doing the wrong thing, and having paused, they'll then restrain themselves.

And that's the spirit of this blog, too. We're here to tell the story, blemishes, warts and triumphs.

Rachel Bluwstein's letters

Rachel Bluwstein, better know simply as Rachel, or if one must use a full name, Rachel Hamoshoreret, Rachel the Poetess, was born 112 years ago this week. She lived a short and tragic life, dying in 1931 at the age of 41, bereft of family and lonely. Yet she can easily claim to be the most important poet the Zionist project has produced, and one of the most famous of the members of the 2nd Aliya, the generation of pioneers who launched the State of Israel. David Ben Gurion is more famous yet - but then, he lived a long life and moved mountains; Rachel wrote wistful poems.

Although she had been dead 17 years by the time Israel was founded, and was never an official who produced documents which went into the archives, the ISA has a collection of her letters, written to a close friend, Shlomit Kalogai. Shlomit was the sister of Rachel Yanait, who then married Yitzchak ben Zvi, who went on to become the second president, and his papers ended up in the archives: archives often contain surprising things.

Over at our Hebrew-language blog Michal has put up a collection of Rachel's letters and writings. It even includes some observations about another Jewish woman of letters whose words have given her some immortality, Irene Nemirovsky. If you're able to read the Hebrew, we warmly recommend. If you don't, well, it's never too late...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Shana Tova!

We're shutting down further blogging activity here until after Rosh Hashana, next week.

Shana Tova to our readers!

Cabinet protocols, end of June 1948: Emergence of the Intractables

Our series of cabinet protocols has its strengths, but also serious weaknesses. The main strength is in the ability to follow the topics which reached the table of Israel's Cabinet. The main weakness is that each protocol tends to be two or three pages long, while the stenogram of the meeting itself can reach hundreds of pages. Which means the protocols offer no more than a faint record of what was really going on. Still, being so short, it's easy to follow them. Reading the entire weekly stenograms so as to be informed about how Israel's leaders saw history as it was happening would be, how to say this: lots of work.

The brevity of the protocols from the last week of June 1948 is downright aggravating, however, for all that one can read them in five minutes. At least two topics were discussed which continue to be discussed until this very day: relations between the orthodox and non-orthodox sections of society, and the role of the state; and the relationship between the State of Israel and the Arabs living insides its borders. (At the end of June 1948 there were no clear borders, merely lines where the various armies had been positioned when the cease fire began, and which all sides intended to move as soon as the cease fire was over). Sadly, the protocols don't offer much information beyond the fact that these issues were raised.

Alongside the subjects which were to fester for the next 65 years and counting, there were some other more short-term decisions: a sub-committee was appointed to figure out the status of the national currency. Golda Meir was tasked with raising more money lest the immigration to Israel stop for lack of funds. It was decided not to operate the trains on Shabbat.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Jerusalem, June 1967: The bean-counters and the sweep of history

Anyone with a modicum of understanding of Israel's governance will tell you that the most powerful ministry of them all is the Ministry of Finance; and within the MoF, the most powerful department of all is Agaf Hatakzivim, the Budget Division. This may be true in most countries for all I know, though it may not have been true in Israel's early years. (At the very beginning, the budget division seems to have been part of the Prime Minister's Office, not Finance.) So it's of high interest to compare what the MoF folks thought was happening regarding unification of Jerusalem back in the earliest days. Which is why this document is so intriguing.

Pages 2 and 3 are the protocol of a meeting of general managers of ministries who convened in the Ministry of Justice on June 28th 1967 to discuss the governance of East Jerusalem. Page 1, however, gives the protocol its added value: Moshe Sandberg, head of the Budget Division, sent it out on June 29th 1967 to general managers of ministries summarizing the important points of the meeting. The copy we're looking at here was sent to the head of the Ministry of the Interior, one of the larger and more important ministries as it budgets municipalities if they don't generate enough revenue on their own.

Sandberg's directives to the ministries - and directives they were - stand in contrast to much of the verbiage we've already seen about all the improvements Israel was going to make in East Jerusalem, as reported by the Foreign Ministry. Not according to the top bean-counter: Israel would supply the same services supplied by the Jordanians, no more. If anyone wishes to do more, the budget division said, they'll have to submit a detailed plan to us. Moreover, whatever gets done will utilize the existing ministry employees. If a ministry is convinced it needs to hire new officials (an option clearly foreseen in the protocol of the previous day, which Sandberg was writing a corrective covering letter to), it will do so only via the recognized hiring channels of the Office for the Civil Service (Netzivut Sherut Hamedina) - a tried and proven method to slow things down.

Given the paucity of documents we've seen so far, we should be careful to say who was really calling the shots at this stage. The document does however underline a fascinating possible narrative about Israel's control over East Jerusalem, in which different ministries had differing intentions, and the Finance Ministry's intention was to not spend money: not as a matter of Zionist ideology but rather in the universal frame of mind of bean-counters, who don't much like to spend money.

Moshe Sandberg, by the way, was at the time a youngish (41) Holocaust survivor who had pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and then went on to a long and illustrious career as one of Israel's top economic figures. To this very day, he's still prominent in restitution matters for Holocaust survivors, though he goes by his latter name, Moshe Sanbar. Important Budget Division figures have a life-long impact on Israeli society.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Identifiying UFOs - 4th Round

As regular readers know, we've been asking the public for assistance in identifying UFOs (Unidentified Folks from Old times). So far we've put up three installments, here here and here, and one announcement about people we identified with your help.

Today we're putting up the fourth installment. Like its predecessors, the photos all come from the Benno Rothenburg collection, and they were probably taken around 1950.





Sunday, September 9, 2012

ISA at the New York Times

It's not every day that the ISA gets reported on by the New York Times, and twice in one day is really a bit special.

Here, and here.

"The murderers of our people should not become their heirs!": The 60th anniversary of the Reparations Agreement with West Germany

Our publication on the Munich massacre presented a dramatic and painful chapter in Israel's relations with West Germany. Another chapter in this story is marked this week: the 60th anniversary of the Reparations Agreement, signed on September 10, 1952.

In the early 1950s, the new state of Israel struggled to house and feed the mass immigration, which included many Holocaust survivors. Unemployment and shortage of foreign currency meant there was little money for imported food or fuel. One possible solution was reparations from Germany. There was an official policy of boycott of Germany, so the Israeli government wanted the wartime Allies to approach it to demand compensation for the property of Jewish Holocaust victims who had left no heirs. But the Allies refused, and it seemed that owing to Cold War considerations, Germany would soon be rehabilitated without paying a penny.

After secret negotiations with Israel, in September 1951 West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer made a declaration in the Bundestag, stating that Germany took upon itself responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi regime. In January 1952, a proposal to open negotiations with Germany was brought to the Knesset, resulting in bitter controversy and opposition from both left and right. The left-wing Mapam party mobilized ex-partisans and ghetto fighters who compared the government to those who collaborated with the Nazis, while Menachem Begin of Herut claimed that they had no right to act in the name of the Holocaust victims. He led a violent protest and march on the Knesset building during the debate.

The main spokesmen for the government were Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett. Sharett exposed the hypocrisy of many opponents, who allowed individuals and organizations, including many kibbutzim, to reclaim their property in Germany, but not the government. He argued that a sovereign state could not rely on emotional arguments and boycotts but must act according to its essential interests. Ben-Gurion is best remembered for his appeal: "Do not allow the murderers of our people to become their heirs!" (an allusion to the Biblical quotation: "Hast thou murdered and also inherited?" (1 Kings: 21:19))

In the end, the Knesset empowered the government to open negotiations, and after six months of discussions, an agreement was reached. Chancellor Adenauer wanted to sign it himself; he agreed to hold the ceremony in Luxemburg, outside Germany, but demanded that a government minister should sign for Israel. Sharett was chosen, but on September 1, 1952 the legal adviser of the Foreign Ministry, Shabtai Rosenne wrote to him asking him to reconsider and to allow the heads of the negotiating teams to sign: "I view this as an act beneath the dignity of an Israeli Foreign Minister which may one day cast a stain on your personal reputation".

Sharett said in his reply that either the negotiations and the agreement were morally justified, in which case there was no reason not to sign, or they were not. If history judged him wrong, he was already deeply implicated in the affair and a signature would make little difference. Sharett emphasized the importance of signature by the Chancellor for Germany's commitment to the agreement. Adenauer's step in taking responsibility for Nazi crimes, he said, should be recognized and respected. "You may be surprised to hear me raise such considerations of respect and mutual relations – even chivalry – towards a German Prime Minister. Well, in my opinion this should be the approach of the independent state of Israel…fear of adopting this criterion in our relations with Germany returns us to the status we had in the past – of a people with no national status or considerations, isolated within its own four walls, mourning for its past, praying for the future and solving problems in its relations with other nations simply by cursing them in its heart. An independent people must face the future…"
Photograph: Moshe Sharett Heritage Society
Sharett and Adenauer signed the agreement, ratified by the Bundestag in March 1953. The reparations led to a great improvement in Israel's economic situation and contributed to the development of its industry and transport infrastructure. Most of the public realized that it had been a necessary step.

Sharett's letter was first published in Volume 7 of the "Documents on the Foreign Policy of Israel" series and in the commemorative volume for Moshe Sharett, the second prime minister, issued by the Archives (in Hebrew).

You can read more about the reparations controversy, including translations of many documents from the Israel State Archives, in the English version of the book on the agreement edited by Yaakov Sharett, Moshe Sharett's son.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tel Aviv in two promotional films

First, here's a promotional film about Tel Aviv made in 1957, from the collections of the ISA (טס-11067/4), in English.

Things have changed a bit since then - in Tel Aviv, and in the way promotional films are made (they're shorter these days):

And here's a glimpse from an unusual direction

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Cabinet protocols: Altalena

The Altalena affair played out in mid-June 1948, reaching its dramatic and tragic crescendo on June 22.

The Altalena was an IZL-owned ship which reached Israel on the evening of June 20th 1948 with tons of arms and more than 900 new immigrants on board. The IZL leadership, with Menachem Begin at their head, had been negotiating the dispensation of the cargo with the provisional government; Ben Gurion insisted that it be handed over in its entirety to the newly founded IDF, while Begin demanded that parts of it be retained by his organization. Most IZL units had been incorporated in the national army by this date, but in Jerusalem they were still fighting as independent units.

In the clashes between the conflicted sides 16 IZL men and 3 IDF troops were killed. Palmach forces commanded by Yitzchak Rabin shelled the ship at the Tel Aviv beach. The incident poisoned the political discourse for decades. Seen from today's perspective I think it's plausible to say, even on an a-political blog such as this, that the event was an important milestone in the development of Israel's democratic institutions.

The provisional government convened three times that week, on the 20th, 22nd, and 23rd. On the 20th they discussed various matters of conscription, such as the question of telephone operators: Mordechai Bentov complained that their conscription was hampering service. The government set up a committee to investigate. It was also decided to conscript people born between 1908-1912 (i.e people in their late 30s).

Bechor Shitrit wanted to know about reports that the Arab villages Kubeiba and Zarnoka had been demolished. Felix Rosenblit asked about a story in Haaretz that military courts were pardoning tax penalties. Itzchak Grinbaum reported on conditions in Jerusalem.

Near the end of the meeting the IDF was authorized to block the transfer of Altalena arms to IZL units, hopefully without the use of force.

On the 22nd, as the events were approaching their climax, the provisional government decided that the arms must be offloaded and stored until after the end of the truce, in accordance with the UN decision.

On the 23rd, after the violent events, the government convened for a stormy meeting. The incident was the only item on the agenda, which focused mostly on what was to be done with the hundreds of people who had been arrested. Rabbi Fishman-Maimon demanded that they all be set free immediately, but Grinbaum's proposal that a judge be appointed to determine who would be freed and who not, was adopted. In response Fishman-Maimon and Moshe Chaim Shapira resigned in protest. (They later returned.)

This document is an obvious case where the stenogram of the meeting must be vastly more interesting than the protocol. Note to self: Nu?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

It never rains but it pours

Full disclosure: the ISA doesn't often hog much of the media spotlight. And that's alright. But sometimes we suddenly do, as when our Munich Massacre publication went ballistic last week. Then yesterday we hosted a group of journalists at the ISA. In return, some of the journalists wrote about us. The top of the front page of the English edition of Haaretz had this article; a fuller version was on the front page of the Hebrew edition. A local Russian-language TV station reported about us in Russian.

From Jerusalem to Geneva - the International Conference of Editors of Diplomatic Documents

Yesterday, we received a notice about the new website of the 12th international conference of editors of diplomatic documents, to be held next year in Geneva. With their usual efficiency, our Swiss colleagues have already put together a definitive collection of information about the publishing of official documents on foreign policy.

The Israel State Archives has its own series of diplomatic documents, Documents on the Foreign Policy of Israel, and seems to be the only national archives in the world which does so. In most countries, foreign ministries or academic bodies are responsible. Last year, in September 2011, the Israel State Archives hosted representatives of 20 countries, from Latvia to Japan, at the 11th international conference of editors, held at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem.


At the conference the delegates discussed the progress of their projects and the latest advances in diplomatic publishing. Naturally digitization and the rise of e-books were an important topic. Sessions were held on the 150th anniversary of the "Foreign Relations of the United States" series and "The Mediterranean Basin in Diplomacy in the 1960s and 1970s". The participants were also invited to a reception at the Bible Lands Museum and to a tour of Jerusalem, in order to give them a glimpse of the city behind the headlines. For many of them it was their first visit to Israel and, according to the feedback we received, it was indeed a special experience.

In the last few weeks, two new volumes in the FRUS series have appeared, the one on the Middle East mentioned here last month, and a volume on "Foundations of Foreign Policy, 1973-1976" which appeared this week. In these books, as in the previous one on the Yom Kippur War, discussions on Israel play a central role. The current editor of the Middle East volumes, Dr. Adam Howard, spoke at the conference on his experiences and conclusions (see his paper here). The rest of the proceedings of the conference are on the ISA website.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Zoning sub-committee for Jerusalem, October 17th 1967

Ultimately, history is the story of people and their often mundane lives. The history books like to focus on the large and the dramatic, but the fabric of the story is the everyday.

The setting up of the zoning sub-committee for East Jerusalem, which we've been following since its first meeting, was by definition an act of the ordinary superceding the extraordinary; the zoning committee rather than the cabinet ministers and the diplomats. Yet as we've also seen, the sub-committee didn't immediately begin dealing with banal zoning matters.

By its third meeting, however, on October 17th 1967, it was beginning to appear as you'd expect a zoning committee to appear. This doesn't make it any less interesting, however: now, finally, we begin to glimpse how Israeli officials went about the business of incorporating East Jerusalem into the city. Eternal capital and indivisible are political statements. Zoning is reality. The protocol of the meeting reflects a series of short discussions:

1. The Western Wall: to be discussed some other time.
2. Sami Levy has requested permission to set up a tourist center in a building in the former Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The committee wasn't convinced he owned the building, and the ministry of the treasury has proclaimed its control over the entire quarter for one year. Decision: the request will be discussed once the legal situation is clear.
3. A proposal to renovate the amphitheatre on Mount Scopus was discussed but not authorized. The road beneath it may become an artery road, but perhaps not, and this will effect the amphitheatre.
4. A request to renovate the Batei Mahse structure in the Old City was discussed but not authorized for lack of detail in the proposal. Batei Mahse was the only large structure in the former Jewish Quarter which had survived the battles of 1948 and the subsequent devastation under Jordanian rule, mostly intact. Dr. Zeev Vilnai, the historian on the committee, noted that 48 victims of the 1948 battle were buried next to the structure, and suggested there should be a plaque to explain this.
5. A proposal to shut down the road paved by the Jordanians through the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was tabled.
6. The meeting concluded with the inevitable kvetches about lack of a budget for the committee and lack of inspectors to oversee projects. In this aspect, at least, the committee was like all committees the world over since the invention of bureaucrats.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

What does ministerial responsibility mean?

Much of the media attention given to our Munich Massacre publication last week focused on the Israeli ire at Germany - justified ire, one must say. Yet a big chunk of the publication actually dealt with Israeli discomfort with its own failings, especially when it came to protecting the Olympic delegation. The feeling that the Israeli preparations had been lacking led to the creation of the Koppel Committee, which found that the Israel Security Agency (ISA) had in fact not functioned adequately.

On the 5th of October 1972 Prime Minister Golda Meir and five of her top mnisters met in her office to discuss what should be done with the Koppel report. It was a year and a day before the 6th of October 1973. And the 6th of October 1973 was a day on which Israeli history changed, and Israeli society set out on a course which was previously unforeseen, and has proved to be unstoppable ever since. The 6th of October 1973 was Yom Kippur, and the first day of the Yom Kippur War, and that war forever smashed the willingness of Israel's mainstream citizens to assume that the government knows best.

The 5th of October 1972, however, was before the Yom Kippur War, and Golda and her top ministers were blithely unaware of the future, and probably quite sincere in their rejection of the tone of the Koppel report. Yet we, the latter-day readers of the stenogram of their discussion: we are living after the Yom Kippur War, and try as we may, it's almost impossible for us to listen to their discussion without thinking about how bad the story was going to end, a year later.

Yakov Shimshon Shapira, for example, the minister of justice, called the document "strange". What were they thinking, its author's, when they implied ministerial responsibility?
I cannot imagine anyone claiming a minister is responsible for the actions of a security officer, for the simple reason that no minister has the qualifications to judge what the security officers do. I opened a court in East Jerusalem. So I called the security officer and said to him "listen fellow, we're opeing a branch in east Jerusalem, someone has to protect the judges from potential attack", and that's it. I've finished my job. I don't know how he'll go about doing his job?!
I suggest we deal with this report by preparing a summary and giving it to the cabinet ministers an hour before the next cabinet meeting. Then we'll repeat the excerise when we go to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee.
The report contains a statement which doesn't make any sense to me: "In spite of the German conception about guarding the Olymic village [or not guarding it], we should have found a way to guard our people from within the village and without conflicting with the German conception". For me, this is Greek. I don't understand it. It's either one or the other: The Germans were responsible, or they weren't. On what basis does the committee say that had we asked the Germans, they would have done things differently? [...]
In general, it's important not be wary of hindsight. I mean, it's essential that one gains experience for future use, but using hindsight to evaluate actions: that's a dangerous thing to do.
I'm not an expert, but I assume lots of thought was put into preventing the sort of thing that happened. The attempt by the committee to place responsibility on the security officers seems to me unfair.
Golda Meir:
Here's how I see it. No one ever promised never to fail. Even when we have a long period of calm, it wouldn't be serious to get up and say we'll always have calm. [...]
We've had this terrible incident with 11 murdered men. No one can say that if we'd asked the Germans to guard the area differently they might not have; and no one can say that if they had, the attack wouldn't have happened. "Would have" is a slippery concept. But the fact is that we didn't ask them. In their report the Germans say that even if they had guarded the installation the result would have been the same. So they said? So what?

So what do we do now? I promised in the Knesset that the report would be published.
Yisrael Galili: No.
Golda: No what?
Galili: Not accurate.
Golda: What's not accurate?
Galili: You said the findings would be published, not necessarily the report itself.
Golda: No matter. I'll have to make the essential findings public. That's the law.
But first, we have to assure that the ISA isn't harmed. They're doing an excellent job. True, there are failures here and there, but there are far more successes, and they don't deserve to be castigated.
Golda then went into a discussion about spheres of authority between the ISA and particular ministries, eventually moving towards the idea that the minister in charge of the ISA is responsible. She rejected the idea that
Nothing more could have been done: lots more could have been done. And somebody has to pay for important things that weren't done. The question is, how high up the ladder does the responsibility climb? In this case, it wasn't simply a matter of standard procedures. This should have reached the minister who's in charge of the agencies [the ISA... i.e, the prime minister!] A minster can inquire what's going on, or refrain from inquiring. The security officer can actively try to find out what's going on, or he can refrain from action. If  he fails, he should pay. But what are there ministers for? Not every minister needs personally to do everything in the minstry, that's ridiculous. But he must know what's going on. Certainly in matters which are this important. Therefore, if I was just an ordinary minister, I woldn't hesitate and I wouldn ask anyone. But it's bad and bitter that if I resign the entire government will fall and we'll be drawn into a political crises on this matter of 11 murdered men.
Thus far the document.

My colleague who calls herself Archivista on this blog, and who knows lots more than I about these historical events, warns me of the danger of hindsight and of reading our understanding of things into the words of people who lived in different times. She may be right. Yet I respond that it was only one single year later that the smug self satisfaction of these very same historical actors got us into much greater trouble, and perhaps these deliberations are a demonstration of how that smugness should have been recognized even then.

Navigating the Egyptian National Library

A most interesting article appeared in Al-Ahram online this past week detailing the travails of the Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy. Fahmy was researching the social and cultural history of Egypt during the 19th century and during his work, he found the Egyptian National Library most unhelpful, to say the least. He writes: "Readers’ services are unheard of, catalogs are designed to misguide and confuse readers, and staff feel offended if approached for help and advice."

We find this article intriguing for several reasons: First, Fahmy's research is fascinating, and shows what valuable material lies in the Egyptian National Library and Archives. We wonder - what exactly does the library contain, and from which periods in Egyptian history? Is is accessible to foreigners and non-Arabic speakers? Can an Israeli research in it?

Second, the hardships encountered by Fahmy in the Egyptian National Library are a problem that goes beyond any one country or nation. They reflect a conundrum which confronts both librarians and archivists: Is the reader a nuisance, a distraction from the work of preservation, or a client, deserving of the best of services?

The second half of Fahmy's article--his fascinating discovery of lost books and his tribulations with the current Egyptian authorities--is a story of its own and well-worth reading.