Friday, April 22, 2016

Correspondence with MESA about freedom of research at the ISA

Our new website is up. Our initial intention was to go online without trumpeting the fact, and tinker with things for a while. Later this year, perhaps at the end of the summer, we'll make a real effort to tell folks we've arrived, but not yet; at the moment we're still disembarking from the plane, so to speak, and have not fully arrived. Sadly, our critics didn't wait, and launched a campaign to decry parts of our efforts without waiting to see if perhaps the trade-offs we've decided upon might actually be a good idea. So in addition to the challenges of launching the website and operating it correctly, we had to spend a bit of time this week fending off the critics.

The most comprehensive online English-language criticism came from the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), who  sent us a stern admonition about how we are about to destroy academic freedom in Israel, or something like that.

Once we had ascertained that MESA would post our response alongside their letter, we took advantage of the opportunity to write about the set of reforms currently underway at the ISA. Here it is in full:

April 21, 2016
Prof. Beth Baron,
MESA President, City University of New York
Prof. Amy W. Newhall,
Mesa Executive Director, University of Arizona
Dear Colleagues,
Had you taken time to learn more about the activities of the Israel State Archives (ISA) before publishing your letter of April 19th 2016, you would have avoided a number of significant inaccuracies as well as some minor ones such as our address and the spelling of my name.
The ISA is in its fourth year of an ambitious 17-year program to put its entire collections online in a free and unfettered form. The program includes high-quality scanning of the entire collections (36 million scanned pages so far); creating a new layer of knowledge management and applying it as an advanced catalogue system; utilization of technological progress such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR), Business Intelligence (BI) and crowdsourcing, to name some of the more obvious tools. The cataloging staff of the archives is scheduled to multiply more than tenfold, and our budget has been dramatically expanded. This is happening because the Cabinet itself, no less, decided that the existing state of the archives was unsatisfactory and the citizenry of our democracy deserved better access to the documentation of its government; it was the Prime Minster and his colleagues who gave us our new marching orders.
The jewel in the crown will be a tri-lingual website (Hebrew-Arabic-English) where everything will be easily accessible with the help of an embedded version of Google's search engine. A working draft of the website has been online for months, and has been used by many researchers.  As a matter of project management we recently decided that we needed to move from the laboratory to the real world, fully cognizant that this move would initially encounter significant wrinkles which can be discovered and ironed only by being in the real world. I am confident this initial version will be stable and fully operable within a few weeks; more advanced versions will go up in the coming months; we have a budget item for the continual improvement of the website all the way to the end of 2029.
Within a year the ISA website will be one of the most advanced archival websites in the world. The documentation will enjoy all the many advantages that digital data has over paper: flexibility, mobility and portability, replicability, and searchability, to mention but a few. Users will be able to arrange the documents into files of their own. Academics will be able to use high-quality versions of original documents in teaching and collaboration. Most transforming, to my mind, will be the ability to link the documents themselves into academic publications. Instead of footnotes, electronic versions of publications will give direct access to the documentation itself; paper versions will indicate where readers can find the documents on their iPads.

The reading room at the ISA remains open, and researchers with compelling need to see paper files will do so. We will encourage them not to, however. As a matter of principle because the online access will be better; as a matter of preservation, as experience shows that paper files are often harmed by users, inadvertently or otherwise; and as a matter of logistics. One of the most significant aspects of the new website relates to the gap between some one million records in the online catalogue and the first 80,000 scanned files. Whenever a researcher needs a file which is not yet online, we will process it and put it there within about two weeks, free of charge. Even now, with the website still in its infancy, we are receiving orders for more files than before, and the staff in the storage facility cannot deal simultaneously with three tasks (systematic scanning, ad-hoc scanning and delivery of paper files). 
Your fear regarding the censor is highly exaggerated. First, because ca. 95% of the collection will never be submitted to the censor. Second, because the remainder undergoes security declassification anyway, just as in the United States and all other democracies world-wide; the declassifiers and the censors generally agree with each other. Third, because the remit of the censor is strictly limited to a small number of topics, most of which are rarely the object of academic research in the first place. Fourth, because decisions of the censor are subject, legally and in practice, to the scrutiny of the High Court of Justice. And fifth, because the ISA is scrupulous in indicating each and every case where information has been redacted. Researchers who object to specific decisions of redacting can, and do, request remedy first from me, then from the courts.
It's not a perfect world, and the conditions in Israel's archives are far from perfect as well. Yet we are making dramatic improvements in the services we offer, and are rapidly approaching an unparalleled level of openness. We are promoting academic freedom, not violating it. By throwing open the archives to innovative uses and new segments of the public we hope to encourage new research and new researchers.
Precisely the opposite of your fears.
As agreed upon with Ms. Sara L. Palmer of the University of Arizona, I request you publish this response at any venue in which you published your letter of April 19th.
Dr. Yaacov Lozowick
Archivist of the State of Israel

Thursday, April 14, 2016

"Graven Images" in Jerusalem? The Story of the Menorah near the Knesset, a Gift from the British Friends of Israel

The menorah near the Knesset building in Givat Ram.
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office, 2005

At the beginning of the 1950s, relations between Israel and Britain, the former mandatory power in Palestine, were still cool.  Lord Edwin Samuel, the son of Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner for Palestine, and MP Clement Davies, leader of the Liberal party, decided to sponsor a project to produce a bronze menorah as a gift from the friends of Israel in Britain to the Knesset, Israel's parliament. 

Benno Elkan with the model of the menorah in his London studio.
Photograph: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikimedia
Some 400 MPs and other public figures and organizations donated £20,000 to finance the work of sculptor Benno Elkan, a Jewish refugee from Germany.

On 15 April 1956, at the start of Israel's eighth Independence Day, the menorah was unveiled  at a ceremony in downtown Jerusalem, near the building of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Knesset speaker Joseph Sprinzak received the gift, which stood four metres high and was decorated with scenes from Jewish history from the days of the patriarchs until the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. British Ambassador Sir John Nicholls and Clement Davies also took part in the ceremony. Today, 60 years later, we present photographs of the menorah from the ISA's recently digitized collection of photographs by Yehuda Eisenstark. We also show documents from the collection of Chief Rabbi Isaac Yitzhak Halevy Herzog, reflecting the controversy in religious circles over the gift.
This video clip shows a newsreel on the unveiling and other events of Independence Day in 1956

The menorah was placed in a small park near the Knesset building, Beit Frumin. On 10 May 1956 Yehuda Eisenstark (1912-2005) who studied photography and journalism in his home town of  Lvov in East Galicia and came to Palestine in 1939, took these views of the menorah.

Like the menorah symbol of the state, the Knesset menorah was designed to symbolize the restoration of Jewish sovereignty, in contrast to the captured Temple menorah on the Arch of Titus in Rome. From the beginning of the project religious circles expressed reservations for two reasons: the prohibition on making a seven branched candelabrum like that used in the Temple, and the fear that the design would include human figures, because of the prohibition on worshipping graven images. Eventually it was decided to seek an opinion from Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog, and the papers of Rabbi Herzog held in the ISA include an article which he published on the subject in the halachic journal "Sinai". 

Herzog decided that the menorah was permissible under certain conditions, and his brother-in-law David Hillman, a London-based artist, spoke to Elkan to make sure that these conditions were met. They included making sure that the figures on the menorah were in bas relief and not free standing, and that all of them were suitably clothed. The menorah would not include any container for oil, to make clear that it was not intended for use (File P4243/4) .

In the event, the unveiling of the menorah was not accompanied by any public protests. In 1966 it was moved to its present site near the new Knesset building in Givat Ram. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A new website with free birth-pangs

Our new website went online this week. And straightaway it didn't crash. But it does have some mighty creaks. We thought we'd put nine million pages online (that's 9,000,000). Turns out some four million have been displaced. We thought readers interested in a file which has yet to be scanned could simply click on a form and order it - well the blue button doesn't work. We were pretty convinced we knew how to update data in a hurry... yes, but the term "hurry" may need a bit of modification. And so on.

It pains us to say this, but not that long ago the rich and tech-savvy government of the United States launched a snazzy new website for heath insurance matters, and then spent three months fixing it in the full glare of world attention. At this stage, we still think we'll need days or two weeks, not months.

Of course, even once the website is stable it will be far form complete. We even put up a list of things we intend to improve over the coming months or a year. Getting this far has required collaboration of about 200 people at the archives and in a series of supporting technology firms; no-one's going home yet and we're all still working.

A local paper reported today that we're fumbling; this was then magnified by twitter and other channels. The report made two points. First, it told of a group of historians who are convinced that the need to work with scanned documents will seriously hamper their ability to ply their trade. We beg to disagree. The idea that archives, unlike all other parts of the modern world, must remain rooted in analog modes of communication and information processing, is an idea we don't accept; we also suggest that our users be patient with us for those two weeks and then pile onto us and see what happens. Who knows? Maybe we'll prove that it can be done, the migration to the 21st century.

The second complaint was that the ISA has suddenly subordinated itself to the censor, who will block lots of interesting information the public would like to see. This stems from a misunderstanding of our legal and also logistic situation.

Whether it's a good thing that Israel has a censor or not, is not a question for the archives to answer. The reality is that there is such an institution. Its writ does not reach more than 90% of what's in the archives; it does reach a small percentage which deals with information about some security issues. On those issues, the archives has been cooperating with the censor for years, because that's the law. What has abruptly changed is the size of the issue; by putting millions of pages online all at once, the number of files the censor needs to look at, by law, has also skyrocketed. Yet this is a one-off event. Once the censor works through the backlog, we'll go back to the previous mode of operation, which wasn't a problem then, and shouldn't be a problem now.