Global Politics

Israel's modern history sits in a Jerusalem warehouse, waiting to be declassified

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There are millions of documents in cardboard boxes in the Israel State Archives.

Credit:

Daniel Estrin

Historian Yaacov Lozowick is in charge of guarding Israel’s most sensitive documents.

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A couple of years ago, he took over as the head of Israel’s state archives. Among the millions of papers in those archives are some Israeli state secrets.

But the new state archivist is on a mission to declassify more documents than ever before.

I traveled to Jerusalem’s industrial zone, where the archives are located. It's a jumble of steakhouses and car dealerships, furniture showrooms and one large fenced-in building protecting millions of pieces of paper.

It’s where the Israeli state archives’ storage facility is located and where I met Lozowick.

The location is kept under wraps. Lozowick says that’s to protect what’s inside.

"Although it’s here, and it’s a very big building, and a lot of people have walked by it, there’s nothing to advertise what it is," Lozowick says. "It’s just a nondescript, very large, nondescript building in the middle of a corner of Jerusalem."

Inside the building are rows upon rows of paper records. Lozowick estimates there are hundreds of millions of records. "What’s in here is basically irreplaceable," he says.

Lozowick brought me to an inner chamber to check out some of the highlights of the archive.

"This is the obvious thing you’d think we’d have, but it’s cool to see it," he says pointing out the actual peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

"It’s a thick book, it's leather and gold embossed, because it’s a very special document," Lozowick says. "Here near the front page, it's signed for the government of the Arab republic, Anwar Sadat, government of Israel, Menachem Begin, [and] witnessed by Jimmy Carter."

It's a thick agreement. If anyone ever wanted to know what a peace accord looks like, this is it.

There are also pieces from the darker periods of Israeli history. Lozowick showed me the pistol that extremist Yigal Amir used to assassinate Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It's cold and almost seems fake.

"I assure you it is not fake," Lozowick says.

It's a gun that changed the course of Israeli history. But it's never been on display.

At the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, you can check out famous artifacts from modern American history — Lincoln’s top hat, Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. But there’s no Israeli equivalent where you can see iconic objects from Israel’s modern history.

It’s one thing to see a document reading about the assassination. It’s another thing to have the cold gun in your hand.

Lozowick is not fascinated by the object itself.

"It’s a gun which did a horrible deed once upon a time. But it wasn’t the gun that did it, it was the man holding it. Some people get shudders from this stuff. I don’t," he says.

What does move Lozowick are the millions of documents with untold stories from Israel’s history, documents just waiting to be dusted off for the world to see. It’s what he does best: combing through millions of pieces of data.

In 2004, as chief archivist at Israel’s Holocaust museum, he helped launch an online database of Holocaust victims’ names. It was an unprecedented project. For his new job, Lozowick has been helped by some adjustments Israel recently made in its official secrets laws.

While it lengthened the time defense related documents can be kept under wraps, it shortened the amount of time non-security related papers could be kept secret. And so Lozowick is working to declassify as much as he can.

"The motivation to do that is, we feel that the historical documentation of the state of Israel is relevant for contemporary discussions," he says. "Large percentages of what is written and said and reported about the state of Israel is inaccurate at best. A lot of the documentation that we have could have been declassified, but hasn’t been because we have this gigantic backlog."

Lozowick estimates about 30 to 40 percent of the documents at the storage facility could be declassified. That's about 150 million pages.

Already, some declassified documents are getting serious attention. Israel’s state archives recently published a secret document that revealed in 1962 the Mossad spy agency gave paramilitary training to a young Nelson Mandela. It also published documents showing Israel’s sympathy for the anti-apartheid struggle.

Some have speculated the release of those documents was aimed at softening criticism over Israel’s close ties with the apartheid regime. And when it comes to sensitive moments in Israel’s history, some researchers have charged that the Israeli archives have reclassified documents that were once declassified.

Lozowick denies that his job is damage control.

"We are not trying to conceal things," he says. "The more we can open, the better. And the consideration of it, whether it will make the state of Israel look good or not, is not a consideration. That is not relevant in a democracy."

The Israel State Archives has an English language blog showing all kinds of documents. You can read the once-top secret cabinet deliberations over the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. And you can also see former Prime Minister Golda Meir’s personal recipe for chicken soup with matzah balls.

For the record, that was never classified.

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    A file in the Israel State Archives.

    Credit:

    Daniel Estrin

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    A file regarding then-Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir.

    Credit:

    Daniel Estrin

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    Yaacov Lozowick, Israel's chief state archivist, in the archives' secret Jerusalem storage facility.

    Credit:

    Daniel Estrin

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    A memoir written by Nazi officer Adolph Eichmann, often called the architect of the Holocaust. In 1960, Israel captured Eichmann in Argentina, and brought him to be tried in Jerusalem. While Eichmann was in Israeli custody, he wrote this memoir. After being kept locked in the Israel State Archives for 40 years, Eichmann’s sons demanded it be released, and in 1999 Israel allowed German scholars access for publication. But the original is still in Israel.

    Credit:

    Daniel Estrin

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    The original document by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, ordering the establishment of the Israeli Defense Forces.

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    Daniel Estrin

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    A document, marked Top Secret, outlining Israel's then-secret plan to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

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    Daniel Estrin

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    Signatures from the original Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

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    Daniel Estrin

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    The Israel-Egypt peace treaty is a thick bound book.

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    Daniel Estrin

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    The bullet which ripped through Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated by an Israeli extremist opposed to his peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

    Credit:

    Daniel Estrin

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    Lozowick holds the gun that Yigal Amir, an Israeli extremist, used to assassinate Rabin.

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    Daniel Estrin

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    Lozowick holding an old map of Jerusalem in Israel's State Archives.

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    Daniel Estrin

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    Israel State Archives sign outside the archive's offices -- not its unmarked storage facility.

    Credit:

    Daniel Estrin