April 20, 2016 / 3:12 PM / a year ago

Censors, transparency watchdogs spar as Israeli archive goes online

Yaacov Lozowick, the director of the Israel State Archive, poses for a picture at the national archive in Jerusalem April 19, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The orderly world of archives is in tumult in Israel after an effort to enhance transparency has instead led to allegations that access to sensitive documents is being restricted.

The dispute is rooted in laws requiring online publications to be submitted for military censorship, which means that as the Israel State Archive digitizes its vast trove of documents, papers dealing with national security may undergo new redaction.

In the past, anyone could go to the archive, request documents and view them in its reading room. Now the reading room’s operations are being cut, and those same documents could in theory appear online with content scrubbed by the censors.

“I‘m all for digitization, but the way it has been handled here raises serious questions of propriety,” said Lior Yavne of the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, which, backed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, has demanded reassurances that the reading room will stay open.

With the archive technically under the authority of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a conservative lay historian with a less than positive view of the media, scholars whose business it is to delve into Israel’s past feel they have reason to fret.

For the director of the archive, Yaacov Lozowick, the controversy is an unwelcome distraction from plans to scan and upload 400 million documents, a task expected to take 25 years.

He says the archive’s website is already active and that any document not yet there can be custom-ordered by users and brought online within two weeks.

The reading room - a space that seats around 50 people in a Jerusalem office tower where the archive is housed - is not shutting down entirely, Lozowick says. But users who could previously summon files at short notice for viewing will no longer be able to do so with such ease, he said, citing staff shortages due to the need to digitize 100,000 documents daily.

OVERSIGHT

“We had to free up workers to do this other job. Meanwhile, we are not closing the room,” Lozowick said. “We have no intention whatsoever of using this new stage to hide information that the public should be able to see - categorically not.”

But he acknowledges that the involvement of the censors has put a wrinkle in the process by adding an extra level of scrutiny to national security documents that make up around 5 percent of the archive - despite the fact that they already underwent internal declassification.

While deeming the chance of the censors finding something new to redact as “very small”, Lozowick said the backlog of files they have had to deal with since the mass-digitization began this year has meant potential hold-ups. Another official briefed on the process predicted that “less than one percent” of material already declassified will be newly censored.

That has not assuaged transparency campaigners like Yael Berda, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem sociology professor.

“Any shift from paper to digital format carries the risk of files disappearing - though I am not accusing anyone of wanting this,” she said. “What I am saying is that we need stronger guarantees that paper originals will remain publicly available.”

As the former chief archivist for Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Lozowick came to believe that the main threat to original materials was from unprincipled browsers tearing or writing on documents or putting them back out of place.

“There are things in the archive that some people would like to keep away from the public eye, believe me. But we will publish everything in due course, as required by law, and in the interim everything will be kept safe,” he said.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

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