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Shaking Up Israel’s National Archives

A conversation with Israel’s new chief archivist

Yair Rosenberg
June 28, 2012
Yaacov Lozowick wants an archive for people, not just academics. (Flickr)
Yaacov Lozowick wants an archive for people, not just academics. (Flickr)

Today, Israel’s national archives posted a video of a 1935 soccer match in Tel Aviv, and you should care, even if you—like your humble guestblogger—have absolutely no interest in the sport. That’s because the video and the historical explanation that accompanies it mark the debut of the Israeli archives’ official English-language blog and the historic opening of its treasure trove of images, documents, and film to the broader public.

The state archives are home to everything from top-secret government deliberations to countless cultural artifacts to, apparently, footage of pre-state soccer matches. All this and more will soon become daily Internet fodder, as the blog begins releasing much of this hitherto inaccessible information online.

To find out more about these developments, I corresponded with Israel’s Chief Archivist, Yaacov Lozowick. A historian by training, Lozowick previously directed the archives of Yad Vashem for over a decade, while also maintaining a popular blog devoted to Israeli culture, politics, and Judaism. (He also ran a startup which specialized, fittingly, in gathering hard-to-find information for clients.) A year ago, he announced that he would be shuttering his blog to take up the position of chief archivist. Almost as an afterthought, he mused that the position would enable him to get a good sense of “what Israel’s various archives have, and what stories they tell. Perhaps, if I find the time, I’ll set up a blog that reports on interesting documents from our many archives. Perhaps.” Fast-forward to today and that musing has become a reality.

An Archive for People, Not Just Academics

So, why is Lozowick so committed to opening the archives to the public? Why do their contents matter to nonscholars? “The mission of the archives is to transfer the documentation of the government to the possession of the governed,” he explains. “Since much of the content is both fascinating and relevant to most aspects of society’s life, enabling the citizens to have free and easy access to their documentation—within the obvious constraints—will enrich the public discourse and strengthen Israeli democracy.”

For Lozowick, working at Yad Vashem—an institution whose materials are of great interest to nonscholars as well—taught him how to run an archive that engaged the general public and not just academic specialists by making use of the latest technology. At Yad Vashem, Lozowick spearheaded the creation of the online Shoah victims database, a multilingual search tool which combines Yad Vashem’s list of victims with biographical details and now Google Maps integration. Lozowick’s efforts to bring the Israeli archives to the Internet are part of a similar forward-looking program. “My sole interest in taking the job,” he recalls telling the job search team, was “to seriously shake things up.”

Shaking Up the National Archives

This past March, the Israeli Cabinet adopted an 8-year plan to reform the way the state processes its official documentation. It’s an ambitious agenda. To start with, says Lozowick, “we’ll need to scan many millions of pages of important historical documentation from previous decades, which will otherwise not be accessible on digital platforms.” He estimates that there are over 100 million such pages that need to be scanned.

But making documents digital is only half the battle. There’s also the matter of “salvaging digital documentation from ministry servers which have been accumulating files for years in no recognizable coherence.” Because Israel did not have a procedure for archiving digital documentation—and still doesn’t—important materials (including some related to the peace process) have been accumulating for over a decade without anyone knowing what exactly they contain, whether those contents are classified, and when they should be declassified.

To ensure that future digital documentation does not fall into a similar informational black hole, Lozowick and the archives are working on crafting an official procedure for properly sorting and classifying the materials of all government agencies. This is harder than it sounds, because there is no actual list of what every government agency in Israel does. And so, says Lozowick, the National Archives is currently making one—no small task, given that “we estimate the various levels of officialdom fulfill some 100,000 functions.” But once the database is complete, the archives will be able to archive, classify, and declassify materials quickly and efficiently.

Entering the Public Discourse

In a sense, all of this is merely a prelude to Lozowick’s larger goal for the archives: “to create user-friendly digital access to the material, and insert it into the public sphere and public discourse.” The archives’ new English blog is one example. Another is the recent declassification and release of the top-secret Israeli cabinet deliberations of June 18-19, 1967.

Lozowick explains this document’s significance: “It was a week after the Six Day War, and the ministers were collectively scratching their heads wondering what to do with the territories Israel had suddenly acquired,” he says. “It has been known for many years that the decision was to try to trade the territories for peace; now, however, the general public for the first time can see the transcript itself of what was at the time a top secret discussion.” (You can view the Hebrew document here, and Lozowick’s own English summary here.)

Lozowick intends this declassified transcript to be a portent of things to come. “At the moment we’re publishing such documents every week or two.” But with the launch of the blog, he says, he hopes soon to “publish stuff daily.” Which means if you’re an interested student of Israel, its people, its history, or its politics, you probably want to set up a bookmark here.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.