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Guide to Israeli Archives
That Israel today has a well developed system of governmental and public archives is due mainly to German Jews who immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s. They brought with them the education and experience essential to establish and run archives, institutions which previously were completely unknown in Palestine. Furthermore, they passed on their skills to the next generation of archivists, itself mainly comprised of German Jews. Thus was a solid base for the archival profession established. Today, most Israeli senior archivists, although hardly of German origin themselves, were taught and instructed by the former generation of German born archivists, so that this tradition still has a remarkable influence on the archival profession in Israel.
A survey of Israeli archives should, naturally, begin with the Israel State Archives (ISA), which operates within the framework of the Prime Minister's Office. Israel's main governmental archival agency, it was established in 1949 by Sophie Udin, an American librarian, then on a prolonged visit to Israel. Its holdings include, first of all, records of the Israeli government, among the most important of which are the files of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1948 on. It should be mentioned here that the most important documents pertaining to the history of Israeli diplomatic relations are being published as an ongoing project by the ISA. So far eight volumes, covering the years 1948-1953 and 1960 have appeared. Another very important series of documents kept at the ISA are the minutes of the Cabinet sessions. They are usually closed for 50 years, but recently the 1948-1955 volumes were released to the public with some omissions.
Apart from serving as an archival repository for the government agencies, the ISA is also responsible for keeping records of former Ottoman and British authorities in Palestine, foreign representations and various other non-Jewish organizations. Unfortunately, only some 24 linear meters of records of the Ottoman administration found their way to the ISA. They are mainly "Nefus" ledgers which are registers of births and deaths from various places in Palestine from the years 1884-1917. Records from the British mandate period are much more copious and include such important holdings as the High Commissioner and Chief Secretary's Office, Land Registration and Land Settlement Offices and the Migration Department. To supplement the material from this period, much of which was lost during the British withdrawal from Palestine in 1948, some holdings of the British government kept in the Public Record Office in London were microfilmed by the ISA and put at the disposal of researchers.
The most important of the foreign diplomatic archives kept in the ISA is that of the German consulates in Palestine. Containing some 50 linear meters of material, these archives, dating from the years 1842-1939, are of great importance to the history of Palestine in general and of the Jewish and German communities there in particular.
Another governmental archives which acts as a branch of the ISA is the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and Defence Establishment Archives. This archives, established upon the instructions of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion during the 1948 War, is in charge of the records of the Armed Forces and of the Ministry of Defence. Under Israel's Archival Law, records of the military establishment are to remain closed for 50 years but in order to meet the special interest in records of the early period of statehood generated by celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the State, a special committee was convened to declassify records from the 1948 War and some of them have already been made accessible to researchers. The IDF Archives administrates a separate Haganah Archives where records of the pre-State military organization the "Haganah" are kept along with material pertaining to other Jewish military units in Palestine and Jewish military topics worldwide.
Another type of archives which is closely connected to the ISA are the municipal archives. The three major cities in Israel (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa) and some others have their own historical archives and this is true also of the towns which developed out of former colonies of the First Aliyah period where historical awareness is much greater than in other places in Israel.
The second major category of archives in Israel, after the governmental archives, are public archives. These are non-governmental archival agencies belonging to public institutions and recognized by the Archival Law. Although financially and administratively dependent on their mother institutions, they are, at least according to the Law, under the professional supervision of the State Archivist and have to submit to some regulations. These include a duty to submit annual reports to the State Archivist, to maintain an access policy which is similar to the one exisiting at the ISA and to take proper care of their holdings.
The oldest, the biggest and the most important of the public archives is the Central Zionist Archives (CZA) in Jerusalem. Established in 1919 in Berlin, then the seat of the Zionist Executive, and transferred to Jerusalem in 1933, the CZA is the historical archives of the Zionist movement. Its basic collections include archives of various offices and departments of the World Zionist Organization (beginning with the office established by Theodor Herzl in Vienna in 1897), the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayesod. More recently the CZA also became the archival repository for the World Jewish Congress and much of the Congress archival material has already been added to its holdings.
With the Archives' transfer to Jerusalem the scope of its activities expanded considerably as it also undertook to be the historical archives for the institutions of Palestine Jewry. It was also during the 30s' that systematic collection began of the personal archives of prominent figures of the Zionist movement and of the Palestinian Jewish community. The most important of these is, of course, the Herzl Archives transferred to the CZA from Vienna in 1937. The importance of personal archives became specially evident after WWII, as most of the archival material of the Zionist federations and organizations in continental Europe was lost. It was often only in personal archives of Zionist activists that some substitute for the lost material could be found.
Apart from some 7,000 meters of archival material, the CZA also houses a large collection of photographs, a specialized library and a unique collection of Israeli and Zionist ephemera. Affiliated to the CZA is the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive located in the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University. This archives, which is administered jointly by the CZA and the Hebrew University, is a major repository for Jewish documentary films.
Another major public archives is the Labour Archives in Tel Aviv, which should not be confused with the Archives of the Israel Labour Party at the Beth Berl. The Labour Archives are, first of all, the historical archives of the General Federation of Labour in Israel. It should be mentioned here that the scope of activities of the General Federation of Labour has always been much wider than is usual for similar establishments in other countries. This explains the importance of the Labour Archives' holdings which reflect the history of the Jewish community in Palestine and Israel. They are, furthermore, irreplaceable for researchers interested in the history of medicine and health services in the country. Furthermore, until the establishment of the State of Israel, the Labour Archives used to serve as an archival repository for the Mapai Party (today the Labour Party of Israel) and its predecessors, the Poalei Zion Party and the Hapoel Hazair Party. Although the Labour Party no longer deposits its archival material in the Labour Archives (it has, as already mentioned, its own historical archives), other left wing political parties in Israel keep doing so, so that the Labour Archives is still much more than its name would suggest. The Labour Archives also has a large collection of personal papers of leading figures of the General Federation of Labour and the left wing Israeli parties. In this context one should also mention the archives of the right wing Likud Party and its predecessors: the Union of Zionist Revisionists and the New Zionist Organization, the Herut Party and Gahal. All these, as well as personal archives of the activists, are kept at the Jabotinsky Institute in Israel, in Tel Aviv.
I would like now to proceed to two quite exeptional archival institutions in Israel: the Yad Vashem Archives and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. They are unique because, unlike other archives described so far, they are not a part of a larger administrative entity for which they serve as archives, but are independent archival agencies which collect archival material on defined subjects. This explains the fact that much of their holdings is in microform while the original material is, in most cases, kept by other archives all over the world.
The Yad Vashem Archives collects, of course, material on the Holocaust period. The nuclei are the archives of the Jewish historical commissions established in Germany and in Nazi-occupied countries shortly after their liberation. Later on entire collections of archival documents from different foreign archives were microfilmed and added to the Yad Vashem Archives' holdings as well as a collection of oral testimonies recorded directly from Holocaust survivors.Today the Yad Vashem Archives are, more than any other archives in Israel, involved in locating and copying archival material kept in archives in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe in general.
The mandate of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP), to which we turn now, is to collect archival material of or on Jewish communities and organizations all over the world. To this end the CAHJP collects original material, microfilms relevant material kept in foreign archives and carries out systematic surveys of records concerning Jews in state and communal archives outside of Israel. The archives collected are classified into territorial departments so that finding material of, let's say, Polish origin is quite easy. Inside the departments one finds registers, ledgers of different kind and other material. Of exeptional importance and quantity are the archives of the Vienna Jewish Community which include some 450 linear meters of original archival material. The CAHJP also serves as a repository for various international Jewish organizations, the most important of which are the very large Jewish Colonization Association archives.
Much smaller, although similar in character, is the Department of Manuscripts and Archives of the Jewish National and University Library which specializes in collecting archives of Jewish intellectuals (including, inter alia, the vast archives the well known Zionist thinker Ahad Ha'am) and Gnazim, where one can find archives of many Jewish and Israeli writers.
Following the example set by the American Presidential Libraries, there also are in Israel at least two institutions of this kind: The Weizmann Archives in Rehovot form part of a much bigger complex of the Weizmann Institute founded by this famous political leader and scientist in 1934. The Ben Gurion Archives are located at a special campus at Sde Boker in the Negev desert which was so close to his heart. In addition the archives of the late Prime Ministers of Israel, Menachem Begin and Itzhak Rabin, will be established in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv respectively as parts of much bigger research and commemorative centers.
Copyright © 1999; Historical and Genealogical Research in Israel. All rights reserved.