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Finding Palestine in Israeli Archives

RoundTable V-2, sponsored byPalestinian American Research Center, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

RoundTable Description
Palestinian historian Saleh Abd al-Jawad has argued that as part of the depopulation of Arab Palestine in 1948, “Israelis destroyed or confiscated all public libraries, printing presses, and publishing houses, the land registry, the archives of municipal councils, hospitals, schools, and cultural centers” in addition to the erasure of “private libraries, family papers, and personal diaries of intellectuals.” While countless destroyed records are lost, much of the looted Palestinian cultural heritage remains inaccessible in Israeli archives, including those of the Shin Bet, the military archives, and state archives. In recent decades, a small subset of these materials has been made available to scholars. These declassified sources joined with materials produced by the Palestinian minority within Israel, and sources in previously unused Zionist archives resulted in new and innovative studies of pre- and post-1948 Arab Palestine. This roundtable will discuss both the theoretical implications of the destruction and looting of Palestinian archival heritage and the continued withholding of the materials from the public eye and the practical matters of what is currently available to scholars, where it is located, and how to access it. Participants will discuss ways in which they circumvent erasure by using different Israeli archives to uncover Palestinian history and find alternative sources and modes of analysis to produce novel historical writing about Palestine. Participants will address the ways in which they find and use sources in state archives, Zionist movement archives, archives of international organizations and Zionist organizations based abroad, local archives in kibbutzim, moshavot, moshavim and regional and municipal council archives, personal archives, consular records, laws, minutes, and proceedings from the Knesset and the different ministries. In addition, non-written sources, such as oral histories (with Palestinian and non-Palestinian interlocuters), the landscape, and the built environment, as well as video and audio recordings, photographs, maps, films, and more. These new sources and novel methods of reading and analysis make it possible to better map the changes in social, cultural, economic, legal, and environmental conditions of Palestine and the Palestinian people through loss, erasure, and censorship. We aim to highlight indigenous persistence and resistance in hegemonic archives of the settler state and to emphasize that no act of erasure can ever be complete.
  • Israeli accumulation of capital cannot be understood without a detailed examination of the decades-long extraction of value (made up of labor, assets, markets, etc.) from Palestinians. Palestinian society before 1948 was a very important source of wealth and resources, which became vital for Israeli survival and nation-building during and after the war. In my work, I found out that among the many kinds of valuable possessions, the IDF and Israeli ministries and agencies looted crops, machines, raw materials, and even skills and knowledge. Entire factories were taken and repurposed to establish Israeli economic ventures. Some of these businesses relied heavily on the labor of Palestinians who remained in what became Israel and were placed under military rule for the first eighteen years of its existence. The military government apparatus and its restriction of the Palestinian movement facilitated the expropriation which continued long after the Nakba and war. Uncovering these dynamics of plunder, appropriation, and repurposing requires us to read Israeli documents against the grain to find traces of Palestinian wealth. In addition to oral history interviews with Palestinians, I use Israeli local (moshavot, kibbutzim, regional councils) and national archives, as well as other sources for economic history, including the Registrar of Companies office at the Ministry of Justice (now part of the Corporations Authority), minutes from Knesset committees and assemblies, and interviews with officials from the Ministry of Agriculture. These are helpful not only in assessing Israeli policies and needs during and after the war but also in the loot extracted from Palestinians whether they remained or left. These findings challenge Zionist Israeli historiography, which claims that the Jewish state was self-reliant and that the post-1948 financial crisis and austerity policy in Israel stemmed from a large influx of immigrants and the effort to provide them with houses, jobs, and social services. This same historiography claims that Israel overcame that crisis because of the idealistic commitment of its people and leaders to Zionism, when in fact it only overcame it once its legal vehicles for expropriation were finalized, and the extraction value from Palestinians was cemented.
  • The erasure and invisibility of Palestinian labor and knowledge in the realization of the Zionist project in Palestine/Israel before and after 1948 is, if anything, an unsurprising phenomenon. Viewed from the dominant Israeli perspective, Zionist and later Israeli dependence on Palestinian work and knowhow undermine several of the country’s foundational myths: from the ideologies of “Hebrew labor” and “building the land,” to Zionist settlement’s distinction as a self-sufficient national movement rather than a colonial enterprise dependent on the exploitation of indigenous labor. From the Palestinian perspective, Palestinians’ participation in the making of Israel, borne of deeply unequal dependence and little choice, has at times, especially since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, been regarded as an example of self(ish)-preservation trumping the Palestinian cause. And yet, given the extent of the Palestinian role in materializing the Zionist settler project, this erasure is a remarkable feat. In a state whose nationalist narrative relies so profoundly on recounting concrete and abstract processes of building, those most responsible for the actual work of construction are all but missing from the story. My research seeks to make visible the Palestinian role in transforming Palestine/Israel’s built environment during the twentieth century, from capitalist entrepreneurs who sought to challenge the Jewish monopoly on cement production, to workers and their families who built Israel’s architectural milestones, while also rebuilding their own communities in the aftermath of the Nakba. Whereas the Israeli sources often say little beyond employment statistics, doing so has required use of the mandate-era Palestinian records of private firms, individuals, and chambers of commerce seized by Israeli archives; conducting oral history interviews with workers, organizers, contractors, and their families; surveying the publications of contracting firms, trade unions, and work safety professionals; and examining Palestinian and Israeli cultural production extensively for works – from literary and poetic masterpieces, through forgotten docudramas and popular music, to box office slapstick – which call attention to the social, cultural, and political significances of Palestinian labor. It has also entailed looking further afield, outside Israel/Palestine. Rarely consulted sources such as the collections of Anglo-American Zionist enterprises like the Palestine Economic Corporation; the reports of British Labor Attaches during and after the 1948 war in the British National Archives; or the appeals of Palestinian citizens in Israel to the US government to protect access to the stone quarries which sustained their communities after the Nakba, proved invaluable.
  • In a casual conversation about my first research project over a decade ago, a veteran Israeli-Jewish “Arabist” who became a historian had confided in me that in the 1960s, when he studied Arabic to become an intelligence officer, the practice texts he and his friends used were private letters of Palestinian youth from a boarding school that was looted as part of the 1948 War. Those letters, he claimed, as well as countless other documents from public institutions and private individuals of pre-1948 Arab Palestine, have ended up in Israeli libraries and archives, primarily those of the Israeli domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, and the Israel Defense Forces. My work since has largely confirmed the words of the Arabist-turned-historian, and I came to believe that significant parts of the Palestinian archive were indeed subsumed into Israeli official archives. I also learned that gaining access to those documents was, and remains, challenging, and sometimes contingent on one’s ethnicity, citizenship, and legal status. But it is not impossible, as recent work of scholars and activists has shown, and the perspectives it offers can help write innovative studies of pre- and post- 1948 Arab Palestine. My presentation will explore the scope of the collections pertaining to Arab Palestine that are available in Israeli archives and how scholars can gain access to those collections and find new ones on their own. The presentation will also explore Israel’s existing legal framework and how it can be used to challenge governmental decisions to continue concealing these sources. Recent litigation in Israel’s Supreme Court (in which this panelist was involved) has largely failed in cracking the cloak of secrecy of the Shin Bet Archives. Nevertheless, the court’s decision rejected the Shin Bet’s legal argument that they are not subject to Israel’s declassification laws. Israel prides itself on operating a professional system of archives, based on a German model and liberal declassification laws. As long as these principles—if only rhetorically—continue to drive the state’s actions it will prove very difficult, if not impossible, to expunge Arab Palestine from Israeli archives. Specifically, with looted Arabic-language documents, the state’s difficulty to claim that concealing these documents is imperative for national security may serve as an opening for scholars.
  • What does it mean to search for the history of the disappeared from the archives of the primary architect and beneficiary of that disappearance? This contribution will consider the analytical and methodological challenges for the retrieval of Palestinian history from the Israeli archives - state and non-state collections alike. How have these archival retrievals worked to enrich histories? Are there Palestinian histories it impoverished, or questions it cordoned off? What does the Israeli archive do for Palestinian (and Palestine) historiography and historians? Can we think of a history of Palestine without an Israeli archive - even when that archive’s material is dispossessed Palestinian materials? What constitutes Palestinian archival practices? What ethical obligations do archival work in Israel’s archive incur? Thinking alongside fellow contributors, and mobilising interventions on archives and archival practices, I will consider the conceptual, methodological, and political stakes in the writing of modern Palestine through Israel’s (for now) collections.