Nostalgia Sunday – Archives to Arad?

January 22, 2012 - 11:07 PM by

Machinations are afoot that could affect historical research in Israel. Last week, employees of the State of Israel National Archives announced a labor dispute between them and management over the privatization of the State Archive’s storage facilities.

At issue: a 2006 decision to transfer the contents of the Archive’s warehouses from Jerusalem to Arad, to storage facilities managed and operated by a private contractor under the BOT (build-operate-transfer) model. The installations are due to be begin operations in 2017.

As reported on Friday by Megafon News, (a new independent worker-owned online Hebrew-language publication): “In addition to the protest measures taken by the archivists, Tel Aviv University researcher Maya Mark [has] published an online petition against the move, that has already been signed by more than 700 people.” Actually, at this point there are over 1,400 signatures. Israelity readers are welcome to add theirs but please read to the end before signing it, as there are two sides to this story.

“The petition lodges serious complaints against the State, the Ministry of Finance and the State Archive’s management who are responsible for the privatization initiative… Mark claims that ‘such a move is in contrast to the state’s obligations to maintain responsibility for the spiritual and cultural treasures that are important to its citizens’”.

The petition also claims that transferring the materials to Arad comes in direct conflict with the Archive’s central main mission: to make the materials accessible and available in the public domain. Mark: “After the transfer to Arad is complete, any research request will require transporting materials a long way from Arad to Jerusalem and back. Researchers will have to wait a whole day and even more to get service, “says Mark.

The petition also raises concerns that warehouse privatization is only the first stage of a larger program to fully privatize the State Archive. “Such a move would turn the archive employees into contract workers and significantly worsen their employment conditions… Says Mark,’If this trend persists, soon the National Archives of the State of Israel and all the enormously valuable materials that within it, will be mostly in private hands.”

Megafon News’ report continues: “But it seems that the most disturbing of Mark’s claims is that the privatization process will severely damage the privacy of citizens with the dangerous exposure of archival material containing sensitive, classified information. Mark claims that the State’s initiative could lead to ‘a situation in which the most sensitive material with high levels of confidentiality, such as minutes of government meetings and personal information about citizens, will be in private hands”.

Megafon News’ reporter Maayan Dagan obtained a response from Deputy State Archivist Ruth Abramowitz, who said, “A 2006 government decision determined that the State Archive warehouses would be moved to Arad. Other Archive units and employees will remain in Jerusalem.

“‘The choice of Arad was born out of a collaboration with the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee which seeks to strengthen the outlying areas. Arad decided to establish a storage facility for historical material and facility for temporary material, as opposed to the current practice. At present, temporary material not intended for permanent safekeeping is stored in warehouses belonging to and managed by private individuals at a cost of more than NIS 10 million per year, all without the Archives’ supervision and without having to meet the Archives professional standards”.

Abramowitz also said that “to date, the State of Israel had not built a facility for maintaining its historical material, even though preserving this material is stipulated in the 1955 Archives Law.” She further noted that the present warehouses were full to overflowing and, for the past decade, unable to receive additional historical materials.

Abramowitz: “The state chose the BOT method so that the private concessionaire would build the facilities and operate them for 15 years, according to the requirements listed, and at the end of the period transfer the facilities to the State.”

Abramowitz clarified that the Archives are not being privatized. “The facility is – and will remain forever – state-owned with operations alone conducted on its behalf by a private franchisee. I mean, this is not privatization. The government remains in ownership, holding all supervision and control, and reserves the right, at all times, to terminate the contract should the agreement be violated.”

As for the matter of employment, Abramowitz said that a small number of workers would be transferred to other public service positions, without compromising their tenure, conditions or wages.

Abramowitz did not relate to the petitioners claims that sensitive information and private information such as medical, psychiatric, social welfare records, adoption records, etc. could be made public. Nor did she relate to claims that the roads between Jerusalem and Arad are unsafe and undeveloped. (Personally, as one who braves the Jerusalem potholes on a daily basis, I think that last one is a stretching things a bit).

Storing our national archive isn’t a matter of immediate survival but the preservation of a national record is critical to our long-term collective memory. As the petition points out, the State is obliged to maintain its spiritual and cultural treasures and make them available to the public. The State Archive has made good use of the Internet in uploading a large number of movies to its YouTube channel but the online archive is less satisfactory, as the website presents only fraction of the Archive’s database.

The Archive promises that it “will continue to update and expand the database over time, and will eventually be able to display all unrestricted information to users”. That should come sooner, rather than later. As one weary commenter posted at the end of the Megafon article, “Isn’t it about time to scan and upload it all?”

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