There’s an op-ed in Haaretz by Emanuele Ottolenghi entitled “Let truth spring forth,” where Arab democrats are called upon to “begin the process of dispelling myths by lifting censorship and opening their state archives.” Ottolenghi—a right-wing think tank type I hadn’t heard of before—argues that
Hoping to deflect criticism, for decades, [Arab regimes] fed lies and distortions to their public, demonizing enemies – Israel, in particular – in order to hide their failures and avoid taking responsibility.
The Arab Spring now offers a chance to set the record straight. Insofar as the upheavals now shaking the Middle East and North Africa are genuinely democratic revolutions, they can illuminate a dark past. Arab governments had no interest in opening their archives to public scrutiny even to sympathetic researchers – for they knew that there was much to lose in revealing truth to a public so accustomed to their lies.
Here’s a challenge, then, for the forces of change in the Arab world: Open the archives and let truth spring forth.
Continuing in this vein and rubbishing Israeli “new historians” (Ilan Pappé et al) while he’s at it, Ottolenghi backhandedly contrasts Israel—whose “previously classified documents in [its] state archives” are now open and which have enabled the offending historians to speciously buttress their arguments—with Arab states, whose state archives remain closed, or so he says.
The notion that Arab state archives—notably on the 1948 war—remain closed to historians has been around for years. I’ve read it countless times by supporters of Israel. I have a question for Mr. Ottolenghi and others who make this assertion: Is this true? Are Arab state archives—and official documents pertaining to the 1948 war in particular—really closed? Do you know this for a fact? More to the point, have you, Mr. Ottolenghi, or anyone else making this assertion actually tried to do archival research in Cairo, Damascus, Amman, or Beirut and been rebuffed, found doors closed, and/or gotten nowhere?
In his op-ed Ottolenghi makes reference to historian Jeffrey Herf’s recent book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World. The book, which I haven’t yet read (I’m sure it’s most interesting), is based on archival material in Germany (as Herf doesn’t know Arabic, I rather doubt he even tried to access state archives in the Arab world). Germany, like all Western states, has laws on the classification and declassification of official documents. The laws of some states are more restrictive than others (e.g. France is relatively restrictive, the UK and US are more liberal). To my knowledge Arab states do not have specific laws or decrees on the question. Official documents are off limits. Except when they’re not. And many are in fact accessible to researchers.
A number of years ago I read something on this by Robert Satloff—who is not exactly an anti-Zionist—, who recounted his experience in conducting archival research in Jordan. He wrote that he had no problem finding what he was looking for, that much was available, and that the staff at the national archives in Amman was most helpful (I seem to remember Satloff writing this in the context of a polemic with Benny Morris, who doesn’t work with Arabic documents). Friends who have done research in Cairo and Damascus have told similar stories. In my own experience in Algeria, I can say that when one tries to gain access to documentation in places necessitating prior authorization for entry, the default answer is no, except when one does in fact have that authorization: which is to say, that when one knows what one is looking for, has the proper institutional affiliation and with a letter of introduction on official letterhead (with all the stamps and seals), and possesses the necessary linguistic skills, that the doors will open. And once one is in the door, one will have access to all sorts of invaluable material. The staff will invariably be courteous and helpful, and give you what you ask for if it’s available, as you have authorization to be there. Their rear ends are covered and that’s all that matters to them. In fact, I’ve penetrated the heart of the Algerian Ministry of Interior with no authorization at all—just by talking my way in—and obtained data no other academician or journalist has ever laid eyes on. These regimes may be authoritarian but they’re not always efficient, even in surveillance and repression, and whatever laws and decrees may exist—if they’re even understood by state agents—are often honored in the breach.
And there’s something else. Often the documents or archives one is looking for are not available, because no one knows where they are. They may not have been archived at all. They may be in an unlabeled folder in a room or basement somewhere, piled helter-skelter to the ceiling in a mountain of paper just tossed in there, yellowed, collecting mold, or water damaged. Who knows? You’re dealing with Third World countries here, remember, whose archives and documentation centers have not always been staffed by people with degrees in library science.
In any case, the next time Mr. Ottolenghi or someone else of his bent writes about closed Arab state archives, I will ask them to either back up their assertions with concrete evidence or to just
STFU drop it.