Friday, April 22, 2016

Correspondence with MESA about freedom of research at the ISA

Our new website is up. Our initial intention was to go online without trumpeting the fact, and tinker with things for a while. Later this year, perhaps at the end of the summer, we'll make a real effort to tell folks we've arrived, but not yet; at the moment we're still disembarking from the plane, so to speak, and have not fully arrived. Sadly, our critics didn't wait, and launched a campaign to decry parts of our efforts without waiting to see if perhaps the trade-offs we've decided upon might actually be a good idea. So in addition to the challenges of launching the website and operating it correctly, we had to spend a bit of time this week fending off the critics.

The most comprehensive online English-language criticism came from the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), who  sent us a stern admonition about how we are about to destroy academic freedom in Israel, or something like that.

Once we had ascertained that MESA would post our response alongside their letter, we took advantage of the opportunity to write about the set of reforms currently underway at the ISA. Here it is in full:

April 21, 2016
Prof. Beth Baron,
MESA President, City University of New York
Prof. Amy W. Newhall,
Mesa Executive Director, University of Arizona
Dear Colleagues,
Had you taken time to learn more about the activities of the Israel State Archives (ISA) before publishing your letter of April 19th 2016, you would have avoided a number of significant inaccuracies as well as some minor ones such as our address and the spelling of my name.
The ISA is in its fourth year of an ambitious 17-year program to put its entire collections online in a free and unfettered form. The program includes high-quality scanning of the entire collections (36 million scanned pages so far); creating a new layer of knowledge management and applying it as an advanced catalogue system; utilization of technological progress such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR), Business Intelligence (BI) and crowdsourcing, to name some of the more obvious tools. The cataloging staff of the archives is scheduled to multiply more than tenfold, and our budget has been dramatically expanded. This is happening because the Cabinet itself, no less, decided that the existing state of the archives was unsatisfactory and the citizenry of our democracy deserved better access to the documentation of its government; it was the Prime Minster and his colleagues who gave us our new marching orders.
The jewel in the crown will be a tri-lingual website (Hebrew-Arabic-English) where everything will be easily accessible with the help of an embedded version of Google's search engine. A working draft of the website has been online for months, and has been used by many researchers.  As a matter of project management we recently decided that we needed to move from the laboratory to the real world, fully cognizant that this move would initially encounter significant wrinkles which can be discovered and ironed only by being in the real world. I am confident this initial version will be stable and fully operable within a few weeks; more advanced versions will go up in the coming months; we have a budget item for the continual improvement of the website all the way to the end of 2029.
Within a year the ISA website will be one of the most advanced archival websites in the world. The documentation will enjoy all the many advantages that digital data has over paper: flexibility, mobility and portability, replicability, and searchability, to mention but a few. Users will be able to arrange the documents into files of their own. Academics will be able to use high-quality versions of original documents in teaching and collaboration. Most transforming, to my mind, will be the ability to link the documents themselves into academic publications. Instead of footnotes, electronic versions of publications will give direct access to the documentation itself; paper versions will indicate where readers can find the documents on their iPads.

The reading room at the ISA remains open, and researchers with compelling need to see paper files will do so. We will encourage them not to, however. As a matter of principle because the online access will be better; as a matter of preservation, as experience shows that paper files are often harmed by users, inadvertently or otherwise; and as a matter of logistics. One of the most significant aspects of the new website relates to the gap between some one million records in the online catalogue and the first 80,000 scanned files. Whenever a researcher needs a file which is not yet online, we will process it and put it there within about two weeks, free of charge. Even now, with the website still in its infancy, we are receiving orders for more files than before, and the staff in the storage facility cannot deal simultaneously with three tasks (systematic scanning, ad-hoc scanning and delivery of paper files). 
Your fear regarding the censor is highly exaggerated. First, because ca. 95% of the collection will never be submitted to the censor. Second, because the remainder undergoes security declassification anyway, just as in the United States and all other democracies world-wide; the declassifiers and the censors generally agree with each other. Third, because the remit of the censor is strictly limited to a small number of topics, most of which are rarely the object of academic research in the first place. Fourth, because decisions of the censor are subject, legally and in practice, to the scrutiny of the High Court of Justice. And fifth, because the ISA is scrupulous in indicating each and every case where information has been redacted. Researchers who object to specific decisions of redacting can, and do, request remedy first from me, then from the courts.
It's not a perfect world, and the conditions in Israel's archives are far from perfect as well. Yet we are making dramatic improvements in the services we offer, and are rapidly approaching an unparalleled level of openness. We are promoting academic freedom, not violating it. By throwing open the archives to innovative uses and new segments of the public we hope to encourage new research and new researchers.
Precisely the opposite of your fears.
As agreed upon with Ms. Sara L. Palmer of the University of Arizona, I request you publish this response at any venue in which you published your letter of April 19th.
Dr. Yaacov Lozowick
Archivist of the State of Israel

Thursday, April 14, 2016

"Graven Images" in Jerusalem? The Story of the Menorah near the Knesset, a Gift from the British Friends of Israel

The menorah near the Knesset building in Givat Ram.
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office, 2005

At the beginning of the 1950s, relations between Israel and Britain, the former mandatory power in Palestine, were still cool.  Lord Edwin Samuel, the son of Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner for Palestine, and MP Clement Davies, leader of the Liberal party, decided to sponsor a project to produce a bronze menorah as a gift from the friends of Israel in Britain to the Knesset, Israel's parliament. 

Benno Elkan with the model of the menorah in his London studio.
Photograph: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikimedia
Some 400 MPs and other public figures and organizations donated £20,000 to finance the work of sculptor Benno Elkan, a Jewish refugee from Germany.

On 15 April 1956, at the start of Israel's eighth Independence Day, the menorah was unveiled  at a ceremony in downtown Jerusalem, near the building of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Knesset speaker Joseph Sprinzak received the gift, which stood four metres high and was decorated with scenes from Jewish history from the days of the patriarchs until the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. British Ambassador Sir John Nicholls and Clement Davies also took part in the ceremony. Today, 60 years later, we present photographs of the menorah from the ISA's recently digitized collection of photographs by Yehuda Eisenstark. We also show documents from the collection of Chief Rabbi Isaac Yitzhak Halevy Herzog, reflecting the controversy in religious circles over the gift.
This video clip shows a newsreel on the unveiling and other events of Independence Day in 1956

The menorah was placed in a small park near the Knesset building, Beit Frumin. On 10 May 1956 Yehuda Eisenstark (1912-2005) who studied photography and journalism in his home town of  Lvov in East Galicia and came to Palestine in 1939, took these views of the menorah.

Like the menorah symbol of the state, the Knesset menorah was designed to symbolize the restoration of Jewish sovereignty, in contrast to the captured Temple menorah on the Arch of Titus in Rome. From the beginning of the project religious circles expressed reservations for two reasons: the prohibition on making a seven branched candelabrum like that used in the Temple, and the fear that the design would include human figures, because of the prohibition on worshipping graven images. Eventually it was decided to seek an opinion from Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog, and the papers of Rabbi Herzog held in the ISA include an article which he published on the subject in the halachic journal "Sinai". 

Herzog decided that the menorah was permissible under certain conditions, and his brother-in-law David Hillman, a London-based artist, spoke to Elkan to make sure that these conditions were met. They included making sure that the figures on the menorah were in bas relief and not free standing, and that all of them were suitably clothed. The menorah would not include any container for oil, to make clear that it was not intended for use (File P4243/4) .

In the event, the unveiling of the menorah was not accompanied by any public protests. In 1966 it was moved to its present site near the new Knesset building in Givat Ram. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A new website with free birth-pangs

Our new website went online this week. And straightaway it didn't crash. But it does have some mighty creaks. We thought we'd put nine million pages online (that's 9,000,000). Turns out some four million have been displaced. We thought readers interested in a file which has yet to be scanned could simply click on a form and order it - well the blue button doesn't work. We were pretty convinced we knew how to update data in a hurry... yes, but the term "hurry" may need a bit of modification. And so on.

It pains us to say this, but not that long ago the rich and tech-savvy government of the United States launched a snazzy new website for heath insurance matters, and then spent three months fixing it in the full glare of world attention. At this stage, we still think we'll need days or two weeks, not months.

Of course, even once the website is stable it will be far form complete. We even put up a list of things we intend to improve over the coming months or a year. Getting this far has required collaboration of about 200 people at the archives and in a series of supporting technology firms; no-one's going home yet and we're all still working.

A local paper reported today that we're fumbling; this was then magnified by twitter and other channels. The report made two points. First, it told of a group of historians who are convinced that the need to work with scanned documents will seriously hamper their ability to ply their trade. We beg to disagree. The idea that archives, unlike all other parts of the modern world, must remain rooted in analog modes of communication and information processing, is an idea we don't accept; we also suggest that our users be patient with us for those two weeks and then pile onto us and see what happens. Who knows? Maybe we'll prove that it can be done, the migration to the 21st century.

The second complaint was that the ISA has suddenly subordinated itself to the censor, who will block lots of interesting information the public would like to see. This stems from a misunderstanding of our legal and also logistic situation.

Whether it's a good thing that Israel has a censor or not, is not a question for the archives to answer. The reality is that there is such an institution. Its writ does not reach more than 90% of what's in the archives; it does reach a small percentage which deals with information about some security issues. On those issues, the archives has been cooperating with the censor for years, because that's the law. What has abruptly changed is the size of the issue; by putting millions of pages online all at once, the number of files the censor needs to look at, by law, has also skyrocketed. Yet this is a one-off event. Once the censor works through the backlog, we'll go back to the previous mode of operation, which wasn't a problem then, and shouldn't be a problem now.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Pre-launch hiatus

Early April we intend to put our new website online. The old one, here, is admittedly mildly ghastly. It's hardly user-friendly, but more important, there isn't much there. The new website is the culmination of years of efforts, since the Cabinet decided back in 2012 that the ISA needed to operate as if it was already the 21st century. The single most important change will be the attempt simply to put the entire archives online. Users will write their query, the website will offer relevant findings, the users will click on them and read (or listen to, or watch) the results.

We're not going to have the entire archives online in April 2016. But we hope to be closer then than we are now.

Making this happen has required concerted efforts and significant resources (you might recollect this blogpost on the matter from last year). Bridging the final mile between here and there will require us to focus almost entirely on the tasks at hand and the preparations yet to be completed. Any and all other tasks will have to wait.

Including blogging.

So this is to announce that from now until May, blogging will probably be very light, or possibly not at all. We hope to be back in ever better form as soon as possible.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Power of a Word (or Two): How a Mistake in the Pope's Telegram Aroused Hopes in Israel, 1964

The holdings of the ISA contain millions of documents, mostly consisting of the written word. These documents show how important  wording can be, and how much can hang on the exact word or phrase. This is even more true in diplomatic documents, where weeks are sometimes spent on refining a formula. Diplomatic telegrams are usually succinct, and every word counts. Here is an example of a small change in a telegram which caused a major diplomatic commotion. It was sent after the visit of Pope Paul VI to the Holy Land in January 1964, the first visit by a reigning pope. At that time, before the Six Day War, many of the Christian Holy Places were in Jordan, and the Pope visited both Jordan and Israel.

We covered this subject recently in our exhibition at the Foreign Ministry, "The Revealed and the Concealed". Although defined as a private visit, the Israeli authorities hoped that it would bring about an improvement in Israel's difficult relations with the Vatican, which had not recognized the state. In addition, like many other countries, the Vatican did not recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital (see more posts about the status of Jerusalem here and here).

 President Shazar welcoming Pope Paul VI at Megiddo, 5 January 1964.
On his right is  Prime Miister Levi Eshkol.
Photograph: Fritz Cohen, Government Press Office  
At first it seemed that their hopes had been realized. The pope met with Israel's president, Zalman Shazar, at Megiddo on his arrival from Jordan, and at the Mandlebaum Gate crossing into East Jerusalem. The Israeli ambassador in Rome, Maurice Fischer, summed up the visit as a great success. Although the Jordanians had protested against Shazar's mention in his speeches of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the Vatican had brushed off these complaints. On his way back to Rome Pope Paul sent Shazar a telegram of thanks through the control tower at Lod Airport, which began with the words: "To his Excellency the President of Israel, Mr. Zalman Shazar, Jerusalem." There was great excitement over this formula, which seemed to show that the Vatican recognized Israel, and Jerusalem as its capital. The fact that the telegram was signed "Pope Pius 6" instead of Pope Paul did not set off any alarm bells in Israel. Shazar's aides were delighted and sent a copy of the telegram to all the media.

But the satisfaction in Jerusalem did not last long. By the following day it became clear that the text of the telegram was incorrect. It was the staff at the control tower and not the Pope's aides who had written the address. In a telegram to Fischer, the deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry explained the mistake and added the correct version as supplied by the Vatican. Here the opening sentence was addressed to "his Excellency the President, Mr. Zalman Shazar, Tel Aviv." Fischer proposed to protest to the Vatican officials that the president was insulted that the Vatican had chosen his capital for him, but on reflection thought better of this cynical remark.

Fischer's correspondence with the Foreign Ministry is in File MFA 217/13 and can be seen on our Hebrew blog. The writer of the post there, who was a child at the time, vividly remembers the excitement of the Pope's visit and the elation surrounding the telegram, soon to be followed by disappointment – all because of two words.

 The Vatican finally recognized Israel in 1993. In February 2014 Pope Francis visited Israel on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul's historic visit. Below you can see a video clip about Pope Paul's journey posted by the Vatican.  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

More Tales from the Vienna Woods: Villa Moeller, Part 2

After we published the post on Villa Moeller last week,  Mr. Yoel Sher, the Israeli ambassador in Vienna from 1995 to 1998, sent us a short article with more details about the history of the house,  also describing his experiences of living and working in this unusual building. Below we bring you some extracts from the article, translated into English. 

The story goes that Adolf Loos, the architect who built Villa Moeller, lived with Hans Moeller and his family for three months in order to learn about them and their preferences, and planned the house accordingly. They would have been very happy there if it were not for the Germans, who annexed Austria in 1938. The Moeller family, whose relatives had already founded the ATA factory in 1934, decided to immigrate to Palestine.

During the war the commander of the Gestapo in Vienna lived in the house. After the war it was returned to Moeller, but he was so angry about the demand to pay city taxes for all the years of occupation and war, that he no longer wanted it. He gave it to the state to serve as a home for Israel's representatives in Vienna, at first at consular level.  In 1955 the four occupying powers decided to leave and signed an agreement by which Austria became independent again, on condition that it remained neutral between East and West. Israel recognized Austria and sent an ambassador to Vienna.
,Ambassador Sher presents his credentials in a snowstorm in Vienna, December 1995
  accompanied by the Austrian head of protocol. Photograph: Yoel Sher, private collection
Israel's representatives in Vienna continue to live and work in the house even though it is not very convenient. Since it was built by Loos, it is a listed historic building, and not even a nail can be knocked into the wall without permission from the department of preservation of the Vienna municipality. The small dining room, for example, cannot be enlarged to make it suitable for official entertaining.

Hans Moeller was an amateur cello player and liked to invite people to musical evenings in his home. Loos planned a raised dining room which served as a stage, with stairs without a railing down to the living room. Many ladies have sprained or broken their legs trying to walk down the stairs in high heels. 

As well as the straight lines of the exterior, Loos' style included built in furniture which is fixed to the walls, such as sofas which cannot be moved or replaced. Not very practical!

 . View of the dining room, Villa Moeller
Photograph: Wikiarchitectura

The house is in a suburb off the main road, and busloads of architectural students from all over the world come to see and photograph it. They would very much like to see inside, and it's a pity the embassy can't let them in and charge admission fees. Some ambassadors have tried to persuade the Vienna municipality to turn it into an architectural museum and to give the embassy a more suitable home. In the face of municipal bureaucracy and delays, the three years of their posting come to an end and they pass on the responsibility to the new ambassador …. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Villa Moeller in Vienna: Solving a Historical Puzzle

Sometimes our work in the ISA doesn't concern national issues or peace treaties, but it is no less fascinating for that. Many requests to us for documents relate to land ownership and property transfers, which are of great importance to the people concerned. Here we tell how long forgotten files helped to solve a historical puzzle about a house owned by the state of Israel in Vienna.

At the beginning of October we were approached by Ms. Talya Lador-Fresher, who was about to take up her post as Israel's ambassador to Austria. She wanted information about the early years of Israel's relations with Austria, established on consular level in 1949 while the country was still under Allied occupation. For some reason she was particularly interested in the residence of the Israeli representative in Vienna. When we met, she explained that she had heard in the ministry that the house was given to the state by Hans Moeller, who owned it before it was confiscated by the Nazis.  Moeller belonged to a family of Jewish industrialists from Bohemia which founded the famous ATA textile firm near Haifa. He tried to get the building returned after the war, but the municipality of Vienna demanded a large sum in unpaid back taxes….In frustration, he decided to give the house to the state and let the Foreign Ministry deal with it. Talya was looking for proof of the story.

Hans Moeller in his office at ATA,  1962. Photograph:Wikipedia
One of the people who told her about the building was the ex-ambassador to Vienna, Mr. Yoel Sher, who used to work at the ISA. He told us that he had tried to find evidence here whether the Israeli government actually paid the taxes, but without success. This was another question we wanted to answer. 

Villa Moeller in Vienna. Photograph: Wikipedia
A quick check on the Internet revealed that the house, known as Villa Moeller, is well known in the history of architecture. It was designed by the important Modernist architect Adolf Loos in 1928, according to his theory of Raumplan. Loos said in 1930: "My architecture is not conceived in plans, but in spaces (cubes). I do not design floor plans, facades, sections. I design spaces. For me, there is no ground floor, first floor, etc. ... For me, there are only contiguous, continual spaces, rooms, anterooms, terraces, etc. Storeys merge and spaces relate to each other." The exterior, a white cubic façade, displays Loos' theory in his 1908 essay, "Ornament and Crime", in which he criticized decorated surfaces. He wanted to distinguish between the outside, where the view could be seen by the public eye, and the inside, the private spaces of those who lived there. In contrast to the simple exterior, the interior was decorated with comfortable furniture and marble and wood surfaces.
The interior of Villa Moeller today. Photograph: Talya Lador-Fresher
 From our experts on the Archives catalogue and on Foreign Ministry documents we learned that every embassy or legation abroad has a file on legal matters. Sure enough, in a file marked "State property abroad: Vienna"(MFA 1836/17) we found a note from December 1950 stating that the house was given to the state by Hans Moeller, the owner (at that time manager) of the ATA firm. The state had paid 45,000 schillings, a good deal of money at that time, to clear outstanding debts. So it seems that the back taxes were paid! According to another document, from September 1954,  the villa consists of 13 living rooms, with bathrooms, store rooms and balconies. The file also includes a copy of the Austrian land register. 

The house was in a poor state and needed extensive refitting. The first Israeli consul in Vienna was Dr. Kurt Daniel Lewin and, according to his successor, Arye Eshel, he saw his appointment as temporary and did little to deal with the problem. On his arrival , Eshel wrote a long letter to the Foreign Ministry (File MFA 2515/4) describing the situation. In his words, the building was a "magnificent shell with an interior which resembled a room in a  kibbutz hut". The large garden was a field of thistles, and the staff quarters had been occupied since 1945 by the family of a Viennese Communist  persecuted by the Nazis. Eshel warned that even after renovation upkeep of the house would be very expensive, and added wistfully that a furnished 4 room apartment would cost no more than 2,000 schillings per month, especially as the "future of the country and the city are lost in the mist." Despite the austerity in force in Israel in 1950, the Ministry decided on the renovations.
 The garden of Villa Moeller today. Photograph: Talya Lador-Fresher
Post war Vienna, which was divided into Soviet and Western zones, was a centre of espionage and intrigue. Alongside the more mundane subjects of restitution of Jewish property and commercial relations with Austria, the Israeli consulate also dealt with ties with Eastern Europe and efforts to help Jews from these countries get to Israel, sometimes using smugglers and black marketeers  reminiscent of  the characters in the famous film The Third Man, which was recently re-released.