Friday, August 31, 2012

Munich 1972: the German Report

Given that some of the readers of this blog know German, but don't know Hebrew, we're putting online the German report about the terror attack at the Olympic games, in its original, German-language version. The Hebrew translation was one of the 45 documents we put online earlier this week.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Media coverage of the Munich story - and some context

Our publication of documents on the Munich massacre yesterday received widespread coverage in the media, both in Hebrew, and in English and German as well. All the major Israeli news websites carried the story. Aside from expressing their interest in the historical events, they praised the efforts of the Archives to declassify these important documents and make them available to the public. You can see links to some of these stories below.


The story of the tragic events at Munich has been told before. But the reaction to the publication shows that there is no substitute for the original documents. The actual words of the people involved and their spontaneous and emotional reactions have an impact that no book or film produced afterwards can rival.

Even after 40 years, many commentators expressed anger at the incompetence and apparent indifference of the German authorities. One of the reasons for the failure to provide adequate security at the Olympic village was the desire of the organizers for an atmosphere of peace and friendship which would erase the memory of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, organized by the Nazi regime. International terrorism too was a fairly new phenomenon in 1972, and had mostly been directed against airlines. The German authorities may not have admitted responsibility - but they did set up a proper counter-terrorist unit after the attack.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Honeymoon Goes Sour: The Crisis Between the Israeli Government and Willy Brandt's West Germany after the Munich Massacre

The latest publication of the Archives on the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 sheds an interesting light on Israeli-German relations in the 1970s.

The election of Willy Brandt as Chancellor of West Germany in October 1969 led to a steady improvement in relations with Israel. Brandt had been a member of the anti-Nazi resistance and as head of the Social Democrat party was a friend of many leaders of the governing Israeli Labor party. His good relations with the Soviets meant he could serve as a channel for messages about the issue of Jewish emigration; West Germany with its strong economy was very important in Israel's relations with the Common Market, and in particular, Israeli Prime Minister Golda wanted to strengthen her ties with Brandt and other Social Democratic leaders in Europe and to put Brandt at the head of this group. Golda was dubious as to the ability of the Great Powers to bring about a Middle East settlement and wanted Brandt and Israel's European friends to be more involved. At the same time, she wanted Germany to block proposals for a settlement unfavorable to Israel by other European countries.

Throughout 1972, the two kept up a correspondence on political issues and Golda invited Brandt to visit Israel. On September 4, a day before the Munich massacre, she sent Brandt a letter urging him not to assist initiatives which might harm new chances of progress on a settlement that had arisen after the expulsion of the Soviet military advisers from Egypt (see our earlier blogpost).

On this backdrop, the Munich disaster raised major questions about Israel's relations with Germany. The documents in the publication show that the Israeli government went through three stages. At the beginning, they made every effort to prevent anger over the botched German rescue attempt harming these relations, and to restrain expressions of anti-German feeling in Israel and among Jews abroad. General elections were about to take place in Germany, and the decision-makers in Israel had no interest in harming Brandt's chances of re-election. On September 6, the government decided to praise Germany's decision not to give in to the terrorists and to try to free the hostages by force. Golda even wrote personally to labor leader Yitzhak Ben-Aharon to prevent attacks on Germany at a trade union congress.

Upon the return of Mossad chief Zvi Zamir, who was in Munich during the rescue attempt as the representative of the government, the tone of the Israeli reaction began to change. His damning report led Golda to regret the friendly message she had sent Brandt earlier and the praises in the government statement. She sent Brandt another message demanding a speedy investigation. Furthermore, the differences between Zamir's written report and the report of the German inquiry led to a chain of reactions, accusations and counter-accusations by German and Israeli bodies involved in the affair. Nevertheless, a friendly and business-like tone was maintained.

A major crisis in West German-Israeli relations came at the end of October, after the German government surrendered to the demands of Palestinian terrorists who hijacked a Lufthansa plane and freed the three surviving terrorists from the Munich massacre. The Israeli ambassador to Bonn was recalled for "consultations", the Knesset and the government bitterly condemned the German actions and the public and Knesset members attacked Germany with "no holds barred", even bringing up that country's Nazi past.

Even so, the Prime Minister made it clear that nothing would be done to harm Israel's interests, which included relations with Germany. After intense diplomatic activity, these relations returned to their former course, reaching a peak in Chancellor Brandt's visit to Israel in the summer of 1973.

Munich 1972: Terror and its aftermath

A team of ISA staff reserachers has spent the past months examining the documentary trail of the PLO terror attack on Israel's delegation to the Olympic Games of Munich 1972 and their aftermath. Today, a week before the 40th anniverssary of the event, we're publishing the results of their efforts: an essay-length description of the events as described in previously unpublished documents, and 45 documents, many of them declassified specifically for this publication.

The publication itself is too long for a blog format: it's essentially a small book. We encourage our readers to find the half hour and read the introductory essay; dipping into the documents themselves will require more than one language though Hebrew is the main one. In the coming days we'll publish focussed looks at segments of the publication, along with short translations into English of sections of some of the Hebrew (or perhaps German) documents. (Here's the first of the followup posts)

The sections of the publication are:
The initial reports of the attack reach Israel
The decision not to halt the Olympic games
Initial Israeli attempts to dampen anti-German sentiment in Israel
Zvi Zamir, head of Mossad, reports bitterly from Munich
Hans Dietrich Genscher, Germay's foreign minster, down-plays Zamir's report
Israel investigates its own failures
Golda Meir: Perhaps I ought to resign, but the turmoil would be too great
The Knesset: go get the murderers!
Abba Eban: the German release of the surviving terrorists condemns future Israelis to death

Monday, August 27, 2012

Cabinet protocols, mid-June 1948

On June 11th 1948 all sides to the war agreed on a month without fighting. You'd expect that the cabinet protocols from the first week of Israel's existence without major fighting on all fronts would deal with lots of civilian matters, especially so as the meetings of the previous weeks had managed to deal with many such issues in spite of the fighting.

But no, surprisingly. There were two meetings that week, on June 14th and June 16th, and they mostly dealt with security and war-related matters; since the protocols don't give details on these topics, these two particlar ones are rather frustrating. This series, remember, presents the protocols, not the stenograms, and they compress what may have been long and fascinating meetings into one- or two-page summaries. (Someday we'll start a series of putting the stenograms online, but today isn't that day).

So what non-security matters were discussed? David Remez was tasked with ensuring that Israel woud join the international mail protocols. And the minister of justice was tasked with preparing two draft  versions of laws to protect plants and to regulate citrus crops. On the edge of the military-civilian divide, Ben Gurion told about efforts to promote various matters whle the guns were silent: paving a road to Jerusalem and bringing in food (the populace was on the verge of starvation), while preventing mass departure from the city. Improving the army's organization and training. Setting up new settlements. In addition, various subcommittees were set up to deal with various sensitive topics.

During the meeting of June 16th a number of ministers posed questions about various things that troubled them - equality of food distribution in Jerusalem, and who is doing what in empty Arab villages; fascinating as the questions might be, Ben Gurion responded that he'd have to find out and the protocol supplies no answers.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Fixing Independence Hall

One of the many things the ISA is in charge of is the project to refurbish the place in Tel Aviv where Ben Gurion declared Israel's independence on May 14th 1948. Why this should be the job of the ISA is a long and not particularly interesting story, and fortunately, there are fine professionals who've got the actual job itself; the ISA has administrative oversight.

The venue is in the building that was once the home of Meir Dizengoff, one of the founders of Tel Aviv and its first mayor. Late in life he bequeathed it to the city, and it served as an art museum. In recent years, one must admit, it has largely gone downhill, in spite of its importance and central location on Rothschild Avenue. Over the next few months it will be given a face-lift; in the background there's already a team working on a major redesign so as to restore its ability to tell its story in an adequate way. This restoration will take a few years.

Anyway, the first part of any construction project always has to be putting up a sign, which has been done.


Just this morning, on the first day of work, the construction workers found a handsome ceramic commemoration plaque behind a panel, which no-one remembered was there.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Madam Prime Minister....Don't Endanger Israel's Security!"

At the beginning of Golda Meir's conversation with Kissinger on a disengagement agreement with Syria, shown here last week, he asked: "What is the policy of the people who are demonstrating? What do they want?" Golda replied "That we shouldn't budge."
Today we present another document on opposition to  withdrawal in the Golan Heights – a letter (in Hebrew) sent to Mrs. Meir on 6 May 1974 by a group of writers, academics and public figures, who had begun a hunger strike outside her residence in Jerusalem. They included Moshe Shamir, a well-known writer originally from the left wing Mapam party, now a supporter of the Greater Land of Israel movement, and Yisrael Eldad , one of the ideologues of the right.  They reminded Golda of her words to a delegation from the Golan settlements, rejecting any withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, including Kuneitra. They added:
Madam Prime Minister, did you honestly mean what you said? Or have you changed your mind? The entire people is following with deep anxiety the signs and reports of erosion in the government's position, in the face of the war of attrition by the murderous Syrians and the false and misleading policy of the American secretary of state – who is tempting us to enter a fatal trap.
At this late hour we call on you, before the fateful decision is taken […]
to stop the deterioration
to prevent the execution of the plan bringing forward the destruction of the state
to prevent the withdrawal from the Golan
Don't give a prize to the aggressors!
Don't give bases to the Syrian artillery!
Don't breach the wall of the settlements!
Don't abandon the Golan!
Don't endanger Israel's security!"
With memories still fresh of Syrian shelling in the Jordan valley before the Six Day War and the Syrian attack on Yom Kippur in October 1973, the demonstrators represented, if in extreme form, genuine public feeling. Taking the risk was not an easy step for Mrs. Meir. On the other hand Kissinger argued that the strategic importance of Kuneitra was minor compared to co-operation with the United States, which had stood by Israel during the war and given it generous economic assistance.  In the end, Israel signed and withdrew from Kuneitra and a small area of the Golan. On 30 May Golda presented the agreement to the Knesset and shortly afterwards the prisoners of war were released.  The fears of the demonstrators were not realized, and Syria was punctilious in keeping the agreement.

Zoning sub-committee for East Jerusalem, Oct 3rd 1967

As presented here, in September 1967 the regional zoning committee for Jerusalem in the Ministry of the Interior set up a sub-committee for East Jerusalem, and this marked the transition from the rather haphazard Israeli actions immediately after unification to systematic procedures. (Or at least that's what it looks like, based on the sort of documents we've been looking at).

The second meeting took place on October 3rd 1967, and dealt almost entirely with one single topic, with one odd exception described below. That topic was the plaza in front of the Western Wall. There were essentially two proposals. One called for dividing the plaza into two sections, a lower one in front of the Wall for prayer, and a higher one behind it for visitors. The other proposal called for one single sloped plaza. Then there were side issues, such as where to put public toilets, whether paving the plaza would create permanence, and whether this was a good thing or if the assumption was that there would be a subsequent stage of development which ought not now be pre-empted. The members of the committee were unhappy that the Ministry of Religious Affairs (which, interestingly, was not represented on the committee) was already digging at the site, lowering the the level of the plaza and thus raising the hieght of the Wall. Clearly, there were different opinions at this stage about the jusridiction of the area.

It's also interesting to note that the committee assumed there would be a portable mechitza, partition, to be used during times of services betwen men and women, but moved aside at other times.

At the end of the meeting some of the members went off together to visit the site. Before setting off, however, they quickly dealt with one other matter, qouted here in its entirety:
A request to repair a kitchen. Ibrahim E. in the el-Saadiya neighborhood of the Old City requests permission to repair his kitchen which was destroyed during the Six Day War. The committee authorized the request on the condition that an engineer confirm the safety of the construction.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The zoning sub-committee for East Jerusalem, 26 Sept. 1967

The first meeting of the zoning sub-committee for East Jerusalem took place on September 26th 1967. The significance of the event is that the first hurried rush to stake Israel's claim to East Jerusalem and to create initial facts was over, and the bureaucracy was now preparing to operate as it did elsewhere. So the Zoning Committee for Jerusalem in the Minsitry of the Interior set up a sub committee, and sat down to work. Its members were drawn mostly from the Ministry of the Interior and the municipality of Jerusalem, along with a few officials from other ministries such as Construction (obvious) and Agriculture (not obvious).

The first meeting was mostly procedural. As we follow the meetings of the subcommittee in future posts, let's hope some of them are dramatic and all are significant. (I've only read the first two myself). This one started with a discussion about how many consultants to hire (many) and how often to convene (weekly, for the time being).

There was a statement of principle, about how all construction in East Jerusalem must be done in accordance to the Israeli procedures, licences and zoning rules. (This did not happen).

Finally, near the end of the meeting the members got into a discussion about a specific matter: the future of the Western Wall: what should the open space in front of it look like? Terraced? Sloping down? Paved? Where should the public toilets be? Everyone agreed that the area should be done correctly, but they didn't manage to agree what that might mean. So they made two decisions. One, to relate to the entire area from the Wall down to Dung Gate. And two, to send some of the members and consultants over to have a look and come back with proposals.

Source: file גל-4010/18

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Israel's cabinet and the fire at Al Aksa Mosque, August 1969

On August 21 1969, a lone and mentally ill Australian by the name of Michael Dennis Rohan set fire to the Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem. Rohan seems to have believed that he could destroy the mosque, and that this would pave the way for construction of the Jewish temple, thereby laying the groundwork for Jesus' return. The damage to the mosque was limited, though an ancient minbar (wooden pulpit) which had been there since the days of Saladin was destroyed.

Predictably, many Muslims were convinced the fire was an Israeli plot, and the subsequent trial and conviction of Rohan failed to dent this conviction. Daniel Pipes has a list of links to Arab and Muslim websites which continue to propagate this myth; here's a link to what appears to be a Palestinian (or pro-Palestinian) website which offers such a narrative even today.

The fire and the imagined threat to Al Aksa seem to have been the immediate motivation for a large Muslim convention a few weeks later, out of which grew the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the largest international grouping after the UN.

Meanwhile Israel's cabinet had a series of meetings about the incident. The transcripts and decisions were top secret, but since they happened a long time ago, and the incitement is still ongoing, it's interesting to look behind the scenes.

The cabinet convened on the day of the fire and decided to set up a commission of inquiry with the participation of a justice of the Supreme Court; to have the army lead the efforts to maintain public peace; to ensure peaceful services in the Mosque on the coming Friday, and to publish a statement. The statement was attached to the cabinet decision, and included a condemnation of the attack, but also a demand that it not be used to incite against Jews or Israel, mentioning that there had been previous fires at the mosque, most recently under Jordanian rule in 1963.

On August 31, the cabinet decided Rohan's trial should take place as soon as possible; to delegate the discussion of the security measures on the Temple Mount to a sub-committee of ministers; and to improve the fire prevention capabilities at the Holy Places.

On the same day (August 31, 1969), the Minister's Committee on Jerusalem convened and decided that two top civil servants would meet the heads of the local churches and explain that their participation in the condemnation of "Israeli aggression" is incitement; meet the heads of the Muslim institutions and discuss the issues; and also prepare a full discussion in the cabinet of Israel's relations with the religious leaders (Muslims and Christians) in Jerusalem.

On September 25th 1969, the same committee appointed Police General Shaul Rosolio to prepare a detailed plan to secure the mosques, churches and other major holy places in Jerusalem, including the option of setting up a specific police unit for this purpose. In addition, Rosolio was to meet the Muslim authorities and determine how to re-open the gates to the Temple Mount.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Photographs of the First World War

One of the varied and interesting collections in Israel's State Archives is the collection of the second president of Israel, Yizhak Ben-Zvi. Ben-Zvi was an avid researcher of the oriental Jewish communities, the Samaritans, the Karaites, the Druze and other related topics; his collection was originally housed in the Yad Yizhak Ben-Zvi institution, for the research and dissemination of knowledge relating to Jerusalem, the Land of Israel and the Jewish communities of the East.

Among the many documents and photos of the Ben-Zvi collection are a group of undated pictures of unknown origin file (פ 4122/16). They contain fascinating images from the First World War and from the Western Front. One can assume that they were given to the Yad Yizhak Ben-Zvi institution or to President Ben-Zvi himself, probably by a German Jew who took them while serving in the German Army during the war.

Three of the photos depict ruined French villages. Two of these are captioned "a village in the Vosges plain". The Vosges Mountains are in Lorraine and were the scene of limited but constant fighting during WWI. German soldiers can be seen standing among the remains of the destroyed houses. Another photograph is captioned 'Erain'. A search on Google Maps finds villages with similar names only in western France, so it is unclear if this is the real name of the village, the German version of the French name or if a village by this name was destroyed in the war and not rebuilt afterward. (Or perhaps Google Maps simply lacks the information.)

Two other photos in this set show a German command post, situated in a log cabin. One of them features a sign over the cabin with the words "Villa Barbara" – probably intended as a humorous reference. A German officer poses in the entrance of the cabin. Another photograph shows what appears to be the same officer viewing a map in the cabin itself. A caption on the photo says it was taken during the winter of 1915-1916.

Another photograph shows French trenches that were taken by the Germans in the Vosges plain. The trenches look hardly-used – no damage is apparent, nor any trash or debris; it is as if they were built for show or for the purposes of a demonstration of some sort.

The last photograph is the most interesting, in our opinion. It depicts a group of French prisoners taken by the Germans. The caption says that they were caught during the attack on 'Fresens'. Again, searching Google Maps, one finds several places in France that could fit the description. In one of these, situated in the Pas-De-Calais area, heavy fighting took place between the Germans and the French in 1915. Two other places with that name are situated in the vicinity of Nancy and Verdun, in the Meurthe-et-Moselle area – another front line zone, and geographically close to the contents of the other photographs.


The picture itself offers a few more clues as to its dating. The French soldiers are equipped with Adrian-style helmets and horizon-blue uniforms. These were introduced by the French Army in 1915, which had initially marched to war in August 1914 wearing blue and red uniforms (one reason for the dreadful casualties suffered by the French in the early months of the war, as noted in Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August). Another clue to the date of the photograph is the fact that two of the French soldiers in the foreground are wearing sheepskin vests, introduced to the service in the winter of 1915. By contrast, the German soldiers in the background of the photograph are wearing Pickelhaube (a German spiked helmet, worn in the early years of the world war) and not the Stahlhelm - the famous and more advanced helmet, introduced only in 1916. The Germans also seem not to be equipped with winter gear of any sort. All these observations, and the fact that the trees in the background are bare, can give us a possible time frame for this most interesting photo – autumn of 1915.

Do you spot any other clues that might help with the identification and dating of these photographs? Leave them in the comments below, or send them to us at the address to your right.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Israel as seen from a scooter in 1968

Here's a film from a long-lost time: 1968. The Six Day War had been won, and Israelis were telling themselves the Arabs would never come back for another round. (They were wrong). The entire geographical area under Israeli control was open for free and unrestricted movement of everyone who lived in it, in all directions. Far away, on the Suez Canal, a war of attrition was building up between Israeli and Egyptian troops, but it was, well, far away. There were some troubles along the Jordan River, but they also seemed minor and manageble. Mostly, Israelis were enjoying their new expanses and new possibilities, and expected their wars to be behind them. The economy was booming, and the Zeitgeist was one of optimism.

Against this background the Ministry of Tourism made a film showing how beautiful everything was. Two photogenic young singers, Shula Chen and Gadi Yagil, were put on a scooter and sent around the country, singing popular songs as they went. We can raise an eyebrow at the naivety of it all; or we can raise the other eyebrow at the simplicity of the country as it then was, not to mention the outlandish idea of a young couple touring the country on a scooter; or we can lean back and remember that: yes, such a film wasn't nearly as outlandish then as it seems now.

Except for the section in Jerusalem. For that section, you really have to know what you're looking at to see how much the town has changed - because most of the section was filmed in the Old City, and the Old City, being Old, hasn't changed all that much in the flicker of time which is half a century.

Some statistics: in 1968 there were fewer than 3,000,000 people living in Israel, alongside fewer than one million in the West Bank, Gaza, Golan and Sinai; Jerusalem had a total population of about 250,000. There was one "skyscraper", the Migdal Shalom tower in Tel Aviv (briefly seen in the section of the film).

Ben Gurion, the Bible, and the MetLife Stadium

Amos Chacham passed away a few weeks ago. He was 91.

In the late 1950s and well into the 1960s Chacham was something of a cultural hero in Israel, for an achievement which today wouldn't garner more than 15 minutes of fame: he knew the Bible almost by heart, and demonstrated his knowledge by winning various national and international contests in the late 1950s. (The contests required of the participants to retrieve sentences or parts of them from all over the Bible in the original Hebrew, so the international contests were sort of like the Baseball World Series: they were only notionally international).

Reconnecting the Jews to the Bible was one of the many aspects of Zionism, enabled by the resurrecting of Hebrew as a living language for daily use, and connected to the return of the Jews to the very hills and valleys on which the Biblical stories had played out. There was also a socio-political aspect, expressed by no-one more adamantly than David Ben Gurion: the Bible is the story of the Jews as a normal nation, and it’s time to return to the normality while reading the immortal book about it.

Here's a letter Ben Gurion wrote on April 10th 1954 to Moshe Haim Gevaryahu, a prominent Bible scholar:
I know the Bible is not the only nor the latest creation of our people, and in our heritage there are many treasures from the recent and distant past which must be made known and learned. Yet I know of no cultural treasure such as the Bible. For various reasons, some undoubtedly justified at the time, the glory of the Bible was diminished when we were in exile, and it became a peg on which to hang many later writings and expositions of ideas which fit our condition as a nation without its home and lacing independence…

It appears to me that only with the rejuvenation of the Jews in their land have the conditions been created to fully comprehend the Bible as it was intended, to return to its greatness. I have no doubt the Bible is above all the creation of the greatest and most original chapter in our history, between Moses and Ezra…

The letter was published in our book of documents about Ben Gurion, and includes a photograph of Gvaryahu, President Shazar, Golda Meir and others listening to Ben Gurion giving a speech about the Bible in 1963.

Did it work out as the Old Man intended? Well, not really, though that's a topic for a different blog than this one. Jews are complicated, and if there has been a steep rise in the study of traditional Jewish books, the steepest rise has been in the study of the Talmud, a layer of Jewish creativity Ben Gurion saw no need to celebrate. Just two weeks ago 90,000 people convened on the MetLife Staduim in New Jersey to celebrate the completion on the 12th cycle of studying Daf Yomi, a program in which people throughout the Jewish world study the entire Talmud in seven and a half years, all doing the same page each day. No-one knows precisely how many people participate in this program, but the number is in the hundreds of thousands. So the rejuvenation of the Jews in the past sixty years, ironically, seems to have enhanced the study of what Ben Gurion might have regarded as the "wrong" part of the national heritage. Except that much of the Talmud was created in this land, and its creators, there can be no doubt, all knew the entire Bible by heart. (I once wrote about the Daf Yomi program here).

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Gas Masks in Israel

Up the block from the ISA there's a shopping mall. You can do the usual stuff there, say, buy an  iPad or have a pizza lunch. Or you can pick up gas masks for the family, though you'll probably have to wait in line for an hour; when I went by yesterday the line had about 200 people. It was moving foward at a good clip, but it was still 200 people. Such distribution points can be found all over the country.
The thing is, none of this is particularly new. Gas masks were distributed systematically in 1990, in the days when Sadaam Hussein was bragging that he was going to "burn half of Israel", and they were renewed in 2002, as another war in Iraq loomed. If you've got a long enough memory, however, you'll know that as far back as 1940 gas masks were being distributed in Tel Aviv:

video

The cute little boy at the end, by the way, is saying how bad Hitler is for wanting everyone to look like pigs. Well, it was only 1940, after all.

New US publication on Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy

Yesterday a new volume was published in the "Foreign Relations of the United States" series on the Arab-Israeli dispute during the Nixon-Ford administration, 1974–1976. Congratulations to our colleagues in the Office of the Historian at the Department of State on this important contribution to a field which has now become almost a branch of its own in the history of diplomacy–"Kissinger studies".


Kissinger's virtuoso diplomacy aroused both criticism and admiration, but left few indifferent. The agreement with Syria about which we wrote here yesterday was one of his most impressive achievements. You can see more about this and other Middle East negotiations in FRUS Volume 26 which is available online. We hope in a few months to present a publication of documents from our archives on the Israeli side in these talks.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Golda Meir to Kissinger, May 1974: "The only natural resource that we can build on is the spirit of the people"

This is the first in a new series of blog posts on Israel's foreign relations, which will present mostly documents from the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office. In Israel, the Prime Minister tends to keep foreign policy-making and relations with key states in his or her own hands. The archives hold hundreds if not thousands of files with material from the bureaus of Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin, which are already available to researchers. We'd like to give you a glimpse of some of the fascinating stories found there.

During the ongoing turmoil in Syria, Israel's northern neighbor, you may have heard mention of the "separation of forces agreement" between the two countries. This agreement, signed on May 31 1974, ended the Yom Kippur war on the Syrian front. A similar one was signed with Egypt; it was later replaced by the Interim Agreement of September 1975 and the peace treaty of March 1979. No peace with Syria was signed, and the separation of forces agreement has remained in force ever since.

The agreement was the result of a month of intensive mediation by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who "shuttled" between Jerusalem and Damascus to resolve the differences between the government of Israel, headed by Prime Minister Golda Meir, and President Hafez al-Assad, father of present Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hafez al-Assad was described by Kissinger as "the toughest and least conciliatory Arab leader I have met." In the State Department's publication on the Yom Kippur war you can see Kissinger's famous six and a half hour conversation with Assad on December 15 1973 where that latter outlines his conditions for attending the Middle East peace conference at Geneva. Only at the end of the conversation did Assad mention that Syria actually had no intention of coming to the conference.

Golda Meir was no pushover either. After initial setbacks, IDF forces had ended the war deep inside Syrian territory. Assad demanded that Israel should not only restore this territory but also withdraw from part of the Golan Heights captured in 1967, specifically the town of Kuneitra. Golda could not understand the justice of this demand, and rejected it indignantly.

However the Syrians held two important bargaining cards: they carried on a war of attrition, causing Israeli losses and forcing the country to continue mobilizing reservists, and they held a group of Israeli prisoners of war and refused to allow the Red Cross to visit them. Hair-raising rumors spread about the fate of the prisoners and Golda was under great pressure from their families. On the other hand, the settlers on the Golan Heights and the nascent Gush Emunim movement protested fiercely against any withdrawal in the Golan. The conflicting pressures on Mrs. Meir and Kissinger's counter-arguments to her concerns can be seen in these extracts from their conversation on May 12, 1974.

The Cabinet Protocols: Israel's third week

In its third week of existence, Israel's provisional cabinet was very busy, and convened four times, on Sunday (May 30th), Tuesday, Thursday and Friday (June 4th). The deliberations continued to focus on the nitty-gritty of creating a functioning administration, running a war and negotiating a peace, forging relations with other countries, and the minutiae of symbols.
On Sunday May 31st the provisional government authorized the wording of the oath each soldier would be required to make upon enlisting. (The wording has changed a bit since then). Ben Gurion reported on military developments, while noting that a British request had reached the government to enable Haifa Arabs to return to the city. Moshe Shertok reported on the efforts to acquire diplomatic recognition - Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Uruguay had recognized Israel, the US was discussing the exchange of representatives, and the French had sent a letter of complaint about French-owned buildings in Jerusalem which had been damaged during the hostilities. (An American and French letter were attached to the protocol).

Eliezer Kaplan reported on the work of a committee which was drawing the jurisdictions of the various ministries (probation officers will be in the ministry of welfare; citizenship in the ministry of the interior; marriages and divorces in the ministry of religious affairs, and so on). These are not insignificant matters: deciding that marriages are a religious matter rather than a civil one, for example, reflects a value system, as does the understanding of what system probation officers are part of.

Two other overlapping topics were the ongoing discussion of how to respond to UN pressure to agree to a cease-fire, and the legal status of territories beyond the 1947 partition lines: if everyone stops and goes back to the partition plan, so will Israel; until then, here's how we'll apply our law to the newly acquired areas.

Ah, yes: and the British income tax laws will stay in place for the time being. You can't have a functioning state without taxes.

Tuesday June 1st 1948: The cabinet discussed putative terms for accepting a UN cease-fire. The principle was that fighting must cease, new arms must not be brought in (this was a UN demand), but that military achievements not be whittled away.

The government needs a loan. ($8,000,000, which was a lot in those days and in this country).

The Lehi organization has merged into the national army. The Etzel seemed close, but the negotiations weren't quite completed. The Etzel wished to preserve a measure of identity within the larger army. The government authorized a version of an agreement. As we know, this matter was not fully resolved, as the Altalena story would dramatically demonstrate within a few weeks.

Wednesday, June 2 1948: the government dealt with a series of administrative matters.

Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the first and last days of Sukkot and Pessach, along with Shavuot, were decreed to be vacation days. On the other hand, a committee was formed to decide what the work hours of the ministries would be. (The wags might say: well, the hours of employees being in their offices, at least). There was discussion of a law describing the operations of the courts, the line between military and civil authority, the name of the ministry of agriculture (the upshot of the discussion was that its name would remain unchanged) and other such mundane matters which an administration needs to have so as to function.

Borders: the cabinet reiterated its commitment to the partition plan only if the other side accepted the plan. This matter, as we're seeing in this series, preoccupied the cabinet frequently, almost daily.

The name of the section of Tel Aviv in which some of the ministries resided was changed from the German Sarona to the Hebrew Hakirya.

On Friday June 4th the cabinet reconvened for the sole purpose of hearing reports about the war and the negotiations with the UN. No decisions were made.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ancient though Jerusalem is, 1971 was a long time ago

On September 25 1971 the UN Security Council adopted resolution 298, which was one in a series of resolutions calling upon Israel to refrain from developing Jerusalem; indeed, the resolution actually went so far as to require of Israel that it rescind all actions it had taken since June 1967. 14 members of the SC voted for the resolution, and Syria abstained - I assume because it had been taken in response to a Jordanian request and implied recognition of Jordanian claims to Jerusalem, something Syria wasn't interested in doing.

On November 15 that year Israel's Foreign Minister Abba Eban responded in a letter to the UN Secretary General.

Letters such as these, written by diplomats for diplomats, need not be taken as the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth, just as many utterances of many officials and other people often need to be understood as statements of positions in context. One of the primary tasks of the historian is to seek contrasting sources and try to evaluate them and reach a plausible interpretation. Thus when Eban notes, for example, that the number of East Jerusalem voters who participated in the municipal election of 1969 was greater than the total of eligible voters in Jordanian Jerusalem, his facts are correct. Under the Jordanians only some 5,000 propertied citizens could vote, and then the mayor was appointed by the government anyway. Yet his statement elides the fact that most East Jerusalem eligible voters didn't, in practice, use their eligibility.

Of course, when Eban ridicules the UN position that Jerusalem must be returned to its June 1967 circumstances, he's quite right. Dividing the city with a hostile and at times violent border, preventing any Jews and all Israelis including the Arab ones from reaching the holy sites in the Old City, and even merely pretending that time wasn't happening and that no municipal policies could be undertaken, was not a serious option, no matter how many members of the UNSC voted for it.

The most interesting part of the entire discussion, however, at the UN and in Israel's response, is the total lack of any mention of the Palestinians. The word is never mentioned in either document, nor does there seem to be anyone in the discussion giving them any thought as a nation (as a community and as individuals, the Arabs of East Jerusalem are of course mentioned). This is not intended as a reflection on any current debate, merely as a historical note: in late 1971 the international community was very interested in Jerusalem, but was not thinking about the Palestinians as a partner to the discussion.

File ג-12/12796

Monday, August 13, 2012

David Ben Gurion shows empathy, honesty and political grit

It's a bit embarrasing, actually, that a blog of the Israel State Archives has been running for more than a month with hardly any mention of David Ben Gurion. Can you imagine a blog about football (or soccer) which never mentioned Pele, or a blog about Hollywood with nary a mention of, say, Charlie Chaplin or Greta Garbo? (I'll bet no-one has ever compared Ben Gurion to Garbo).

So here's a letter by Ben Gurion. It's not one of the weighty ones, in which he defined Israeli society for generations. On the other hand, it is rather startling. On May 10th 1962, Ben Gurion was responding to a letter from Drora Levitin, whose soldier brother, Amnon Lifschitz, had recently been killed. Levitin's letter was bitter and angry, and Ben Gurion must have responded in his own words: no staff writer would have dared put the letter's sentiments into the mouth of the prime minsiter. Come to think of it, not that many leaders would have used such words themselves, either. It's a profoundly human letter, but there are no apologetics in it, nor any weasel words or cliches.

Dear Drora,

I read your letter with a shudder and deep sorrow. I empathize with you, and although I can't say I share your pain for the loss of your brother Amnon Lifschitz - that would be an insincere exaggeration - while reading your letter I nonetheless felt the brunt of your pain and sorrow.

Nor can I say that there is no basis for your bitterness. Not all your complaints are justified. When you ask "if it's just that able-bodied soldiers serve in Sarafend or Sdeh Dov [two "safe" bases near Tel Aviv] because they have important fathers," you aren't justified. I cannot explain in this letter why some soldiers are based here and others there. No-one can say all the arrangements in the army are ideal and that there's no room for improvement. There's no such thing. Yet some soldiers need to be in Sarafend, and when there's need to send them elsewhere they go, and sometimes they don't all return alive. Yet they get sent, and they go.

I have focused on that particular sentence in your letter, because in your all too natural grief you said something about our soldiers which they don't deserve. There are no soldiers in the army who are preferred because of their fathers. In saying this I am not angry at you, because I understand the deep grief which speaks from your throat. Yet I must disagree, because you are wrong.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about most of the other things in your letter.

What I can say to your complaints - and there's no need for you to apologize for writing "in pain and bitterness" - is that we don't yet live in an ideal system that would have prevented your brother's tragic death. We're doing our best, with some success, but we're still very far from where we'd wish to be...

You're fully correct on one point: the bereaved mother deserves consoling words, though what words might I say that would console her? I know a bit about mothers' hearts, and there is nothing - except the existence of the nation - which perturbs me more in my work as minister of defense than the pain mothers may suffer in this or that action we must take...

I know I can't argue with you. I must regard these matters rationally, and that I can't demand of you; as a bereaved sister, I cannot require you to apply cool logic. Nor, I'm afraid, will I be able to mitigate your pain; such pain isn't to be mitigated.

I haven't responded to all your complaints; but I'd wish to remove your anger at the army and the soldiers. We have nothing more precious than this army, because our existence depends on it. I regret this. I wish we could live surrounded by peace, and not need this army, but that's not the reality. If our army isn't ideal - no army is - we needn't be ashamed of it. Believe me, dear Drora, even you, a bereaved sister, have nothing to be ashamed of by our army.

Greetings,

D. Ben Gurion

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sometimes archives are about what DIDN'T happen

Some of the documents in the archives are from or about events everyone's heard of but perhaps haven't seen. Most are about things people don't know about, or at least haven't given much thought to. And sometimes, the documents in the archives are about things that never happened.

Here's an example from the rich and varied website of NARA, the National Archives and Records Administration, the archives of the American federal government: a draft of a statement to be read by President Nixon in the tragic event of an accident which would prevent the return to Earth of Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, the first two astronauts to land on the moon, 43 years ago this month. (The link comes from this page.) The statement was written by William Safire - and interestingly, the scenario it envisions is that the two men are still alive, just not able to get back.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Teddy Kollek's optimism about Jerusalem, July 1967

Much of what's in the archives is the documentation of officialdom. Some isn't. Today's document is an English translation of an interview with Teddy Kollek, then mayor of Jerusalem, published in Yediot Acharonot on July 14th 1967. Apparently someone in the Foreign Ministry read the interview and had it translated, and a copy now lies in file חצ-8211/7

Kollek was a larger-than-life sort of person, as this fine obituary from The Independant demonstrates. He was also famous for dosing off while listening to other peoples' speeches, so that fact that his interviewer describes him as being tired is merely par to the course. The interview itself is important in that it seems to offer a candid presentation of how Kollek saw Jerusalem a month after it's liberation, with a combination of small details and a very large picture. Interestingly, he doesn't dwell on the historical importance of Jewish control over the entire city or related philosophical matters; what fired him up was the opportunity to create a city in which Jews and Arabs would successfully live together, and his intentions of making that happen.

It didn't happen in the way he described, but given that making predictions is always hard and especially predictions about the future, his thoughts at the time are no less interesting.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

History Repeats Itself, Olympics Edition

On July 23rd, we wrote here about the official committee of inquiry that was launched by the Israeli government after the Helsinki Olympic Games in 1952. The reason? Lack of success by Israel's first ever Olympic delegation.

Well, if you thought that the formation of a national committee of inquiry into Israeli Olympic performance was merely a quirk of history, you were wrong. After a series of failures by Israeli athletes and this year's delegation's failure thus far to secure a single medal, an Israeli sports op-ed columnist calls for ... an official commission of inquiry into Israel's Olympic performance. "Sports Minister Limor Livnat," writes Avinoam Porat, "you need to establish a state commission of inquiry to uncover the reasons for failure." 

If we archivists may be so bold as to as to offer some friendly advice to today's editorialists and disappointed Israeli sports fans, though, we can do no better than the Cowboy from "The Big Lebowski": "Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear, well, he eats you."  Sports, we should remember, sometimes involves losing too.

Dusty old papers in the wrong garage

Here's a story from the Boston Globe about a collection of papers which are in the wrong garage: dozens of boxes of files left behind by Robert F Kennedy.

Some of it's legalese, and some of it's technical. But the crux of the matter is simple. Had RFK lived a normal life span, upon leaving whatever final official office he might have held the papers in his office would have been sent to the archives; over time they would have been catalogued, de-classified and opened to the public. Tragically, that's not the way it happened, and after his assassination the archivists and the family reached an agreement which must have reflected the emotional sensitivity of the matter, but didn't serve the public interest; almost 50 years later some extremely important (and most likely fascinating) documents are hidden away in a private Kennedy installation and no-one has access to them.

It would be nice to say that such things never happen in Israel, and departing politicians never take official documents with them, nor do their survivors hold onto the files because they don't have them in the first place. It would be nice, but alas, it wouldn't be true.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Let them eat chocolate, or: Doing command economy is hard

In April 1949, faced with the enormous task of absorbing hundreds of thousands of mostly penniless new imigrants in a society of fewer than a million locals, many of whom had themselves arrived only a few years earlier, and following the successful but costly War of Independance, Israel's government decided to enact a policy of harsh austerity, based on rationing of many goods. Within a year the governmnet was having second thoughts, and the policy was successively dismantled over the next few years, until its final remains were abolished in 1959.

At the height of the policy, however, the government was very serious about it, and set up the inevitable bureaucracy needed to run and enforce it. Here's one document illustrating what that meant. On March 24th 1949 Eliyah Frumczenko, the general manager of the Elite chocolate factory in Tel Aviv sent an irate letter to Eliezer Kaplan, the Minister of Finance, as well as to assorted other top officials, explaing that the emerging policy of prohibiting him from producing high-quality chocolate pralines was imbecilic (he used politer language but the sentiment is quite clear.)

The chocolate industry is one of the few industries in the contry which has managed to rise above basic quality and thereby to export its produce... The main difference between basic chocolate and high-quality pralines is the labor-intensive designing and shaping of each praline. If you forbid us to make them we'll have to fire hndreds of highly qualified workers, and we'll lose our markets abroad... This year we expect 20,000 foreign tourists: what do you think tourists buy as presents for their local hosts? Chocolate! And what do you think they buy as presents for their friends and families when they return home? Chocolate! Your decree is about to cost us anywhere between IL 100,000-250,000! Our exported chocolate is proof of the value of Israeli industrial products; if you forbid us to produce it, you'll be harming the reputation of the whole country. You must prevent this economic and moral damage!

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Cabinet Protocols: Israel's Second Week

A few days ago we launched a series of blogposts following the deliberations of Israel's cabinet - focusing, as we explained, not on the wordy stenograms but rather on the terse protocols. Today we've got the protocols of the three meetings of Israel's second week of existence, held on May 23, 25 and 26, 1948. They reveal an interesting mixture of war and diplomacy, institution building, and politics.

The content of the reports from the 1948 battlefields didn't make it into the protocols, merely the fact that there were such reports (given by Ben Gurion himself apparently). Greater attention is given, however, to the attempt to end the fighting by a UN resolution. Someday someone needs to write a book about how UN resolutions have added urgency to some military campaigns (and not to others) by adding the option of ordering the sides to desist. (Imagine what the 30 Years War might have looked like had there been a Security Council!) The Israel-Arab war of 1948 was once of the first where the UN had a role.

What the role was, though, isn't clear. The first cease-fire of the war started on June 30th, not in May, and much of what seems to have been happening in the cabinet was posturing: Israel will stop if the other side stops; but Israel won't stop if stopping means the Jordanian will control Jerusalem.

The institution building component of the protocols is straightforward, but interesting for its sequence and the fact that it took place with a backdrop of a war for the very existence of the state. First, the backdrop: it doesn't seem to have made any difference. The ministers went about the process of creating institutions or promulgating the decrees needed to activate them as if there was no war going on. It's impossible to know from these protocols if they worried about the possibility that there'd be no state to need the institutions, but if they did, it doesn't show. True, one of the first decrees created the IDF. But there was also a vote on whether to create a ministry of religious affairs (Yes, by a 5-3 vote), and to send one of the ministers to come back with a proposal for the logo of the state-run train company. The ministers also decided that the judges who had functioned under the British Mandate would now function as Israeli judges, and the protocol includes all their names. Six of the 20-some had Mizrachi names, since you asked, and none were Arab: one assumes the Mandate-appointed Arabs were expected to be judges in the other country.

There was also the issue of physical locations of the ministries. Shoud they all be in the Sarona part of Tel Aviv, or might it be more circumspect to spread them around? Jerusalem was not feasible at this point because it was mostly cut off from the rest of the country.

Finally, the politics: by the end of their second week in office, the ministers had yet to determine who would head which ministry - a standard quandary for all Israeli prime ministers ever since. Though, truth be told, at least in this case they had the reasonable excuse that the ministries themselves hadn't yet been created, at least not as official national institutions. So they set up committees, and sub-committees, and working groups, and they deliberated away. By the end of the week everyone knew that Ben Gurion would be minister of defense in addition to being prime minster, but one of the committees (four members) was given the task of negotiating the terms he was demanding.

More UFOs

Today we're posting the third installment in our series of UFOs (Unidentified Faces from Old times). Our first post was quite successful when, with the help of our readers, we identified two faces. Our second attempt has been less succcessful so far. Our third, still from the collection of Benno Rothenburg, is from what appears to be a public event for intellectuals, sometime around 1950. Note the walls of the venue, with all those books and pictures, and the distinguished-looking folks sitting in rows listening to other distinguished-looking folks. Actually, in the first picture the speaker is as distinguished as you could get in those days: it's Yizchak Ben Zvi, a Zionist leader, MK of the ruling Mapai party, and soon to become Israel's second president.
In the second photo we see Prof. Yosef Klausner, whom we've identified with your help last week; he may be a guest of honor, if you note his high-backed chair and positioning immediately in front of the speaker.

In addition, we've got two other pictures from the same event, with lots of distinguished-looking folks who must have been easily identifiable in 1950, but whom even the archivists of the ISA can't recognize in 2012, fame being a fleeting commodity.

 #3
#4
Yesterday we posted some films of hikers, and one of our points was that hikers then and now look and behave differently. When you look at these photos, however, anyone who has ever been in such an event as this pubilc lecture will recognize the exact same body language in 1950 and in 2012 or any date in between - including the two guys whispering to each other in the back row of picture #3.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

A National March

Ever heard the joke about the bemused Indian villager who asks one of the endless stream of Israeli trekkers passing through his mountain village how many Israelis there are? About 8 million, he's told. "No, not how many Israelis in northern India: I'm asking how many altogether?"

There must be serious explanations for the inclination of young Israelis to backpack in large numbers in India and Sri Lanka, Central- and South America, New Zealand, and recently Vietnam and Laos. One overlooked explanation - or demonstration, at any rate - is that Israelis have been trekking up and down the hills for as long as they've been Israelis.

Here are two films, one from 1963 and the other from 1970, of the marches the grandparents of today's hikers embarked upon. Those were simpler days, the ethos of the travel was strikingly different, and the paved roads were narrower - but perhaps the urge may have been the same.


Friday, August 3, 2012

The Passing of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and a Look Back at his Friendship with Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog


Two weeks ago, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the spiritual leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community and a renowned halakhic decisor, passed away at the age of 102. Not many know that Rabbi Elyashiv served from the early 1950s through the 70s as a judge in the rabbinical courts of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate--first in the district court of Jerusalem and afterward in the Great Rabbinical Court there. Likewise, few are aware that Elyashiv was personally close with the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog, who selected him for those appointments. Herzog was a famed Zionist rabbi of great Jewish learning, and also a man of vast secular knowledge with a doctorate from the University of London. Thus, the relationship between him and Rabbi Elyashiv, a Haredi rabbi who was not a Zionist, is a matter of some fascination.

The State Archives contains several interesting papers documenting Rabbi Elyashiv's work as a judge, as well as his connection with Rabbi Herzog. Here we offer a sampling of these to the general public. Most of the documents are drawn from Rabbi Herzog's personal archive, a choice selection of which can be found on the web site of the State Archives. The first document is an official letter from the Chief Rabbinate to Rabbi Elyashiv from the end of 1950 informing him of the decision to appoint him as an acting member of the Jerusalem rabbinical court. It is signed by Rabbi Herzog and the Sefardic Chief Rabbi of the time, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel. The next document is a section from a letter from 1951 written by Rabbi Elyashiv to Rabbi Herzog in which he praises him for freeing an agunah (a woman unable to remarry according to Jewish law), and refers to Rabbi Herzog with the august honorific "עטרת צבי וצפירת תפארה הגאון האמיתי" ("The crown of nobility and beacon of splendor, the true genius"). The archives also contain several halakhic responsa written by Rabbi Elyashiv. Here is one from 1954 on the subject of sending a get (religious writ of divorce) and a corresponding letter from Rabbi Herzog commenting on this responsum.

All of the documents above are typed, but the archives also possess a selection of handwritten letters from Rabbi Elyashiv, most of which relay to Rabbi Herzog his opinions on various candidates for rabbinic ordination. Here is one such letter from 1958, for anyone who wishes to have a look at Rabbi Elyashiv's own handwriting.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Raoul Wallenberg, 1912-??

This weekend we'll mark the 100th birthdate of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands, and probably tens of thousands of the Jews of Budapest in 1944. Here's a good synopsis of his story.


The ISA isn't the best place to go for documents about Wallenberg, since he lived, and probably died, before the creation of the State of Israel and his activity was elsewhere. Still, given his importance we did a spot of digging and came up with some documents. The first two, here and here, are telegrams from Nazi diplomats in Budapest, Otto von Erdmannsdorff and his boss Edmund Wesenmayer, from December 1944. Apparently someone in the Swedish embassy in Berlin had been asking if anyone had been threatening Wallenberg. Their answer: well, yes, Eichmann had, because Wallenberg was interfering with the efforts to deport the city's Jews, but his intention had been to frighten Wallenberg off, not to harm him. (These documents were collected from German sources in preparation for the Eichmann trial of 1961).

A month after Wesenmayer's telegram the Nazis were gone from Budapest, and Wallenberg had disappeared forever. He was arrested by Soviet troops, who seem to have been following the "arrest first and maybe somebody else might ask questions later and if not who cares" method.

Then there are these two telegrams from Moshe Er'el, Israel's ambassador to Sweden in the mid-1980s, reporting about efforts to find Wallenberg, if he's still alive in the Soviet Union, and if not to learn when he died. (The Soviets, according to Er'el, were still insisting he had died in 1947; Er'el was skeptical.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

New series: The cabinet protocols

Most of what we've been offering so far on this blog has been tidbits, anecdotes, and quick and limited glances into the enormous wealth of documentation in the Israel State Archives (ISA). Some of it comes from files our staff has seen as part of their daily work. Some have been documents we've sought out and declassified specifically for publication, as in the ongoing occasional series of documents about Jerusalem.

Today we're launching an additional series of a different type: the cabinet protocols. It will be marked with the "govt protocols" label.

Israel's cabinet generally meets once a week, normally on Sunday morning (which is the beginning of the work week, not part of the weekend). The discussions are transcribed in their entirety; the transcriptions are often dozens of pages long and at times many hundreds long. After each meeting a very brief protocol is published, from which one may learn about the topics of discussion and the decisions made. Nowadays the cabinet decisions are put online (Hebrew).

The transcripts themselves are classified, obviously, as they are in any country. Depending upon their sensitivity, declassification will be likely after 30 to 50 years, though some transcripts can be published early, and some sections of others will remain sealed for longer, of course.

Today we're starting to put online the short protocols of the cabinet session in a systematic way one ofter another. Some touch upon fascinating or memorable matters; others tell about forgotten meetings by forgotten officials about forgotten issues: much of the human endeavor is not preserved in communal or even individual memory. (Does anyone remember the daily concerns of Henry the II? How many people remember the existence of Henry the II, beyond that he came six Henry's before Mr. Eight?)  Our assumption is that such an orderly presentation of the matters which reached the table of Israel's cabinet is in itself an interesting service to our readers, even without the full transcripts.

We may also start putting the full transcripts online, but those need to be waded through. They're quite wordy.

So here goes:

The first three meetings of the provisional government of Israel took place on May 16th, 19th and 20th, 1948. May 16th, you'll remember, was a Sunday morning; the previous Friday, May 14th, Ben Gurion had proclaimed the creation of the State of Israel; by Sunday morning the US had recognized the new state, and the neighbors had all invaded. The meeting that morning started with a mildly optimistic report about how the American recognition had happened, and what efforts were being made to acquire more recognitions. The first official decision was to approach the Arab governments.

Moshe Shertok, the acting foreign minister took upon himself to present a proposal for appointing ambassadors.

Ben Gurion reported on the state of the battlefields (after Shertok's report. An interesting sequence).

There was initial discussion of how to decide who would head what ministry.

Pinchas Rosenblit presented a draft decree of founding the State. (Unlike the declaration of the previous Friday, this was an essential legal neccessity).

Dr. Haim Wiezman was chosen as the provisional President.

May 19th 1948, five days into statehood and five days into the invasion:

Ben Gurion reported on the state of the war.

There was further discussion of the Founding Decree, with a few corrections.

David Remez was appointed to propose a flag and stamps. (Remember those?)

It was decided to have an aditional meeting the next day to decide about the ministries and ministers.

It was decided to demand naval assistance from the British to protect the ships bringing refugees from Cyprus - to which the British had deported them.

The Tel Aviv hospitals should be put under Red Cross auspices (Tel Aviv was being bombed).

May 20th, 6pm:

Reports from the war. Including a decision to enquire if the Soviet Union would be willing to send a diplomat to Israel, and also offer military support. Regarding the British, they were to be asked what its position was regarding the war with Transjordan.

The United Nations was to be informed that Israel would not respect the partition lines of 1947 unless there was an Arab partner (today we would call it a Palestinian state) as stipulated in the Partition Plan of 29th November 1947.

Three ambassadors were appointed: to the US, France, and Czechoslovakia.

The clock was turned forward by two hours.

A budget was allocated to remove women and children from some battle zones.

A legal device for the aquisition of Arab property was to be promulgated.

The flag would remain unchanged: that of the Zionist Movement.

A subcommitte of four was appointed to submit a plan for creation of ministries and appointment of ministers.

David Ben Gurion was appointed prime minister.