The Israel State Archives

Israel’s State Archives holds the official state records of the State of Israel and its political and administrative bodies, as well as the files of preceding state and administrative bodies. It is managed within the Prime Minister’s Office. The main research center for the archives, and its administrative offices, is located in Talpiot in southern Jerusalem. The archive holds approximately 2.8 million files, which they are seeking to digitize in its totality. The ISA is a crucial resource for researchers interested in the political, legal, and economic history of Israel/Palestine.

The ISA holds files relating to numerous Israeli political and administrative bodies, institutions, and ministries, including the Prime Minister’s Office, the Knesset (Israeli parliament), President’s office, the treasury, ministry of the interior, state rabbinate, ministry of education, ministry of immigration and absorption, El Al, foreign ministry, ministry of the environment, ministry of tourism and sport, and more.

When the State of Israel was established in 1948, it acquired the records of the prior administrations of the British Mandate and Ottoman Empire relating to the territories under its control. The state also immediately began producing records of its own relating to the new state. As a result, among the many administrative bodies that the state of Israel needed to create in order to manage its affairs, it required a state archive.

In July 1948, Georg Herlitz and Alex Bein, respectively the director and assistant director of the Central Zionist Archives, outlined a plan for the Zionist Archives to take on a new role as a state archive. However, in 1949 the Israeli government established a separate Israel State Archives in Tel Aviv under the direction of Sophie Udin, who had been the leader of the Zionist Archives in New York City.

The ISA included the records of the state of Israel as well as those of the Mandate authorities.

In 1955, Israel’s Archives Law (חוק הארכיון) formalized the position of the Israel State Archives. (See an English summary of the Archives Law and regulations.) The law established a position of State Archivist, a position to which Alex Bein was appointed in 1956 and held until 1971; he was succeeded by Paul Alsberg. The Archives Law also created a framework of so-called “public archives” (ארכיונים ציבורים), which were non-state archives (i.e. archives affiliated with private organizations and communities) that were perceived to have a “public” mission. The State Archivist is officially the head of the network of public archives, and is tasked with upholding archival standards and developing the public archives along with the Association of Israeli Archivists (האיגוד הישראלי לארכיונאות ולמידע).

The archives law also set two important stipulations: First, it initially set a time frame of 30 years before state records would be available for research (though this limit may be increased for files relating to national security); and secondly, it created a statutory requirement that archival materials would not be exported from the state.

Both of these rules are critical in current developments of archives in Israel, and the Israel State Archives in particular. In 2014, the archives reduced the classification period to 15 years, in conjunction with an ongoing digitization project, with the aim of making more files available to researchers more quickly. However, this change has contributed towards two challenges. Firstly, reducing the time before files are available to researchers has increased the workload for examining these files beyond the ISA’s ability to keep up with files, meaning that they are years behind in the process of declassifying records. Also, the ISA has restricted access to paper documents: When scholars request materials, they are scanned and made available digitally rather than on paper; in theory, they would be available within two weeks. While in theory this helps contribute to the ongoing availability of files online (especially useful during the COVID pandemic when foreigners have had difficulty entering Israel), it also means that all files are being passed by a censor in the process of being made available to researchers. This new system led to sharp criticism: Some scholars have reflected upon the lost intangibles of working with original files, and others have considered the possibility that this will lead to censorship of the files (which are not marked when materials are left undigitized).

Also, Israel’s archives law has been used to keep records in Israel, particularly in the case of the archives of Vienna and the Kafka archives. In both instances, groups outside of Israel have requested that archival materials be transferred to European countries and Israel’s courts have interpreted the archives law to make it impossible for the files to be exported in the original.

Research Notes

The Israel State Archives has a searchable database in the computers in the reading room. There is a slight learning curve, but it allows for fine-tuned queries.

There is also a search engine online which allows for direct access to digitized materials. Scholars can also use the search engine to request that files be digitized and made available online.

Since ISA will scan materials, it is possible for scholars outside of Israel to request scans of entire files. While in theory they offer files within two weeks, there is not necessarily a quick turn-around.

Further Reading

  • Paul Alsberg. “The Administration of the Israel State Archives.” Public Administration in Israel and Abroad, no. 12 (1972): 223–28.
  • Paul Alsberg. “גנזך המדינה כמקור לתולדות ארץ ישראל בתקופת השלטון העות’מאני.” קתדרה, no. 1 (1976): 172–81.