Archives of Israeli Oppression

Akevot Institute founder Lior Yavne on how unearthing government records can illuminate ongoing injustices.

Mitchell Abidor
September 29, 2023

The Visitors' Center at the Israel State Archives.

Avishai Teicher / PikiWiki Israel

In December 2021, Haaretz published a groundbreaking investigation exposing previously unknown information about Israel’s massacres of Palestinians in 1948. Drawing on newly uncovered documents from government archives—including cabinet meeting minutes and soldiers’ letters—the report found that top Israeli leaders were aware of, and complicit in, the violence of the Nakba, when Zionist militias expelled more than 750,000 Palestinians from their land.

The exposé was the result of a collaboration between Haaretz and the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, a human rights organization that pushed to have these documents declassified. Since 2014, Akevot—which is named for the Hebrew word for footprints—has worked to publicize evidence of Israel’s injustices against Palestinians found in state archives. According to the group’s website, it was established “out of a recognition of the unique role archives can play in breaking conflict-enhancing myths.” Over the years, Akevot has amassed a collection of about 350,000 documents, many dating back to the state’s founding, which it maintains in a digital archive and makes accessible to the public through books and articles published by its staff.

Lately, Akevot has turned to a new format to present the archival information it uncovers: short videos posted on its YouTube channel. Many of the videos are straightforward documentaries, like a recent one on Israel’s never-implemented 1956 plan to set up concentration camps for Palestinians who did not flee to Jordan in the event of war. Like other Akevot videos, the short film features a person involved in the history: in this case, the commander who was tasked with carrying out this plan. Other Akevot videos feature experiments with AI animation, with colorful visuals complementing simple readings of document excerpts covering material such as government plans for repressing the First Intifada, Shin Bet—Israel’s equivalent of the FBI—spying on Arab Communist teachers in Nazareth, and the 1948 demolition of the Arab village of Iqrit.

To learn more about Akevot’s work, the challenges it faces in bringing buried documents to light, and its recent forays into video production, I spoke with the organization’s founder and executive director, Lior Yavne. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Abidor: What led you to establish the Akevot Institute?

Lior Yavne: For 24 years, I’ve been working in the human rights field in Israel—first at [the Israeli human rights organization] B’Tselem, where my roles included spokesperson and communications director, and then as part of the group that started [anti-occupation nonprofit] Yesh Din, where I was the research director.

I eventually came to the conclusion that a lot of what the human rights organizations were looking for, in terms of figuring out what’s happening on the ground, can actually be found in government documentation, which can be accessed in state archives. I thought I had invented the wheel, but I soon learned that in various places around the world, civil society organizations go back to the archives to learn what happened—usually in post-conflict scenarios, and sometimes as part of transitional justice processes, in places like Argentina, the Balkans, or to an extent, Northern Ireland. We drew on this model to start Akevot.

MA: What are the barriers to getting these documents? For instance, does the government charge a lot of money for access?

LY: In Israel, the law governing public access to government archives is fairly liberal, but its implementation is awful. As a data sheet we published in May shows, major government archives have actually made less than 3% of their holdings available to the public. And while there are no fees involved in accessing the Israel State Archives—you can just go and download documents that are opened to the public—the IDF and Defense Establishment Archives, which are four times bigger, do charge fees for providing digital copies of documents: a shekel [26 cents] or two per page, which can add up. Several years ago our researcher, Adam Raz, submitted a complaint about this to the state comptroller’s office, who responded that this practice is unlawful. But this issue has not yet been resolved, and we are continuing this fight with the archive.

MA: Are government documents that you publish on your website redacted?

LY: Some of them are redacted in the process of declassification, when they’re first released to the public. Additionally, the military censor maintains a “topics list,” and under Israeli law, anything published on these topics must be provided to the military censor for pre-approval. Journalists do this regularly. It was very clear to us, even before we started publishing, that what we do will be looked at very carefully, so I’ve made a point of giving everything relevant to the military censor. Very rarely, they ask us to redact specific things—usually details like the number of Shin Bet units, or sentences they deem particularly sensitive. But usually, they don’t interfere with the documents we release. And when they have asked for redaction without providing clear grounds for it, we have sometimes argued against their request and won.

Following the principle of “do no harm,” we do sometimes carry out our own redactions—like removing the names of people who may have collaborated with Israeli intelligence services and other sensitive data that may actually cause harm to a person.

MA: In recent years, Israeli human rights groups have come under attack by the right-wing government, which has been attempting to pass laws cutting off their funding. What kinds of attacks have you been subject to?

LY: We enjoy sort of the same treatment as our colleagues in B’Tselem, [anti-occupation veterans group] Breaking the Silence, and other organizations. For over a decade, far-right organizations—some of which are said to be connected with [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu’s office—have been successfully selling the idea that civil society organizations that receive international funding serve foreign interests. This is utterly baseless: We are a completely independent organization, and no funder has any impact on the contents of our work.

Nevertheless, in August 2018, Netanyahu called the Swiss foreign minister to demand that the Swiss government—which has given us money since we began—stop funding one of our projects related to expanding public access to government archives. A few days later, the Israeli ambassador to Switzerland handed Swiss foreign ministry officials a document titled “Switzerland Support to Akevot Institute,” which claimed that our research was “aimed at legal warfare against the State of Israel in Israel and abroad,” that all of our funding came from Norway and Switzerland, and that “the Swiss government involvement deviates . . . from the accepted legitimate boundaries in relations between states.” We had to do quite a bit of work to counter this attack, but ultimately our funding was not harmed.

MA: What led you to start producing videos?

LY: We at Akevot are trying to tell a different, more factual story of the [Israeli–Palestinian] conflict than the state is telling, so we want our research to be widely available. From the beginning, we’ve been considering ways to make the contents of the documents as engaging as possible. Uploading PDFs online is great, but it’s not enough. We’re not academics. We are very much a political organization trying to make the archives a political tool.

Our initial thinking was about some sort of docu-theater: basically, performances where actors just read aloud from the documents. We were looking into that when Covid started, but we figured that theater productions were probably not going to be happening anytime soon. Soon afterwards, however, we got funding to hire Matan Ben Moreh—an accomplished documentary director who recently won the “Best Debut” award at the Docaviv film festival—as our house filmmaker.

We started off with more traditional videos. And then, earlier this year, when everybody started talking about AI, we began exploring how we could make use of those tools. We’re very pleased with the results, and I assume they’ll get even better as the technology progresses. At the same time, we also want to do more traditional filmmaking, because it’s very powerful for the videos to feature people who were actually involved in the story.

Recently, we also returned to the docu-theater idea with a project in which eight artists—both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians—from various fields each responded to a document that we provided to them based on their interests. It played for two nights in Tel Aviv and was very successful, and Matan is now working on turning this stage show into videos.

MA: Do you collaborate with any Palestinian groups in doing this work?

LY: We work quite a bit with certain Palestinian NGOs, like [the legal advocacy nonprofit] Adalah and [the human rights group] Al-Haq. However, many Palestinian organizations are committed to a non-normalization policy with Israeli NGOs, so it has been difficult to have formal relationships. This challenge is not unique to Akevot; it is something that affects all Israeli NGOs dealing with the conflict.

MA: How does your archival research fit within the broader landscape of human rights advocacy in Israel?

LY: We support the work of other human rights organizations by providing archival documentation that can back up their litigation, research, and advocacy. One thing we learned very early is that nothing that’s happening on the ground now—from administrative detentions to policies on land use—is new. Every government policy that human rights organizations are dealing with has its roots in past decades, and the archives give us insight into how these decisions come to be made.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.