On “Smoking Guns”: The Curious Case of the Israeli State Archives

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:30 PM
Embassy Room (Omni Shoreham)
Noa Shaindlinger, North Carolina State University
State archives, as Derrida aptly reminded us, are mechanism of legitimizing the state and the nation it claims to represent. Archival documents are not only deployed as evidence of authenticity, but are also used to authorize particular interpretations of the past and silence others. Put differently: the state projects its power over the organization of knowledge in order to produce and disseminate certain narratives that serve its interests. The recent closure of the Israeli State Archives (ISA) is a case in point: documents available to the public through the archives’ website are doubly filtered: once through cataloguing done by professional archivists, then by military censors who can re-classified documents previously physically available at the archives’ facilities. The digital visibility of the archives generated a renewed public interest in documents as agents of public and cultural memory, which also fed into an existing campaign to release classified documents pertaining to the disappearance of infants born to new Jewish migrants from Muslim-majority countries and the Balkan. The eventual release of some 200,000 of these documents on ISA website generated initial enthusiasm followed by bitter disappointment: the “smoking gun” of the state’s culpability in those disappearances is nowhere to be found. I argue that this sense of disappointment is rooted in pre-assumptions about the nature of historical evidence and specifically, about the role of state archives in popular demand for justice and redress. Ultimately, the significance of archival documents as evidence of injustice relies on the assumptions of readers and the question they pose. Decentering the quest for a “smoking gun” and reading instead for archiving as the production of silences can help us make these silences visible.
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