The Israel State Archives is the main source for the official records from the British period. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War many of the records of the British Mandate administration were either destroyed or lost. Those which remain are held today at the ISA in Jerusalem.
The ISA was founded in 1949, one year after the establishment of the State of Israel to safeguard the records of the proceeding governmental administrations of Palestine from the Ottoman Period to the end of the British Mandate, and to document the development of Israel.
Access to the archive is open to anybody without prior booking. ID such as a passport must be shown at reception and you will then consult with one of the archivists on what material you are looking for. This is very important because the archive catalogue is mostly in Hebrew. Some of the individual files from the Mandate period have English titles, but you must go through a Hebrew cataloguing system to get to them. As a result, you are very dependent on the archivists providing you with the lists of the various record groups, sub-groups and files. This makes the research process slow and often frustrating for non-Hebrew speakers, but the staff are helpful and friendly. This is also a useful book kept in the reading room containing descriptions of all the record groups in English. The catalogue numbering system has changed since the book was published but the staff will usually be able to locate the groups from the old system.
In general the ISA is extremely relaxed in terms of handling of the documents etc. Photography (without charge), photocopying and laptops are all allowed.
Below is some general information about some of the record groups held at the ISA:
A very small number of records from the Ottoman administration remain in Israel, for example the archives of the Jerusalem district governor Ali Ekrem Bey, 1906-1908; the population registry (known as nufus), public notary papers, etc. The ISA also holds the archives of the German British consulates in Palestine from this period.
There is a great deal of material from the British Mandate administration, although it is far from a complete collection as most of the material was lost or destroyed.
The most complete part of the collection are the files from the Chief Secretary's .Office, 1920-1948 (containing 23,280 files). This covers all areas of governance from political affairs to education, health, to immigration to religious matters and so on.
In addition, many of the files from the various department of the Jerusalem government are found here (including education, public works, agriculture etc). There are also some files from the local administrations (known as District Administrations).
The ISA also holds many other interesting files such as those of the Palestine Police Force (1933-1948), the High Commissioner's Office (only 33 files), the Attorney General's Office photographs and maps, and a some personal collections relating to the Mandate (such as that of the first High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel).
Access to the material
Users should keep in mind that access to the material in the Israel State Archives is given according to the Archives Law -1955 rather than according to the Freedom of Information law. According to the Archives Law and its regulations, access to all records is available for research purposes. The period of limitation on records is usually 30 years, but the ministry depositing the records may determine a shorter timeline for single files or for entire series of files. Personal records are sealed for 70 years. IDF and defence establishment records are usually sealed for 50 years.
Address and contact details:
35 Makor Haim Street,
This address is difficult to find as it is located some way from the city centre (near Hebron Road and Bethlehem Road) and the archives are in a non-descript, residential area. The building has no sign in English indicating it is the Israel State Archives building. It is highly advisable to take a taxi to the archives for the first visit, making sure the driver knows the exact location before you set off.
The ISA is open all year (including Christmas, New Year) except for the major Jewish holidays.
The reading room is open from 8am to 4pm, Sunday to Thursday (closed Friday and Saturday).
2. Central Zionist Archives (CZA)
The CZA is the archives of the Zionist movement, located in Jerusalem. Its records cover the years 1880-1970 and document the growth of the Zionist movement worldwide, the development of the Jewish Home in Palestine and various aspects of the history of the Jewish people in the last 120 years.
As a result, the CZA holds the records of various Zionist organisations such as the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayesod, as well as the archives of the World Jewish Congress and various other bodies.
The CZA also holds the private papers of individuals active in the Zionist movement and in the development of Palestine and Israel. The CZA therefore contains a great deal of correspondence and official documents from the British Mandate administration, mostly through the correspondence between Mandate officials and Zionist leaders in Palestine. Also of great use is the correspondence between the Zionist movement and British Government officials in London. This is mainly found in the record group Z4 which contains the files of the London Office of the Jewish Agency for Palestine.
In addition, the CZA houses over half a million photographs, 50,000 maps and plans, over 18,000 posters and announcements, a large collection of ephemera, 13,000 newspapers and periodicals, a library and a microfilm collection. Along with the Hebrew University, the CZA also runs the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive, which houses over 3,000 film and video titles.
The CZA is much better organised than the ISA and seems to maintain much higher professional standards. The catalogue is digitalised and partly in English. Some of the catalogue can be searched away from the archives on the website http://www.zionistarchives.org.il/ZA/pMainE.aspx
Officially, visitors are required to book an appointment with one of the archivists before their visit (details on the website). However, I found it was ok just to turn up on the day and consult one of the archivists on how to use the system. They were helpful and friendly although not everyone there speaks English. No letters of introduction/permission were required, only ID (passport etc).
In the reading room you can make photocopies (about 20p per page) and use laptops and cameras but there is a charge for taking photos (about 5p per photo). The charges for publishing any images or photos taken in the CZA are very high (around £15 per image).
Reading room opening hours
The reading room is open Sunday – Thursday from 8:00 to 15:30.
The CZA is closed on Fridays and Saturdays.
The CZA is very easy to find, located just across the road from the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem and adjacent to Binyanei Ha'uma (the International Congress Center, ICC).
Central Zionist Archives
Zalman Shazar 4
3. The Weizmann Archives
These archives contain the vast collection of Chaim Weizmann's personal papers. As the Zionist movement's main point of contact with the British Government in London, Weizmann was engaged in seemingly endless correspondence with the Colonial Office, the Cabinet, the Treasury, the Foreign Office and the Mandate administration in Jerusalem. As a result, there is a great deal of material in this archive of use to scholars interested in the British period in Palestine.
The archive also contains the papers of some other individuals related to Chaim Weizmann such as his son, Yecheal, who was in charge of the construction of the new airports and Haifa and Lydda during the British period.
Again, the archive is freely accessible, but a prior appointment is necessary.
The director of the archive is Merav Segal (Merav.Segal@weizmann.ac.il)
I was introduced to her through Motti Golani, a historian working at Haifa University. It is well worth arranging to see her upon arrival at the archive as she is of great help.
The archive does not appear to have any electronic catalogue in English, nor a website in English.
4. The Israel National Library
Located in Jerusalem, the National Library is a useful source for scholars of the mandate period as it holds all the original copies (and on microfilm) of all press publications from the mandate period. These are mostly in Arabic and Hebrew but there are also the publications from the Mandate government such as the Palestine Gazette, as well as the English language non-official paper, the Palestine Post (founded 1932).
This is a public library and can be visited by anybody without prior arrangement.
It is open to the public Sunday -Thursday from 9:00 to 19:00, and Friday 9:00 to 13:00.
Edmond Safra campus, Givat Ram, Jerusalem, ISRAEL
POB 39105 Jerusalem 91390
All information is clearly given on the website: www.jnul.huji.ac.il
5. Palestinian Sources
The defeat of the Arab forces in the 1948 war and subsequent absence of any Palestinian state apparatus left a lasting mark on historical sources in Palestine. The vast majority of the surviving official documentation from the mandate period passed into the hands of the Israeli state (now housed in the archives described above). A good deal of Palestinian records ended up in the hands of the PLO but this was further damaged/lost in the various stages of conflict and changes of location for the PLO (Amman, Beirut, Tunis, Gaza City, Ramallah etc). Today, the best collection of Palestinian records is held at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut. The vast majority of this is in Arabic (newspapers, memoirs, files of Palestinian political bodies from the Mandate etc) but there is a limited amount of correspondence in English with the Mandate administration.
Despite the scarcity of official records, there are a number of valuable private collections located in Palestine, especially in East Jerusalem. In particular the Budeiri Library and the Khalidi family library (both in East Jerusalem) contain a great deal of manuscripts, memoirs and letters written by Palestinian notables during the Ottoman and British periods. This is all in Arabic. This libraries can be extremely difficult to access and are not open generally to the public. Appointments must be made with the owners and access will only be given if they feel the topic of research is suitable.
It is also worth scanning the Palestinian university libraries, especially those at Bir Zeit (just outside Ramallah in the West Bank) and Al-Najah (in Nablus, the West bank). These contain large collections of published Arabic primary sources from the mandate period as well as newspaper archives covering the mandate period. The university libraries are open to outsiders (always best to email before hand to arrange a visit) and the staff usually speak good English and are happy to assist you.
There are also a number of local municipality archives in Israel that are easily accessible and contain material from the British period. I found the Haifa Municipal Archives to be particularly useful for my research as they hold the minutes of meetings of the town council from the 1920s and 1930s.
(From research visits 2008-2009)
Lecturer in Middle East History, University of Sussex
Added February 2014
(All photos J. Norris)