Archives with Palestine: Getting the SAA to back BDS

West Bank checkpoint, 2002. From 11-0221, Worldwide Ministries Division. Associate for Middle East and Asia Minor photographs, Presbyterian Historical Society.

By David Staniunas

“Oh I’m not looking to boycott anyone, I’m really just interested in getting better contact information for the National Archives of Palestine,” said the caller.

This was a great start to our video chat. “I don’t want to get into the politics,” the caller said.

If there’s one archives which demands that you “get into the politics,” it’s Palestine’s.

Let’s call this a neophyte’s guide to becoming an archivist in solidarity with Palestine.

I work for an organization, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has a long history of using economic measures to bring political pressure on states for the cause of peacemaking. The church brought economic pressure on the Republic of South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. In 2014, the PC(USA) divested from Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard, owing to those corporations’ participation in the illegal occupation of Palestine. Facing blowback for the decision in 2016, an overture condemning Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions as a peacemaking practice came to the General Assembly: it was voted down by a 75-25% margin.

The church came to this understanding through trial and error. For decades a consensus surrounding “positive investment” in Palestine had reigned. Rather than pull funds out of entities which facilitate administrative detention, or administer naval blockades, liberal American groups promoted infrastructure and educational investments in the West Bank and Gaza.

Two decades after the Oslo accords, witnessing the carving-up of the West Bank amid increasing settler violence, Presbyterians moved away from a sole focus on positive investment. Facts on the ground — you can plant all the solar panels you want, the IDF will still bulldoze them — forced them to.

The cultural heritage and documentary record of the Palestinian people has been dismembered, dispersed, and appropriated for the ends of the occupation, and that’s a matter for archivists and others to contend with. That expropriation of material and documentary culture is part and parcel of Palestinian life under occupation and in exile. Support for Palestinian archives demands support for the cause of Palestinian liberation; they are the same story.

Here’s one episode: During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the contents of the Palestinian Cinema Institute and the Palestinian Research Center were systematically looted. Israel bombed the building which housed the PCI and the PRC. Israeli soldiers then pursued Palestinian archivists around the city. Over the next few weeks, archivists were able to gather fragments of the collection, and rehouse them. The next year, Israel bombed the new fragmentary archive.

“Where is the Palestinian Archives?” is a question that can only be answered with stories like these. There’s a tranche of records buried on the grounds of an Algerian military base. There’s Mandatory Palestine records in the United Kingdom. There are looted libraries and seized fonds held in the Israeli State Archives and in the internal archives of the IDF. It’s the same question as asking “Where are the Palestinians?”

Last year, at SAA’s annual conference, many of us gathered to participate in the post-conference Liberated Archive Forum. We did so thanks to sponsorship from HP Experience. HP maintains the biometric ID cards used at Israeli checkpoints, and provides software and support to the Israeli Navy. Our professional organization received material support from a subcontractor for the occupation.

So a small group of SAA members has been meeting every month or so, to educate ourselves and our colleagues about how American archivists could stand in solidarity with Palestine. With contributions from Librarians and Archivists with Palestine, we’ve developed a reading list on Palestine and archives. And we’d like you to join us.

We believe SAA should practice what it preaches. SAA members should push SAA to square its self-representation with its sources of income. You can’t be for a “liberated archive” and also for the occupation of Palestine and the dismemberment of Palestinian documentary culture.

David Staniunas is Records Archivist at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, PA.


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