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Open Access Publications from the University of California

History in the Public Courtroom: Commissions of Inquiry and Struggles over the History and Memory of Israeli Traumas

  • Author(s): Molchadsky, Nadav Gadi
  • Advisor(s): Myers, David N.
  • Saposnik, Arieh B.
  • et al.

This study seeks to shed new light on the complex web of relations among history, historiography and contemporary life. It does so by focusing on Israeli commissions of inquiry that have taken rise in the wake of major national traumas such as failed battles in the 1948 War, the Yom Kippur War, and the assassination of the Zionist leader Chaim Arlosoroff. Each one of these landmark events in the history of Israel was investigated by a state or a military commission of inquiry, whose members and audience operate as authors of history and agents of memory. The study suggests that commissions of inquiry, which have been studied to date primarily as legal, administrative, and political bodies, in fact also operate as a public historian of a unique kind. In this capacity, and unlike a professional historian, commissions are by definition expected not to refrain from making ethical and legal judgments. On the contrary, judgment is, in the final analysis, the underpinning motivation for their historical inquiry. Moreover, commissions of inquiry, and the way their work reverberates within the public sphere, and in professional and popular historiography, allow us to focus on processes of collective-memory formation. While commissions have the ability to shape conventional views regarding matters of vital public importance, this ability is dependent on a wide range of factors, circumstances and their particular admixture in the decades that follow the completion of the commission's work.

The case studies analyzed in the dissertation reveal the way in which Israeli society has struggled to forge memories of--and historical judgments about--difficult chapters in the country's history. In the course of analysis, the dissertation also examines questions such as who is understood to have the right to make historical judgments on matters deemed to be of vital public importance? In what ways have commissions of inquiry contributed to the shaping and revision of Israeli history and memory? What factors and circumstances have enabled or prevented them from doing so? What light do they shed on social conceptions of the difference between historical truth, political truth and legal truth, and how do such distinctions influence the work and deliberations of commission members themselves? Through such questions, and by applying a comparative analysis, the study seeks to open a vista into the ways in which a national society such as Israel, processes and negotiates its past and its memory of it.

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