Israel’s Decide to Head Holocaust Memorial Stirs Worldwide Uproar
JERUSALEM – His name has been synonymous with intolerance and right-wing extremism for years.
When the conservatively led Israeli government named Effie Eitam chairman of Yad Vashem, the country’s official Holocaust memorial and one of its holiest institutions, it sparked an uproar.
Mr Eitam, a 68-year-old retired brigadier general and former minister, has spent the past decade in the private sector. But his provocative statements from the early 2000s, advocating the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and excluding the Arab citizens of Israel from politics, remain popular.
The appointment could have “devastating consequences,” said Israel Bartal, professor of modern Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who after years of working together would be forced to sever all contacts with the Yad Vashem research institute. “An institute led by someone with such extreme opinions and controversial human values is never taken seriously in the global academic community,” said Bartal.
Holocaust survivors, Jewish organizations and an international number of historians have condemned the appointment of such a controversial figure to head Yad Vashem. They say that the institution not only recognizes the Nazis’ genocide of six million Jews as a unique event, but is also responsible for upholding universal moral values and educating people about anti-Semitism and racism.
Despite the setback, a government nomination committee reviewed and approved Mr. Eitam’s candidacy in mid-November. Only one cabinet vote is now between him and the post.
“This is more than a colossal mistake – it’s a tragedy,” said Deborah E. Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, who has written several books on the subject. “Appointing Eitam to this position would taint Yad Vashem’s reputation and Yad Vashem’s record.”
Mr. Eitam and Yad Vashem declined to comment on the appointment.
But Mr Eitam’s defenders say he is the victim of a left-wing campaign just because he is right-wing and religious. They see him as a war hero and seasoned manager who could lead Yad Vashem out of a severe financial crisis exacerbated by cuts in the state budget and a drop in donations due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The result is that Yad Vashem, an almost sacred institution that world leaders are expected to visit in Jerusalem, is embroiled in the political and cultural wars of a polarized country where the dominant right fights against the liberal left and Increasingly in power is opportunities with the more liberal currents among world Jews.
Worse still, experts say, it comes at a time when anti-Semitism is resurrecting and far-right forces in other parts of the world are promoting Holocaust denial.
“You are not playing politics with the Shoah, and this is playing politics with the Shoah,” said Professor Lipstadt, using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.
She is one of 750 historians, experts in Jewish studies, and cultural workers who have signed a petition against the appointment that was presented to the Yad Vashem Board of Trustees and the Israeli Parliament this month.
The current chairman of Yad Vashem, Avner Shalev, 81, is a respected, apolitical figurehead. He announced in June that he would step down after a 27-year term.
Zeev Elkin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Conservative Likud Party Minister responsible for Yad Vashem, elected Mr. Eitam with the full support of Mr. Netanyahu.
However, government approval may not be imminent. All executive appointments have been frozen due to coalition battles and Benny Gantz, who leads the centrist blue-white party in Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, is likely to block Mr Eitam’s rise by denying him a majority when it comes to a cabinet vote .
But Mr. Elkin and Mr. Netanyahu insist that he is still their only candidate.
Mr. Eitam, a resident of a settlement in the Israel-annexed Golan Heights, grew up as a secular Jew and caught attention after the 1973 Middle East War.
He was honored for his role in one of the war’s most desperate battles and later took part in a raid to rescue mostly Israeli hostages in Entebbe, Uganda. Mr. Netanyahu’s older brother, Yonatan, a legendary figure in Israel, was killed while leading the raid.
But Mr Eitam once compared the Arab citizens of Israel to a cancer and a “ticking bomb” and said Israel would ultimately have to expel most of the Palestinians from the West Bank.
During the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, when he was brigade commander, some of his soldiers were prosecuted for beating a Palestinian to death. The soldiers said they hit him on the commandant’s orders.
Ultimately, Mr. Eitam received a severe reprimand and his promotion to brigadier general had long stalled. However, his military career lasted nearly three decades.
Mr. Elkin, the minister responsible for Yad Vashem, denounced what he described as “ugly” and “hypocritical” campaign led by political forces who never objected to appointments from the left wing of the political spectrum.
“It’s true he made some unsuccessful remarks,” said Mr. Elkin in a telephone interview about Mr. Eitam, “but that was 15 or 20 years ago.” Mr. Elkin also said that some of these statements have been taken out of context.
Mr. Elkin cited as a reference point Joseph “Tommy” Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and bitter leader of a liberal, secular, centrist party who later became chairman of the Yad Vashem advisory board. Mr Lapid once said that if 10 car bombs went off in 10 Palestinian cities, Palestinians “could start thinking about the effects”, killing 500 Palestinians.
“That’s a more shocking statement to me,” said Elkin, “and no one was against his appointment.”
One leader of the campaign against the appointment is Colette Avital, a former Israeli diplomat and Labor Party lawmaker who now chairs the Center Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, an umbrella organization for 58 Holocaust organizations. She said she had politically proposed alternative candidates to Mr. Elkin.
“There are people who do not represent the left but who can project an image of tolerance, understanding and moderation,” she said. Regarding the allegations against Mr. Lapid, she said, “Two mistakes make no right.”
Other non-political bodies have criticized Mr. Eitam’s nomination, including the Anti-Defamation League and some Yad Vashem donors.
“Yad Vashem should stay above Israeli politics and maintain its impeccable record and moral superiority,” wrote Joel Herzog from the Swiss friends of Yad Vashem in an email.
Critics are baffled why Mr. Elkin chose Mr. Eitam. But it could signal a desired shift that would bring the institution more in line with the government after some recent run-ins.
In 2018, Yad Vashem issued sharp criticism of a joint statement by the Prime Ministers of Israel and Poland aimed at bridging a gap between countries over a Polish law criminalizing some statements about the Holocaust. Yad Vashem’s chief historian, Prof. Dina Porat, was involved in drafting the joint statement, apparently in a private capacity.
Supporters of Mr. Eitam said he could project a more muscular, Jewish and Zionist oriented image from Yad Vashem for Israel’s fight against anti-Semitism. Mr. Elkin said Mr. Eitam’s entire career in the army had been devoted to teaching the Holocaust, which was summed up in the phrase “never again.”
“That’s something fundamental in his character, the essence of his character,” said Elkin.