The Politicization of Yad Vashem Is a Symptom of a Larger Problem

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, May 4, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, May 4, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Within the next few weeks, the Israeli government will be asked to approve the appointment of Effi Eitam, a former far-right politician and military commander, to the top job at Yad Vashem.

That a man who has called for the expulsion of West Bank Palestinians and referred to Israel’s Arab minority as a “fifth column” might be considered  an appropriate candidate to run the national institution for Holocaust remembrance has certainly raised eyebrows – and not only in Israel. Indeed, in recent weeks, Israeli government leaders have been bombarded with letters from prominent Holocaust survivors urging them to reconsider.

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It would not be the first time in recent weeks that Diaspora Jews have responded to news about personnel changes at key Jewish and Zionist institutions with the following question: What were Netanyahu and his Likud  party thinking?

Take, for example, the case of Jacques Kupfer, a man who has called for stripping Israeli Arabs of their voting rights and who provokes animosity even within Likud circles for his extremist views. Kupfer, a former head of the Likud in France, was recently appointed director of the Diaspora Affairs Department at the World Zionist Organization, whose goals include “talking about Israel from all angles” and “building bridges between Jews everywhere in the world.” His appointment was part of a deal reached in the final hours of last month’s World Zionist Congress, which handed the Likud control of this very important department.

The opening ceremony of the 35th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, June 19, 2006.Credit: Kobi Gideon

In a letter sent to Netanyahu last week, leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements begged the Israeli leader to find another candidate from Likud, but to no avail.  “In our view, an individual who promotes an agenda that undermines the democratic foundations of the state of Israel and the fundamental values of Zionism is not suited to fill a senior role in the national institutions,” they wrote, referring to the WZO and its affiliate organizations.  “This is even more the case when that person sees his partners around the table of the Zionist leadership as traitors.”

Even the Anti-Defamation League, which rarely if ever comments on appointments at other Jewish organizations, sent a letter to Yaakov Hagoel, the newly appointed chairman of the WZO and former head of World Likud, urging him to reconsider Kupfer’s appointment. Coincidentally or not, on that same day, the ADL also sent a letter to Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the chairman of the Yad Vashem council, protesting the planned appointment of Eitam to the position of chairman of the institution.

The battle over the leadership at Keren Hayesod, Israel’s official global fundraising organization, is yet another example of this growing disconnect. In an unprecedented move, a group of Keren Hayesod trustees who represent key Jews donors, took the WZO to court two weeks ago, alleging that a deal to oust the current chairman of the organization was unlawful. Netanyahu, who was known to have been the driving force behind this deal, had offered the trustees two possible candidates to replace the current chairman, Sam Grundwerg. Both of these candidates, after being interviewed by members of the Keren Hayesod board, were deemed unqualified for the job, according to the lawsuit. Never before, the trustees argued in the lawsuit, had an Israeli prime minister ever attempted to push out a serving chairman without their consent.

Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, sees a common thread in all these controversies. “They all show the growing disdain of the Israeli prime minister and his party for the liberal values shared and upheld by the great majority of Jews in the Diaspora,” she says. “These are attempts to push Diaspora Jews out of the game.”

Not that there is no logic behind this mode of behavior, argues Dan Feferman, a specialist in Israel-Diaspora relations at the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute. “What we’ve learned about Netanyahu over the years is that he’s first and foremost head of the Likud, only second is he prime minister of Israel, and only after that does he think about Diaspora Jewry,” he says. “It’s a very utilitarian approach, so if you want to know why he promotes someone to a certain position,  you need to think in terms of how having that person in that position can help him secure his own position of power.  That’s why showing sensitivity to Diaspora Jews is very low on his list of priorities.”

Benjamin Netanyahu plants a sapling in the Golan Heights with Effi Eitam, 2009Credit: REUTERS

While it is tempting to view these appointments as a slap in the face to Diaspora Jews, says Feferman, they are more a manifestation of processes taking place within Israeli society. “What we are really seeing here is a mainstreaming of more right-wing views,” he says. “When the government does not consider it a problem to appoint someone like Efi Eitam to the top position at Yad Vashem, that is a reflection of what is happening in Israel.”

Still, with a new administration set to take power soon in the United States, Feferman predicts that these trends could easily be reversed. “During the Trump presidency, the avenues of power ran through the Orthodox and right-wing Jews, because they were the ones more closely connected to the president, he says. “Under Biden, these Jews will be sidelined, and there will be a return to the mainstream. Given Netanyahu’s utilitarian approach, he will work with those who can help him advance his goals better, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. From now on it will be the moderates, and this should have a healing effect on the Israel-Diaspora relationship.”

And perhaps even a humbling effect on the Israeli prime minister. “Netanyahu is going to have to work very hard to rebuild the trust of liberal Jews who voted overwhelmingly for Biden because he will need them now,” posits Hoffman.  

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