Yad Vashem Is Selling Its Soul to Shady Right-wing Racists and Populists

Yad Vashem should stop dirtying its hands. It should focus on fulfilling its mandate, keep out of partisan politics, and keep away from politicians who use and abuse Holocaust memory

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Laying wreaths in Yad Vashem's Hall of Remembrance ahead of the formal Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies. 16 April 2014
Laying wreaths in Yad Vashem's Hall of Remembrance ahead of the formal Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies. 16 April 2014Credit: Dudi Vaknin

Four months have elapsed since an Israeli government minister, endorsed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, proposed Effi Eitam, former IDF Brigadier General and leader of the radical right-wing National Union party, to replace Avner Shalev as chairman of Yad Vashem. Although Eitam’s disturbing record is well-known, the outcry against his nomination has erupted only now.

A petition, signed by hundreds of alarmed citizens from Israel and abroad, and by 750 scholars, Holocaust survivors, rabbis and employees of Jewish museums and archives, calls on the government to reconsider its decision.

"Eitam’s hateful rhetoric towards Israeli Arabs and Palestinians stands in opposition to the stated mission of Yad Vashem," the petition states, and calls the notion of him heading Israel’s Holocaust remembrance authority "a mockery and a disgrace."

Netanyahu’s coalition partner, Kachol Lavan head Benny Gantz, is threatening to oppose the appointment. The ADL strongly opposes Eitam’s nomination, too, citing his "problematic moral record."

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the audience on Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. 23 April 2017Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Yad Vashem’s website describes the current chairman in this way: "Avner Shalev has dedicated his decades-long career to advancing basic Jewish-Zionist and universal values in Israel and around the world." If Effi Eitam is appointed as the next chairman, his visiting card will need a totally different introduction. Perhaps it should read: "Effi Eitam has dedicated his decades-long career to advancing values that completely contradict the aims of Yad Vashem."

Eitam is a representative of the most extremist interpretation of Jewish-Zionist values. He has no interest in universal values. With Effi Eitam as Chair, Yad Vashem, self-described as "the World Holocaust Remembrance Center," would be transformed in a platform for promoting a solely particularistic, nationalistic, ethnocentrist version of the lessons of the Shoah. 

These days, when people accuse Israel of instrumentalizing the memory of the Holocaust for political purposes, it’s considered both antisemitic and a form of Holocaust denial. But if Eitam become Yad Vashem chairman, that accusation is about to lose its validity and justification: The memory of the Holocaust will inevitably be misused for political purposes, based on unenlightened Israeli nationalism.

That will lead not only to the diminishment and loss of credibility of Yad Vashem, but also of Israel itself, as bearer of the memory of the Holocaust and the fight against discrimination, racism, and of Holocaust denial.

This is much too high a price to pay for political payback and spin. And that is why historians, educationists and others, in and outside Israel, are so vehemently and unequivocally opposed to Eitam’s proposed nomination.

Effi Eitam has expressed his racism, illiberalism and intolerance on numerous occasions.

Effie Eitam, nominated by Israel's government to lead the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, is a far-right former general and minister who has called for the expulsion of Palestinians. March 19, 2020Credit: JACQUELINE LARMA,AP

As a Knesset member he "prophesied," in November 2006, that "a day will come when we’ll expel you [the Arab MPs] from this house" and added: "We'll have to expel the overwhelming majority of West Bank Arabs from here and remove Israeli Arabs from the political system." In a detailed interview in Haaretz four years earlier he had called Israel’s Arab citizens a "cancer" and a "fifth column."

"What is the difference between Arafat and Eichmann?" Eitam asked in that same Haaretz interview. Shortly afterwards, Eitam was deemed credible enough to become a government minister. But the world must be wondering whether someone who does not know the difference between Arafat and Eichmann is qualified for a position in Yad Vashem at all.

When in 2005 Israel's Supreme Court of Justice banned the IDF using Palestinians as "human shields," describing it as a violation of international law, Eitam was outraged, telling the justices they were "binding the hands of the IDF." Anybody who knows how the German Nazis used civilians as "human shields" during World War II must raise an eyebrow at the idea of having a supporter of this very method as chairman of Yad Vashem.

Moreover, is someone who declared they felt elation at taking part in a war, the Yom Kippur war, the right choice for the post?

How is the wish, expressed by Eitam more than once, to expel a national group, the Palestinians, under the cover of an ongoing war, to be reconciled with Yad Vashem’s pedagogical task of explaining the dynamics of discrimination and persecution?

All these dire questions regarding the propriety of Eitam's nomination should be addressed, primarily, to the politicians who brought up this intentionally provocative idea for their own political reasons. But the questions also need answers from Yad Vashem's own leading lights, too.

Heinz-Christian Strache, head of Austria's far right Freedom Party, visiting Yad Vashem. April 12, 2016Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

This wouldn't be the first time that Yad Vashem has been weaponized and misused. There have been a series of events over recent years indicating that the institution is on slippery ground.

Philippine President Duterte visits Israel's Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. September 2, 2018Credit: Emil Salman

Shady right-wing populists, like Heinz-Christian Strache from Austria or Rodrigo Duterte from the Philippines pay visits to Yad Vashem and are welcome guests. Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro even used a visit to Yad Vashem to make a crack about the Nazis being Leftists ("Doesn’t the name of the Nazi party include the word 'socialist?'") 

File photo: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacts during his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem, April 2, 2019.Credit: Gali Tibbon/AFP

None of this adds to the credibility of Yad Vashem as an institution that fight for human rights and democracy, and against racism and dictatorship.

Two years ago Yad Vashem's chief historian secretly cooperated with the Israeli government's national security council to draft a joint Israeli-Polish declaration minimizing the role Poles played in the Holocaust, a shameful declaration that was later criticized by some of Yad Vashem’s own historians

Vladimir Putin speaks during the World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020. Credit: Sputnik/Alexei Nikolskyi/Kremlin via Reuters

In January this year, Yad Vashem served as a backdrop for the "Holocaust Forum," financed by a Jewish megadonor close to Vladimir Putin, where it showed a film produced by Russia teeming with historical inaccuracies regarding the actions of the Soviet Union during World War II, for which it had to later apologize.

These are all examples of the misuse of Yad Vashem that undermine its declared authority as the core mediator of memory of the Holocaust, in Israel, the Jewish world and beyond.

Yad Vashem should stop dirtying its hands. It should focus on fulfilling its mandate and keep out of partisan politics. The appointment of Effi Eitam would not just badly tarnish the image of Yad Vashem, it would be a death blow for Yad Vashem and for Israel as the recognized, accepted keeper of the memory of the Holocaust. There is still time to reconsider this dangerous idea.

Shimon Stein served as Israel's Ambassador to Germany 2000-7 and is research fellow at the INSS, Tel Aviv University

Moshe Zimmermann is a historian and Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem

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