Gantz to Oppose Netanyahu’s anti-Arab Pick for Yad Vashem Chairman

According to Likud-Kahol Lavan coalition agreement, defense minister's challenge effectively blocks Effi Eitam’s appointment

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Effi Eitam in Sderot, 2008
Effi Eitam in Sderot, 2008Credit: David Boimovich
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, leader of Kahol Lavan, intends to oppose the appointment of Effi Eitam, the anti-Arab former Israeli politician and military commander, to the top job at Yad Vashem, knowledgeable sources told Haaretz on Thursday.

This presents a direct challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has already endorsed Eitam. Effectively, it means that Eitam has no chance of getting the job.

According to the coalition agreement between the two parties, Likud cannot bring any appointment up for a vote in the cabinet without the prior approval of Kahol Lavan and visa versa.

Gantz, a child of Holocaust survivors, has been bombarded with protest letters in recent weeks from other survivors and organizations that represent them, urging him to speak out against the appointment. Until now, he had chosen to remain silent.

In the past few days, representatives of the private donor organizations that finance Yad Vashem have also joined the protests against Eitam.

Among roughly 750 scholars, Holocaust survivors, rabbis and employees of Jewish museums and archives who in recent days have signed an international petition against the appointment of Eitam, are the heads of two organizations that raise funds for Yad Vashem outside Israel: Joel Herzog, president of Swiss Friends of Yad Vashem, and Dr. Florian Marxer, president of the Society of Friends of Yad Vashem in Liechtenstein.

Herzog is the brother of Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who has yet to comment on Eitam’s appointment. Their late father, Chaim Herzog, served as president of Israel between 1983 and 1993.

That leaders of Yad Vashem’s fundraising organizations added their voices to the campaign against Eitam’s appointment is significant, considering that more than half of the institution’s nearly 200 million shekels ($60 million) annual budget comes from foreign donations.

The institution, which gets about one-third of its budget from the state, is in the midst of a deep financial crisis, further exacerbated by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced it to close its doors.

Appointing Effi Eitam as chair of Yad Vashem would turn an internationally respected institution devoted to the documentation of crimes against humanity and the pursuit of human rights into a mockery and a disgrace,” the petition says.

A former lawmaker and leader of the now-defunct National Religious Party, Eitam has called for the expulsion of West Bank Palestinians and the ouster of Israeli Arabs from the Knesset. His military record has also been shrouded in suspicion: In the late 1980s, during the first Palestinian intifada, four of his soldiers in the Givati infantry brigade were convicted in a military court for beating to death a Palestinian prisoner. They had testified that they were following his orders, subsequently earning Eitam a sharp reprimand from his superiors.

The petition was initiated by Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, an independent curator and museologist from Vienna; Hanno Loewy, director of Jewish Museum Hohenems in Austria; Joanne Rosenthal, former chief curator of the Jewish Museum London; Cilly Kugelmann, chief curator of the permanent exhibition of the Jewish Museum Berlin; and Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College in the United States.

On Tuesday, Eitam’s candidacy was approved by a special committee that vets senior appointments in the public service. It is still pending approval by the cabinet. Eitam was nominated for the position by Netanyahu and Ze’ev Elkin, a Likud minister whose portfolio includes jurisdiction over Yad Vashem.

On Wednesday, Haaretz reported that Kahol Lavan was threatening to block Eitam’s appointment until an agreement has been reached with Likud on other senior public sector positions waiting to be filled. These include the police commissioner, state prosecutor, director general of the Justice Ministry and accountant general and head of the budget division at the Finance Ministry.

But Kahol Lavan would not say whether it objected to Eitam’s candidacy on ideological grounds.

Avner Shalev, current chairman of the board, is scheduled to step down at the end of December.

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