NEW YORK - Australian Jewish community leaders are the latest to express their opposition to the appointment of former far-right politician Effi Eitam as chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, a selection that has sparked outrage from Jewish leaders and groups across the world in recent months.
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry wrote in a statement that “preserving the impeccable reputation and renown of Yad Vashem is of vital interest to the entire Jewish people, and to the whole of humanity.” Those who have led the Holocaust memorial in the past, the group wrote, have been “torch-bearers of the institution’s values,” but Eitam “does not fulfil these exacting requirements.”
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Eitam was recently nominated for the high-profile post of chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate (the chief executive position in the organization) by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud minister Zeev Elkin.
Elkin's portfolio includes jurisdiction over Yad Vashem, the national institution for Holocaust remembrance in Jerusalem. Eitam’s candidacy has already been approved by a special committee that vets senior appointments in the public service; only a cabinet vote stands between him and the position.
The Australian council pointed to Eitam’s anti-Arab “rhetoric of demonization” including comments stating that Israel must “expel most of the Arabs of Judea and Samaria” or that Arab lawmakers “will have to be evicted from the political system.”
The statement continued, “A practitioner of such rhetoric cannot lead an institution that is dedicated to warning of its dangers, without discrediting that institution’s core message and bringing it into disrepute,” the group wrote, urging the Israeli government not to proceed with the appointment.
“Maintaining the integrity and credibility of the institution is of far more lasting importance than Israel’s internal politics,” the council added.
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Eitam commanded the Givati infantry brigade in the late 1980s. His military career was shrouded in controversy; during the first intifada, four of his soldiers were convicted in a military court for beating a Palestinian prisoner to death. They had testified that they were following Eitam's orders, earning him a sharp reprimand from his superiors.
He later served as a lawmaker and leader of the now-defunct National Religious Party from 2000 to 2004, resigning from his ministerial post in protest of the Ariel Sharon government's plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip.
The announcement that Eitam was tapped to lead the Holocaust memorial last month stirred uproar among Jewish organizations, Holocaust survivors and their descendants, Israeli politicians, scholars and others. An international petition gained roughly 750 signatures from around the Jewish world, including the heads of two international Yad Vashem fundraising organizations, against the appointment.
Renowned Jewish Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt told the New York Times on Saturday that the choice of Eitam to lead the memorial is “more than a colossal mistake — it’s a tragedy,” adding that “Appointing Eitam to this position would be a blot on Yad Vashem’s reputation and Yad Vashem’s record.”
Lipstadt, who signed the petition, added, “You don’t play politics with the Shoah, and this is playing politics with the Shoah."
The Anti-Defamation League made the rare move of intervening in the appointment of other Jewish organizations to join the campaign against the appointment, citing Eitam’s “problematic moral record.”
The director of the ADL office in Israel, Carole Nuriel wrote a letter to Yad Vashem Council Chairman Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau saying that Eitam’s background is “deeply disturbing for those individuals and organizations dedicating to inculcating the lessons of the Holocaust, including Yad Vashem and the ADL.”