Apparent pick of nationalist ex-minister to head Yad Vashem sparks outcry

Some fear former brigadier general Effie Eitam, who has a history of harsh rhetoric toward Palestinians, could tarnish reputation of Holocaust memorial and museum

Effie Eitam speaks during the Gush Katif conference at the Tel Aviv Museum on March 23, 2017. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Effie Eitam speaks during the Gush Katif conference at the Tel Aviv Museum on March 23, 2017. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

AP — Israel plans to nominate a far-right former general and cabinet minister who once called for the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank to head the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, officials said Tuesday.

Effie Eitam, a religious nationalist with a history of harsh rhetoric toward the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab minority, is also a staunch advocate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Groups representing Holocaust survivors have expressed concern his appointment could tarnish one of the world’s leading institutions for Holocaust remembrance and open it up to criticism from the Palestinian-led boycott movement as well as those who question or deny the Nazi genocide.

Higher Education Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, selected Eitam for the post, the Haaretz daily reported. An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the appointment, which has not been made public, said Netanyahu supports his candidacy. A spokesman for Elkin did not respond to requests for comment.

Effie Eitam talks to The Associated Press in his Jerusalem office, March 19, 2002. (Jacqueline Larma/AP)

In an interview, Eitam said Netanyahu offered him the job two months ago but said he has heard nothing since then. He indicated he would be interested in the post if the appointment becomes official and said he was unaware of any controversy surrounding his candidacy. A parliamentary committee would have to give final approval.

Eitam, 68, served in the Israeli military during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. During the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 1988, troops under his command beat up two Palestinian suspects, one of whom later died. The soldiers, who were convicted of assault by a military court, said they were following orders.

He retired as a brigadier general in 2000 and later entered politics, serving in the Knesset from 2003 until 2009, with a variety of right-wing parties, including the short-lived Ahi, which was subsumed into Likud.

He also briefly served as a cabinet minister before resigning in 2005 to protest Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. Eitam lives in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally, except recently by the US.

During the second intifada in the early 2000s he advocated harsh measures, saying then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his “gang of murderers” should be put to death. In 2006 he was bloodied in clashes between settlers and Israeli troops during the evacuation of a West Bank outpost.

Later that year, in a speech at a memorial service for a soldier killed in Lebanon, he reportedly called for the expulsion of most Palestinians from the West Bank and for the removal of Israel’s Arab citizens from the political system, referring to them as a “fifth column” and a “group of traitors.” Arabs make up 20% of Israel’s population.

Eitam told The Associated Press he did not recall making the remarks, which were widely reported by Israeli media.

Eitam described himself as a “unifier” and consensus builder, and said his full record would be fairly reviewed.

“Those people who will have to make the decision, no doubt they will consider all the aspects of the nomination and they will come to a decision,” he said.

Then National Union alliance MK Effie Eitam is treated after he was injured during clashes between Jewish settlers and their supporters and Israeli troops and police, as authorities evacuate the West Bank settlement outpost of Amona, February 1, 2006. (Baz Ratner/AP)

Eitam would replace Avner Shalev, 81, who announced his retirement earlier this year after leading Yad Vashem for 27 years. A spokesman for Yad Vashem declined to comment.

Yad Vashem is a non-political and almost sacred institution in Israel. Before the coronavirus pandemic, it regularly hosted visits by students, soldiers and other tour groups, as well as the country’s annual Holocaust remembrance day ceremony. Visiting world leaders nearly always pay their respects at Yad Vashem for the 6 million Jews murdered by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during the Second World War.

Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Museum, during a press conference at the Keren Hayesod headquarters in Jerusalem, on December 8, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Colette Avital, a former Israeli diplomat and lawmaker who heads the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, expressed concern over Eitam’s nomination, saying Yad Vashem should be led by someone with a background in Holocaust research and education.

“Yad Vashem is really the embodiment of an institution that speaks on behalf of minorities,” she said. “It’s really very difficult to accept statements like the ones he made.”

“There are enough people, whether it’s BDS or whether it’s people that deny the Holocaust and so on, who will say ‘Look, the guy, how can he speak on behalf of Holocaust survivors when this is what he says about the Arabs?'” she said, referring to the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

The chairman of the Israeli Association of Bergen-Belsen Survivors called Eitam “unfit” for the role. “This is a job that requires someone who is familiar with the subject of the Holocaust and has a proven record of running an academic institution of the likes of Yad Vashem,” Shraga Milstein told Haaretz. “He is not a man who regards everyone as equal, which is a basic assumption for anyone running an institution like Yad Vashem.”

Colette Avital in Tel Aviv on February 19, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Eitam’s appointment may help Netanyahu domestically as he goes on trial for corruption and seeks to solidify his right-wing base amid weekly protests and widespread anger at the government’s handling of the pandemic. But it could worsen the divide between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, particularly Jewish Americans, who tend to be more liberal.

Netanyahu has come under fire internationally and from Yad Vashem itself for embracing right-wing leaders in Europe who offer political support to Israel while also giving voice to a distorted view of the Holocaust.

In recent years, formerly communist nations like Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and Ukraine have sought to blame the Holocaust entirely on Nazi Germany while absolving their own citizens of responsibility and commemorating anti-Soviet fighters who collaborated with the Nazis.

Yad Vashem also came out against a government plan in 2018 to deport tens of thousands of African migrants, saying the issue was a “national and international challenge that requires empathy, compassion, and mercy.”

“The experience of the Jewish people over generations heightens this obligation,” it said.

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