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Effi Eitam appointment would negate Yad Vashem’s core message

OPINION: The former brigadier general’s public record renders him unfit to do battle in the fight against trivializing the memory of the Holocaust

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

It’s a relief to know the appointment of former Brigadier General Effi Eitam as head of Yad Vashem has apparently been frozen for now due to the political deadlock between Likud and Blue and White. And yet his nomination has not been canceled. It should be.

Eitam’s appointment to chair the Holocaust memorial, research and educational center would pose a potentially fatal threat to its sacred mission of Holocaust commemoration and outreach around the world. His reputation has been sullied by accusations of acts of brutality committed by soldiers under his explicit command and by his well-publicized statements calling for the expulsion of Palestinians from the territories and of Arab lawmakers from the Knesset.

Eitam’s advocates note his long years of service defending the Jewish state, the necessity of which is one of the principal lessons the Jewish people learned from the Holocaust. Eitam deserves our gratitude for his heroism and self-sacrifice. But those qualities do not mean he has the expertise or moral standing needed to undertake one of Israel’s most sensitive assignments.

Among the historic achievements of Yad Vashem is to uphold the uniqueness of the Holocaust against a growing tendency around the world to relativize and thereby trivialize the genocide of European Jewry. Yad Vashem has led the struggle against those who would subsume the Holocaust in the general category of “genocide studies,” or else liken it to Stalin’s crimes.

Eitam will be widely perceived as the antithesis of the Holocaust’s moral lessons.

As Holocaust awareness transitions from open wound to historical scar, it is crucial that Yad Vashem maintain its moral credibility, its ability to speak to Jews and others across the political spectrum. Putting a figure widely seen as a symbol of intolerance at its head undermines what is already a difficult struggle.

During the last two decades, there has been an enormous increase in research on, and commemoration of, other cases of genocide, along with a growing sensitivity to issues of human rights. Astonishingly, this has often led to downplaying the Jewish dimension of the Holocaust and the indispensable role played by centuries of anti-Semitism in preparing the ground for the destruction of European Jewry. Many Holocaust museums tend to emphasize universalist lessons – the recent exhibition in memory of George Floyd at the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Maitland, Florida is only the latest example.

Since its inception, Yad Vashem has been the guardian of the Jewish narrative and has transmitted the particularist Jewish understanding of its lessons to vast numbers of Jews and non-Jews around the world. Thanks largely to Yad Vashem, the Jewish people can still define its own story.

Yad Vashem performs another crucial educational mission: It upholds the lessons of the Holocaust that reflect the Israeli ethos, especially the need for Jews to defend themselves in their own state. Yet the appointment of Eitam, who was linked to acts of violence against Palestinians during his IDF career, would compromise the integrity of that message.

Yad Vashem is able to maintain the credibility of the particularist position on the Holocaust by respecting its universalist lessons. For Yad Vashem, there is, in fact, no contradiction between the view of the Holocaust as an event unparalleled in the history of humankind, and its universalist takeaways – even as it rightly insists on placing greater emphasis on the lesson Jews learned of the need for self-empowerment. The next chairman of Yad Vashem must have a genuine sensitivity to human rights while being committed to preserving the Shoah’s uniqueness – all while possessing the diplomatic skills needed to maintain that complicated balance.

Effi Eitam fails to meet the essential qualifications for this job. Instead, he will be widely perceived as the antithesis of the Holocaust’s moral lessons. Ironically, in heading Yad Vashem, Eitam will compromise its ability to promote the very Zionist lessons of the Holocaust – Jewish sovereignty and self-defense – that he has dedicated his life to affirming.

Under Eitam’s leadership, Yad Vashem would almost certainly become a target of an international boycott, one that could also involve friends of Israel. Yad Vashem’s invaluable educational programs, attracting teachers from around the world, could be severely harmed.

This is not a question of left or right. There are figures on the right with impeccable moral credentials capable of leading Yad Vashem in a complicated landscape of memory.

We call on the government to rethink this disastrous appointment, which risks politicizing Holocaust memory, perhaps the last consensus issue still capable of uniting the Jewish people.

Efraim Zuroff is chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of the center’s Israel office and Eastern European Affairs. The views expressed here are his own.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

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