Effi Eitam, a far-right former minister who has been nominated by the government as the next head of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, on Sunday rebuffed widespread criticism against his selection over his past statements about Palestinians and Arab Israelis.
Eitam is a former decorated general in the Israel Defense Forces and was a cabinet minister who led a right-wing religious Zionist party. His critics say he is unfit to lead the institution because he called for most Palestinians in the West Bank to be expelled and for Arab Israelis to be excluded from the country’s political system. Eitam also was reprimanded by the IDF’s chief of staff because soldiers under his command beat a Palestinian to death. His supporters point to his experience as a general and political leader.
Israeli politicians, Holocaust survivors, and the Anti-Defamation League have called for his name to be withdrawn.
“People say that when the allegations are baseless and unfounded, there is no point in responding. But I am here to respond,” Eitam told the Kan public broadcaster in an interview on Sunday, saying he has a deep connection to the Holocaust and its memory.
“I have always opposed any talk of a transfer,” Eitam argues, referring to the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank. “Anyone with an ounce of integrity can look through my interviews and see that.
“But I did say one thing, and I stand behind it: If a war is declared upon us by people, communities, or groups that want to turn Israel into a terror arena, we shall fight with all our might, decisively.
“Expelling the Arabs of Judea and Samaria is not a goal, it’s a consequence,” he said, referring to Palestinians in the West Bank. “There may come a situation — a tragic one — as part of violent fighting, in which a civilian population will be harmed.”
Regarding his comments that Arab MKs should be expelled from the Knesset, he said: “I think Arab Israelis should make a clear choice whether they are partners — with full rights — in building the State of Israel, which is the state of the Jewish nation, or they are actively undermining its existence as such.”
He said that when Arab Israeli lawmakers meet people like Syrian dictator Bashar Assad during a war, “that’s a situation that no democracy can abide.” He estimated that most Arab Israelis do want to be part of Israel.
Last month, a broad coalition of Jewish studies scholars and directors of Jewish and Holocaust museums signed a petition opposing the proposed appointment of Eitam. The petition had 750 signatures, including Susannah Heschel and Deborah Lipstadt. The list also includes the current or former directors of the Buchenwald memorial and Jewish museums in Budapest, Warsaw, Munich, and elsewhere.
“Eitam’s hateful rhetoric towards Israeli Arabs and Palestinians stands in opposition to the stated mission of Yad Vashem,” the petition read. “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.”
Eitam’s confirmation was been held up by political fighting between the Likud and Blue and White parties over the appointment of senior officials.
JTA contributed to this report.