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Effi Eitam is a deplorable choice to head Yad Vashem

The former lawmaker has espoused views about Arabs that violate the spirit of the World Holocaust Remembrance Center's mission
Effie Eitam talks to The Associated Press in his Jerusalem office, March 19, 2002. (Jacqueline Larma/AP)
Effie Eitam talks to The Associated Press in his Jerusalem office, March 19, 2002. (Jacqueline Larma/AP)

I am always reluctant to attack people. Whenever it has been necessary, I have tried to take issue with deeds or positions rather than making it personal. Moreover, I have been operating for many years through fruitful dialogue and collaborations with people very far from my positions. I believe this is the best path for bringing about significant change for our society, in the Middle East and perhaps even in the world.

I engage with people who hold opinions that are far from my own, including Jews who may be as religious as I am and with whom I have a fraught debate about the heart and soul of Torat Israel. While I am certain that my interpretation outweighs theirs, I cannot deny the sources on which they rely despite disagreeing with their conclusions. At the same time, I am convinced that if I want to work for change in the world I cannot just talk to myself or preach to the choir. I must engage in discourse and listen carefully to those whose opinions are far from my own. Over the years, I have seen that together with them, I’ve managed to reach agreements and create extensive collaborations to save lives and bring joy and well-being to human beings. In short – Tikkun Olam under Divine Provenance.

Of course, all of us who engage in these unconventional collaborations pay a price. But there are opportunities to engage with bitter foes in which the gain is greater than the cost, whether it is to advance pragmatic political goals or lift barriers to mutual recognizing one another’s humanity.

Does this mean that anything goes for the sake of pragmatism? That everything is up for sale? That there are no red lines? Certainly not. There is always a very clear, moral line that cannot be crossed in any way, otherwise, you are not a leader but rather an opportunist who has lost his own soul.

A clear example of crossing the clear line is the nomination by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Minister Ze’ev Elkin of Effi Eitam as Chairman of Yad Vashem. Effi Eitam is a good example of a person with positions as opposed to mine as East is to West. Do I therefore oppose his appointment to senior public positions? Not at all! Can he be a dialogue partner in various settings? Absolutely. Minister Elkin has treated this as if it were an appointment to just any position. He said that Eitam has administrative and business skills, that he has many qualifications, that he is well acquainted with the corridors of power and, most importantly, the treasury, and this may all be true. The problem is that the post of chairman of Yad Vashem is not just another public position. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, is a symbol; it is a holy place. I myself have worked with Yad Vashem for 30 years and my stance, whenever I approach the place, has always been of extreme reverence.

Effi Eitam has a personal history that disqualifies him for this special position not because he was a politician, not because he advocates for the Greater Land of Israel, but because of his actions and his rhetoric.

Under his command in the Givati Brigade ​​in 1988, four of his subordinates were on trial for the murder of a prisoner. When they claimed to have acted under the express instructions of their direct commander, the military tribunal decided, based on doubt, not to prosecute Eitam but concluded in its ruling that his violent conduct had become the norm and set the example for all who served under his command. Following this, the army gave him a severe reprimand and stopped his promotion. After his discharge from the army in 2000, Eitam lectured on the need to reoccupy all of Judea and Samaria and to expel overnight the entire Arab population from there. He said the army has the ability to do so, it just lacks the will. He has called several times over the years for the expulsion of all or some Arabs from Judea and Samaria.

Of the Arabs within the State of Israel, Eitam said they were “the ticking bomb beneath the whole democratic Israeli order.” He called these Israeli citizens an “elusive threat” that “by their nature resemble cancer. Cancer is a type of illness in which most of the people who die from it die because they were diagnosed too late…[when]…it is already too late to deal with it.”

I heard Effi Eitam give a drasha at Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan shortly after 9/11. He explained to the audience that what happened that day was God’s way to return to the world arena and stir the world to a religious war. I was at that service along with the late Elie Wiesel, who was in utter shock that a Jew was able to utter such assertions.

In 1986 Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize not only because of the intensity of his Holocaust story, which like all survivors’ stories left such a strong impression on his readers in describing what happened in the death camps. Rather he received the award because of his ability to turn his existence, his story, rooted in the uniqueness of the Holocaust, into a driving force in the struggle for humanity and against all forms of anti-Semitism, racism, genocide and ethnic cleansing around the world.

Yad Vashem has achieved its global stature for the same reason. As the central institution for commemoration in the world, Yad Vashem has become a major force in the global fight against genocide and ethnic cleansing even without this being part of its exhibitions and outright agenda. Teachers from all over the world come to study at the Yad Vashem International School to get tools on how, from studying Auschwitz crematoria, they can learn to fight anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and hatred of the other in their society.

For two decades, Yad Vashem has been a leading light of the IHRA, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which is the world’s top body in fighting anti-Semitism and promoting Holocaust remembrance. Core to the IHRA’s mission is: “A sacred commitment to fight genocide, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism and xenophobia.”

This is the background against which hundreds of leading Holocaust scholars worldwide wrote dumbfounded at the intention to appoint Effi Eitam as Chairman of Yad Vashem. Eitam’s views, expressed in his speeches and declarations, support what is defined in the world as ethnic cleansing. It is no wonder the great Holocaust scholars and many survivors are shocked by what they call the appointment that will turn Yad Vashem “into a mockery and a disgrace.”

I am writing this not only because Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and other haters will take advantage of it, but because this appointment puts us beyond the moral, basic red line that we simply do not cross. Yad Vashem is a holy place. I call upon the Prime Minister, the Alternate Prime Minister and Minister Elkin: find a suitable role for Effi Eitam, and save Yad Vashem as a symbol of remembrance and as an active challenge for humanity of today and for generations to come.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Melchior is a leading advocate for social justice in Israel, education for all, Jewish-Arab reconciliation and co-existence, protection of the environment, and Israel-Diaspora relations. Through his work, Rabbi Melchior seeks to strengthen Israeli civil society so it may catalyze significant social change in the State of Israel. He was a member of Knesset for the Meimad Party. Rabbi Melchior continues to hold the title of Chief Rabbi of Norway.
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