Yad Vashem should remain politically neutral

Effie Eitam (Wikipedia/Juda S. Engelmayer / Judae1 / via Jewish News)
Effie Eitam (Wikipedia/Juda S. Engelmayer / Judae1 / via Jewish News)

Who is Effi Eitam and why should you care about him? On the one hand, he is a decorated Israeli soldier, who retired 20 years ago from the Israel Defense Forces with the rank of brigadier-general. 

On the other hand, he has made pronouncements regarding Arabs, which even the most disengaged of Israelis regard as inflammatory.

Try this for size: in 2006, while addressing  a memorial event for a fallen soldier, Eitam said: “We’ll have to expel the overwhelming majority of West Bank Arabs from here and remove Israeli Arabs from the political system.”

He referred to the Arab minority in that speech as a “fifth column” and “a group of traitors”. Menachem Mazuz, attorney general at the time, warned Eitam that he could face criminal charges if he repeated such statements.

He’s not just your casual bigot, either. He’s a former Knesset member and leader of the National Religious Party, a minister of infrastructure under Ariel Sharon who quit his post and the party when Sharon announced his intention of pulling Israel out of the Gaza Strip in 2005.

So, again, why should we care about Mr Eitam and his controversial opinions?

Because he is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pick to succeed Avner Shalev as chairman of Yad Vashem — and much of the Jewish world, not least Holocaust survivors, |are up in arms.

There have been protests from those inside Israel and in the diaspora, particularly Australia. If Yad Vashem’s central mission is to remind the world that all people are created equal, Eitam’s critics say, “and to show the consequences to which baseless hatred can lead”, then his nomination is a disaster waiting to happen.

Yad Vashem itself has reportedly not been told when or whether the appointment is due to happen. All its staff know is that Mr Shalev, who has been chairman since 1993, is standing down on 31 December this year. After that, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the appointment is ratified.

Eitam, who has no background in Holocaust education, was brought up on the non-religious Kibbutz Ein Gev, but became strictly Orthodox after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Married with eight children, he lives on the Golan Heights and presently runs the Israeli subsidiary of an American energy company.

One of Eitam’s sharpest critics is survivor Haim Roet, who has written to Netanyahu and Defence Minister Benny Gantz, whose parents were both survivors. Roet warned the two politicians that they would be playing into the hands of “haters of Israel, antisemites, Holocaust deniers, and promoters and supporters of the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement” if they approve the appointment.

But Eitam, it should be stated, has his supporters – although one of them, writing in the right-wing newspaper Israel Hayom, characterised the “venomous campaign” against his appointment as “a struggle for the character of the memory and history of the Jewish people and its place in Israel”. Apparently the attacks on Eitam, who is “being cast as the embodiment of Israeli fascism”, are all part of a left-wing plot to take over Yad Vashem.

So much of Israeli society has been made up of “jobs for the boys”, backscratching appointments to reward those who can offer political favours, on both right and left of the spectrum. But Yad Vashem’s USP has been – and ought to remain – its political independence, and its abiding lesson of what happens when some people are regarded as of less importance than others.

There may be other avenues in which to channel Effi Eitam’s energies. Yad Vashem should not be one of them – and British Jews should be paying attention.

About the Author
Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist.
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