Hundreds of Holocaust survivors, Jewish studies scholars, and directors of Jewish and Holocaust museums worldwide have signed a petition that condemns the proposed appointment of Effi Eitam, a far-right Israeli former politician, to chair Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies led a campaign this summer to appoint Eitam as the next chairman of the Holocaust museum, memorial, and research center in Jerusalem.
Eitam, a former general in the Israeli army, was a government minister and the leader of the right-wing National Religious Party. On more than one occasion, he publicly called for the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. He also advocated for excluding Palestinian citizens of Israel from the political process, often calling them a “fifth column” and a “ticking bomb.”
“The Arabs will never have a government, nor sovereignty, nor an army, in any part, grain, meter or alley of the State of Israel,” he once said, as reported by Haaretz. (Eitam’s definition of “Israel” includes the occupied Palestinian territories.)
While serving as Israel’s minister of housing and construction in 2003 and 2004, Eitam was an avid supporter of expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. In 2014, he left politics to become president of the Israeli company Genie Energy, which supplies natural gas to more than a dozen American states. He later called on the government to fully annex the West Bank, offering Israeli citizenship to some Palestinians and expelling those who refused to accept it.
In 1988, while serving as commander of an Israeli infantry brigade, four of Eitam’s soldiers beat a Palestinian prisoner to death under his command. An army court found that Eitam gave the order and bragged about it. The soldiers stood to trial whereas Eitam only received a reprimand. A judge recommended barring Eitm from promotion to higher ranks in the army but he was still promoted to brigadier general in 1994.
Eitam’s candidacy to chair the museum, which was announced in August, received international attention when a broad coalition of about 800 luminaries challenged the proposed appointment in a petition.
“Eitam’s hateful rhetoric towards Israeli Arabs and Palestinians stands in opposition to the stated mission of Yad Vashem,” the petition, which was obtained by Hyperallergic, reads. “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.”
In addition, the Anti-Defamation League, which seldomly criticizes the Israeli government, joined the petitioners, citing Eitam’s “problematic moral record.”
Hanno Loewy, director of Jewish Museum Hohenems in Austria and one of the organizers of the petition, told Hyperallergic in an email that Eitam’s appointment “would threaten every attempt to seriously talk about the Holocaust AND about colonialism.”
“It would turn Holocaust remembrance into a mockery,” Loewy continued. “As a descendant of Holocaust victims (not interested in turning them into political tools, but still wanting to preserve their memory of being murdered just because they were Jews), I indeed find it outrageous. And so do many of us.”
Yad Vashem’s current chairman, Avner Shalev, announced that he will retire by the end of 2020 after 27 years at the museum. Like Eitam, Shalev was also a brigadier general in the Israeli army. Eitam’s appointment will still have to be approved by a government committee, which includes members of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and the liberal Zionist Blue and White party, headed by Defence Minister Benny Gantz, the son of Holocaust survivors.
Eitam’s allies say that he is qualified for the job. Zeev Elkin, a government minister from the Likud party known for his far-right stances, was the official who proposed Eitams’s candidacy to Netanyahu.
Speaking with the Israeli newspaper Maariv, Elkin said the museum’s deepening shortfalls due to the coronavirus pandemic require a “leading public figure” who “knows how to get things done.” Elkin also cited Eitam’s experience as an executive in the private sector and called him a “very ethical man.”
This development is a sign of how “Israel as a whole turned so much to the right in the course of the past years,” Loewy told Hyperallergic.
“What is left of the ‘left’ in Israel feels not really involved anymore,” the museum director argued. “Many of them consider Yad Vashem as a nationalist shrine of abuse of the Holocaust for political indoctrination anyhow, and don’t bother that much.”
“For people like me, Jews in the Diaspora, and also for non-Jewish professionals working in the fields of Jewish Studies, Holocaust studies, Human rights, Genocide studies, postcolonial studies […] Yad Vashem still is an important reference, as a place to visit, an archive, a pool of knowledge and expertise, and a pool of colleagues to work with,” Loewy added. “Even when some of us, and me personally, are more and more puzzled about the development of the place, its museums, architecture, its public programs, and its educational practices.”