Making Effi Eitam chair Yad Vashem is a serious mistake – opinion

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to appoint Effi Eitam to succeed Avner Shalev as chairman of Yad Vashem will, if accepted by the reviewing committee, have serious repercussions. While I believe it should be prominently in the news, it is kept by the government at a very low profile and it seems, deliberately quiet. The current chairman of the directorate of Yad Vashem, Avner Shalev, is retiring at the end of the year. Yad Vashem is the world’s foremost remembrance center, the mother and father of all institutions commemorating the Holocaust. It’s raison d’etre is not only to keep alive the memory of the horrendous Nazi killing fields, but also to remind the world that all people are created equal and to show the consequences to which baseless hatred can lead.Shalev, who held the position since 1993, has transformed Yad Vashem from being just a museum into the world’s foremost school for Holocaust study and research. Its courses are oversubscribed by educators from all over the world. Shalev has also formulated the syllabus of how to deal with the controversial issue of the Vatican under Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust.The government’s successor to Shalev as suggested by Netanyahu and communicated by Higher Education Minister Ze’ev Elkin is Effi Eitam, and that has set the cat among the pigeons as they would say in Britain. Eitam, who is 68, is a retired IDF brigadier-general with a distinguished war service who fought both in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and in Lebanon. He served for several years as a member of Knesset and was also the head of the National Religious Party. Eitam has a public image as a staunch political right-winger bordering on extremism. His anti Palestinian-Arab utterances are a matter of public record.The cornerstone of Yad Vashem is to be totally non-political, in fact it is almost a sacred institution in Israel. Consequently, Eitam’s suitability to succeed Shalev is being questioned in many quarters. Another reason for the objections to his directorship of Yad Vashem is that among his qualifications there is no background of Holocaust education or research or in the field of education generally, which should be a prerequisite for candidacy, as Yad Vashem is an educational institute.The religious constituency in Israel expressed concern that Eitam’s political history, if head of Yad Vashem, would tarnish the institution. Collette Avital, long-term Israeli diplomat and subsequently member of Knesset for 10 years wrote, “We, who represent a wide spectrum of opinions, believe that the criteria for choosing a chairman must be professional and devoid of any political considerations.”

The head of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel fears that Eitam would become a lightning rod to encourage Holocaust denial and possibly even BDS. According to a report in Haaretz, the chairman of the Association of Bergen-Belsen Survivors, Shraga Milstein, called Eitam unfit for the role. “This is a job that requires someone who is familiar with the subject of the Holocaust and has a proven record of running an academic institution of the likes of Yad Vashem. [Eitam] is not a man who regards everyone as equal, which is a basic assumption for anyone running an institution like Yad Vashem.” There are also voices that accuse the government that appointing Eitam would use Yad Vashem as a political tool by Netanyahu to strengthen his base, which has become shaky, by securing the religious-Zionist sector and right-wing support, which is now gravitating to the Yamina Party, led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.So we have to wait for further developments. In the meantime Israel, like most of the Western world is preoccupied with combating COVID-19.The writer is a survivor of the Nazi era. He is a senior journalist and host of Walter’s World on Israel National Radio and The Walter Bingham File on Israel Newstalk Radio.

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