Far-rightwinger's bid to run Israel Holocaust memorial stirs protest

Michael Blum and Guillaume Lavallee
·3-min read

Israel's nomination of a far-right nationalist with a history of anti-Arab rhetoric to lead Yad Vashem has triggered outrage among Holocaust experts who say his leadership would "disgrace" the revered memorial.

In August, right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to appoint Effie Eitam as chairman of the iconic Holocaust museum in Jerusalem visited by foreign leaders and hundreds of thousands of tourists annually.

Eitam, respected in Israel for his distinguished military career, led the nationalist religious Mafdal party in the early 2000s. He has recently been working in the private sector.

In 2006, Eitam said that Arab Israelis should be "expelled from the political scene because they represent a fifth column," a term that refers to a faction within a country collaborating with the nation's enemies.

While serving as minister of housing and construction he was a full-throated supporter of expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, communities regarded as illegal by most of the international community.

And in 2014, he called for Israel to annex the entire West Bank, while advocating offering Israeli citizenship to Palestinians and expelling those who refused to accept it.

Israeli annexation of the entire West Bank is a position so extreme not even right-wingers in national politics openly support it.

- 'Mockery and disgrace' -

A group of more than 800 people -- including leading academics in Europe, the US and Israel -- have signed a petition opposing Eitam's nomination.

"Eitam's hateful rhetoric towards Israeli Arabs and Palestinians stands in opposition to the stated mission of Yad Vashem," the petition says.

Appointing him "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."

Serge Klarsfeld, a prominent so-called Nazi hunter who has helped track down and expose Nazi war criminals, told AFP that Eitam's nomination is at odds with the values supported by Holocaust survivors.

"We cannot accept, as the head of an eminent institution like Yad Vashem, a political leader whose outrageous statements against the Arab populations are unacceptable to the survivors of the Holocaust," he said.

But Klarsfeld said he respected the nominee as a "courageous soldier".

Eitam took part in the 1976 Israeli commando raid at Uganda's Entebbe airport, rescuing hostages after a plane was hijacked by Palestinian and German militants. Netanyahu's older brother Yonatan was killed in the operation.

The government minister responsible for Yad Vashem, Zeev Elkin, an ally of Netanyahu, has said that Eitam was tapped in part because he brings a mix of public and private sector managerial experience.

Speaking to Maariv newspaper last month, Elkin noted that the coronavirus pandemic had devastated Yad Vashem's income, hitting both tourism revenue and donations.

Yad Vashem needs someone who "knows how to get things done," he told Maariv.

But for opponents of the nominee, even Eitam's purported skill-set is wrong for the Holocaust memorial centre.

- Language of rights -

The primary mission of Yad Vashem is to preserve the memory of Nazi Germany's extermination of six million mostly European Jews.

But the institution is also a hub for Holocaust research, further making Eitam a bad fit, said Colette Avital, a former lawmaker with Israel's left-wing Labour party.

"You need a professional background in (historical research) to run this institution," she said.

The international petition calls Eitam "historically illiterate".

The opposition leader in Israel's parliament, Yair Lapid, has denounced the nomination, insisting that "the Holocaust should not become a source of dispute."

Eitam's appointment must still be approved by a government committee, which includes members of Netanyahu's Likud and the centrist Blue and White party, headed by Defence Minister Benny Gantz, the son of Holocaust survivors.

Blue and White lawmaker Michal Cotler-Wunsh told AFP that Eitam is not "a good candidate."

The chairman of Yad Vashem needs to understand "international law and the language of rights," she said.

"That is not, from my understanding, this candidate's particular tool set."

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