Editorial: Effi Eitam Must Not Head Yad Vashem

Nov. 25, 2020

The inestimable Avner Shalev has headed Yad Vashem, the world’s foremost Holocaust museum and memorial, since 1993. Shalev oversaw great changes at the renowned institution in Jerusalem, including growth, strong fundraising, and great advances in digital research. He took an already well-reputed venue and buffed it to an even higher gloss. Now 81, Shalev is retiring.

Nominated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to replace him is a notorious former Israel Defense Forces general, Effi Eitam. Usually, such a high-level appointment is carefully considered. After all, Yad Vashem is the collective memory to the world of the Six Million Jewish victims of the Shoah. It stands as a clarion call against evil and represents the epitome of human rights and dignity. Surely, the chairperson of such a vitally important institution would adhere to and represent the values of Yad Vashem.

But dozens of Holocaust survivors, Jewish ethicists, academics and others have called on Netanyahu to drop Eitam. To date, the prime minister has remained unmoved.

Who is Effi Eitam? Why is he the most unjustifiable person to lead Yad Vashem? You don’t have to look far.

In 1988, then Commander Eitam was in charge of the Givati Brigade, which had captured an alleged Palestinian terrorist. On Eitam’s orders, brigade members murdered the handcuffed, unarmed prisoner, Ayyad Aqel. The soldiers were court martialed and Eitam received a severe reprimand recommending he never be promoted.

But he did move up the ranks and ended his career as a brigadier general.

It was then on to politics. He served in the right-wing National Religious Party, where he held various portfolios. During this time, and even before entering the political arena, he advocated for the ethnic cleansing of the entire Arab population of what he termed Judea and Samaria. In fact, Eitam has called Arab Israelis, who are citizens of Israel, an “elusive threat” that “by their nature resemble cancer,” an illness “in which most of the people…die because they were diagnosed too late.”

Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Minister of Social and Diaspora Affairs, tells this story of Eitam in a Times of Israel piece unsubtly headlined, “Effi Eitam is a deplorable choice to head Yad Vashem”:

“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.”

Today, we live in a world where Holocaust denial, antisemitism and hate have made giant leaps forward. Appointing Eitam to head the most auspicious example of Jewish dignity, a museum which speaks to the evil of racism, genocide and hate, is reprehensible.

All Jews of good conscience must speak out boldly and clearly in rejecting Eitam, who has blood on his hands and bigotry in his heart, to head Yad Vashem.