This hateful general would wreck Yad Vashem

Netanyahu has nominated a new chair for Yad Vashem: Effi Eitam, a general-turned-politician from the Israeli hard right

December 18, 2020 10:22

There’s been so much news in 2020, you’d be forgiven if this story passed you by. But it’s significant and shocking all the same.

It relates to what is, perhaps, the only Israeli institution that has both a world class reputation and global moral authority, an institution that holds enormous meaning for Jews everywhere. It is an all but compulsory stop for any visiting world leader or aspiring politician. It has hosted princes, presidents and the last three Popes. I’m talking about Israel’s museum of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem.

Few who see it ever forget it. The permanent exhibition, re-conceived in a spectacular new building that opened in 2005, is compelling. The Hall of Names, recording the individual stories of two million Jews murdered by the Nazis — but with room to hold six million — is a monumental act of testimony. The Hall of Remembrance has acquired the status of a holy site.

And this is only the part you can see. Away from public view, some of it below ground, is a warren of archives and repositories built to house and conserve a vast collection of documents and artefacts of the Shoah. At last count — and it’s rising all the time — Yad Vashem had amassed 217 million pages of documents, 510,000 photographs, 42,000 artifacts and 12,100 pieces of art.

On a visit last year, I watched white-coated conservators, their hands gloved, using fine, surgical instruments to preserve a single letter sent by a Jew caught up in the Holocaust. These highly skilled technicians devoted to that letter the same care and attention you might see lavished on the restoration of an Old Master. I was ushered into vaults that were climate-controlled, monitored around-the-clock by security cameras, where specially-designed sealed boxes were held behind glass. Those boxes did not contain precious sapphires or rubies but treasures deemed just as valuable: documents. One contained the original register of Jews saved by one Oskar Schindler: literally, Schindler’s List.

Meanwhile, Yad Vashem has teams of people scouring Europe looking for inventories, identity papers, ghetto newspapers, whatever they can find. They are scanning those records by the thousand, so that nothing should be lost. I was shown a room where films and tapes —including amateur interviews with survivors, recorded on hokey video cameras in the 1970s and 1980s — are painstakingly digitised for posterity.

The result is that Yad Vashem has become the undisputed storehouse for the memory and, crucially, evidence of the Holocaust. Which is why those who work there believe they are doing hallowed work.

What, then, is this shocking news? The answer is that Binyamin Netanyahu has nominated a new chair for Yad Vashem. You might assume he’d pick an eminent scholar of the Shoah, or perhaps a distinguished judge — someone respected in Israel and across the wider Jewish world. You’d be wrong.

Netanyahu’s choice is Effi Eitam, a general-turned-politician from the Israeli hard right. Eitam is best-known — notorious would be a better word — for two things. First, he was severely reprimanded by the IDF after soldiers following his orders beat a Palestinian to death in 1988. The reprimand came with a recommendation that Eitam never be promoted.

Second is a long record of bigoted, racist statements. He has likened Israeli Arabs — citizens of the country — to a “cancer.” In a 2004 interview with the New Yorker, he said of Palestinians: “I don’t call these people animals. These are creatures who came out of the depths of darkness,” adding that though there might be some innocents among them, Palestinians were collectively guilty. “We will have to kill them all,” he said. “I don’t mean all the Palestinians but the ones with evil in their heads. Not only blood on their hands but evil in their heads.” Eitam has called for the expulsion of “most” Palestinians from the West Bank and in 2008, on the floor of the Knesset, he told Arab members of that body — Israeli citizens, elected by other Israeli citizens — that “the day will come when we will banish you from this house and from the national home.”

This is the man Netanyahu has chosen to head Yad Vashem. The opposition has been swift, loud and global. Holocaust survivors and the Anti-Defamation League have denounced the move, while 750 directors of Jewish and Holocaust museums and scholars of Jewish studies — including Deborah Lipstadt, the slayer of David Irving — have signed a petition calling for Eitam’s name to be withdrawn. Predictably, Netanyahu — with an eye on elections and keen to throw a bone to the religious-nationalist right — refuses to back down.

Those signatories rightly argue that appointing Eitam, given his history of “hateful rhetoric,” would make Yad Vashem an object of “mockery and a disgrace.” It would be an act of reckless self-harm, turning an institution that currently enjoys deep international respect into a prime target for protest and boycott.

But the real objection is not tactical. It is moral. Yad Vashem testifies more eloquently than any place on earth to the consequences of ultra-nationalist hate directed towards a despised minority. Yet its proposed new chair embodies that very threat. At a stroke, his installation would not merely undermine Yad Vashem’s mission: it would wreck it. There are two million entries in that Hall of Names: Effi Eitam’s appointment would be a desecration of every one of them.


Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian

December 18, 2020 10:22

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