Outrage over proposed Holocaust memorial head

Outrage over proposed Holocaust memorial head

'The reputation of Yad Vashem as a world-renowned centre of teaching, research and remembrance will be eroded and diminished'.

Effi Eitam in March 2017. Photo: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90
Effi Eitam in March 2017. Photo: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90

COMMUNAL leaders and academics in Australia have added their voice to global concerns about the proposed appointment of a former Israeli far-right politician to lead Yad Vashem.

Former IDF General Effi Eitam, who served in the Knesset from 2003 to 2009 and led the National Religious Party for a time, has advocated for Palestinians to be ethnically cleansed from the West Bank and for Israeli Arabs, who he has labelled “first-degree traitors”, to be excluded from Israeli politics. 

His endorsement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Higher Education Ze’ev Elkin has been met with opposition from within Israel and abroad. 

An international petition signed by 750 Holocaust museum directors and scholars says Eitam’s appointment “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”.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) said this week protecting Yad Vashem’s impeccable reputation is of vital interest to Jews “and to the whole of humanity”.

Effi Eitam in 2002; background Yad Vashem in 2020.

“Yad Vashem is a shining light of memory, scholarship and commemoration … Those who have led Yad Vashem in the past have been torch-bearers of the institution’s values,” the ECAJ said.

“The rhetoric of demonisation and exclusion of entire communities defined by their ethnicity, and of ethnic cleansing, was precisely where the Shoah began. A practitioner of such rhetoric cannot lead an institution that is dedicated to warning of its dangers.

“Maintaining the integrity and credibility of the institution is of far more lasting importance than Israel’s internal politics.”

Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler said Yad Vashem “is too important to compromise with politics or divisive appointees”.

“It is significant that numerous leading Jewish Holocaust and antisemitism experts, and leaders of other mainstream Jewish organisations have also denounced his appointment,” he said. 

Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council national chairman Mark Leibler and executive director Colin Rubenstein said the chairperson of Yad Vashem “must be a person who can lead this institution with credibility and moral authority, who represents and where possible exemplifies its values and goals”.

“Effi Eitam is not someone who fulfils these criteria. We call upon the Israeli government to find an alternative candidate who can,” they said.

Australian scholars, Emeritus Professors Konrad Kwiet and Suzanne Rutland, and Dr Avril Alba have all signed the international petition.

Kwiet, a Macquarie University Emeritus Professor and Holocaust historian, told The AJN that if Eitam’s political views were imposed on Yad Vashem “it would be devastating”.

“The reputation of Yad Vashem as a world-renowned centre of teaching, research and remembrance will be eroded and diminished,” he said.

Rutland said to maintain the relevance of Holocaust education it is important to focus on the broader, universal, human rights messages of fighting racism, bigotry, prejudice and intolerance.

“For Yad Vashem to maintain its high moral standing in the broader global struggle against these ills in our society, it needs to be able to model the concepts of equality and acceptance of ‘the Other’,” she said.

“Sadly, the appointment of Effi Eitam will do the opposite.”

Alba said his previous comments, “Some even deploying the language of ethnic cleansing, should disqualify him from leading an institution that aims to teach the history of the Holocaust to warn against bigotry and racial persecution of all peoples.”

Child Holocaust survivor Kitty Lowinger told The AJN, “Extremism is always dangerous.”

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