Effi Eitam is the wrong man for Yad Vashem - opinion

MIDDLE ISRAEL: The tragedy is that this nomination is led by a man raised by a historian who used to be historically sensitive.

EFFI EITAM speaks during the Gush Katif conference at the Tel Aviv Museum in March 2017. (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)
EFFI EITAM speaks during the Gush Katif conference at the Tel Aviv Museum in March 2017.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)
“I saw millions walking toward Zion with tombstones on their shoulders... and they chose a location, and each of them took down his tombstone... and the monument of their lives was thus erected... one kilometer long, one kilometer wide and 100 meters high.”
So dreamt educator Mordecai Shenhavi (1900-1983) as early as 1942, when reports of European Jewry’s extermination began arriving in Tel Aviv. Shenhavi’s vision became law in 1953, when the Knesset established Israel’s Holocaust memorial, and he became its first director.
Shenhavi, who chose the name “Yad Vashem,” taken from Isaiah and meaning “a monument and a name,” was not politically colorless.
A member of Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek in the Jezreel Valley he was among the founders of ultra-socialist movement Hashomer Hatza’ir. Moreover, his vision for Yad Vashem was unabashedly Zionist, deliberately clustering it with Israel’s central military cemetery and Theodor Herzl’s tomb.
However, Shenhavi was not controversial, and neither were any of his successors. Now this tradition may end, and the holy cause it serves stands to be contaminated, if Benjamin Netanyahu’s candidate, retired Brig.-Gen. Effi Eitam, becomes chairman of Yad Vashem.
THE BURLY Eitam is a decorated war hero, who as a 21-year-old infantry lieutenant blocked with his platoon a Syrian armored column’s advance into the IDF’s central headquarters on the Golan Heights, Camp Nafah.
Eitam also has a fine English, perfected during his studies in Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, which he graduated with distinction. Coupled with the experience he earned during 15 years as a colonel, general and cabinet minister, no one says he lacks managerial abilities.
Eitam also played an important role during the retreat from Gaza in summer 2005, when he restrained right-wing hotheads, and thus helped prevent violent clashes between them and the IDF.
Now a farmer and father of eight living not far from where he fought in 1973, Eitam’s social journey is also unique, and could have further justified his candidacy for the sensitive position he is eyeing.
Born and raised in Ein Gev, a secular kibbutz whose founders include legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, Eitam became religious in his mid-twenties, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War.  
As such, Eitam is the product of the abyss that once yawned between religious and secular Israelis, and could therefore also have helped build bridges between these communities, a role he indeed played as a signatory to the Kinneret Pact in which Israelis ranging from Peace Now activists to West Bank settlers, and from Reform to ultra-Orthodox rabbis, defined their common beliefs.
Yet in terms of his current candidacy, all this positive baggage is offset by Eitam’s very problematic public record, both managerially and rhetorically.
EITAM JOINED politics through the National Religious Party, which made him its leader in 2002. It was a mistake, from both sides’ points of view.
From the party’s viewpoint, Eitam’s political inexperience and military-man’s impatience resulted in partisan infighting, parliamentary schism, electoral depletion and political marginalization, offset only a decade later with the party’s passage to Naftali Bennett.  
From Eitam’s viewpoint, the party was too small for his ambitions, and its agenda too sectarian for his priorities. Asked at the time, in a meeting with Jerusalem Post editors, what he thought about egalitarian prayers, which were then budding among parts of his party’s voters, Eitam had no ready answer and seemed surprised that discussing such an issue should be part of his task.
This forgotten history is relevant for his new nomination because it means Eitam lacks the pluralistic instincts and also the managerial flexibilities that running an outfit as complex and as sensitive as Yad Vashem demands.
Still, the problems raised by Eitam’s political conduct dwarf compared with his political rhetoric.
Speaking in a public gathering in Eli in 2006, Eitam said Israel must “expel most of the Arabs of Judea and Samaria,” that Arab lawmakers “will have to be evicted from the political system,” and that “Israel’s Arabs” are “a fifth column” and “an association of first-degree traitors.”
These harrowing statements were made publicly during a memorial for Lt. Amihai Merhavia, who fell in the Second Lebanon War. Eitam never retracted his pronouncements. It’s what he thinks.
Such rhetoric is disastrous in any event, and also verges on illegal, as the attorney-general of the day, Meni Mazuz, warned Eitam at the time. However, to impose on Yad Vashem a chairman who espouses the idea of ethnic cleansing is even worse than illegal. It is a moral abomination wrapped in historic tragedy and political decadence.
Morally, one wonders what a Yad Vashem guide will tell a visiting group of the sort it hosts routinely when one of them – say, a priest from Australia or a high-school teacher from Denmark – asks while shown an exhibit of Jews being shoved into trains: But isn’t that what your own chairman says Israel should do with its Arab citizens?
The tragedy is that this nomination is led by a man raised by a historian who used to be historically sensitive, but then became part of an era of political recklessness in which pushing normative boundaries became a habit, a sport and an aim.
Absurdly, Netanyahu failed to predict what this nomination would spark, a global outcry that includes the Anti-Defamation League and historian Deborah Lipstadt – an observant Jew and major crusader against Holocaust denial.
“We are shocked by this outrageous proposal,” said the petition Lipstadt and others signed while warning that Yad Vashem is “at risk of being handed over to the outspoken right-wing extremist and historically illiterate politician Effi Eitam.”
It’s like appointing a tone-deaf lumberjack as the Philharmonic’s conductor, they might have added. Then again, while equally unsuited for that assignment, the lumberjack would at least be innocent.
The writer’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.