Is Yad Vashem being politicized? – analysis

It is not only Effi Eitam’s candidacy for chair that has aroused accusations of politicization, but also reports of other possible appointments at Yad Vashem.

THE YAD VASHEM monument to Righteous Among the Nations.  (photo credit: UKRAINIANJEWISHENCOUNTER.ORG/WIKIPEDIA)
THE YAD VASHEM monument to Righteous Among the Nations.
The controversy that has blown up in recent weeks surrounding the appointment of a new chairman for Yad Vashem has reminded the country that the Holocaust will never merely be a historical event for the Jewish state, but rather it remains a critical aspect of its national consciousness.
It is because the Holocaust remains such a sensitive issue for the State of Israel that the selection by Higher Education Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of former hard-right politician Effi Eitam as the government’s candidate to serve as the new chair for the country’s national Holocaust memorial museum has aroused such argument.
Eitam’s candidacy has been criticized on two grounds: his past controversial comments against Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, and on political grounds.
While serving as an MK in 2006, Eitam called for the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank, and for the “removal” of Israeli Arabs from the Israeli political system.
He served as an MK and minister in the National Union Party, and later formed the breakaway Ahi Party which he eventually merged into the Likud before retiring from political life. He was also close to Netanyahu and remains close to Likud officials and allies.
Several of the opponents to Eitam’s appointment have spoken against him on political grounds.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said that Eitam, who was a former member of the hard-right National Union, would ״distance״ liberal Jewish communities in the US, “and would turn this sacrosanct institution to a place riven by dispute and argument,” adding that “the chairman of Yad Vashem needs to be someone far from the political argument.”
And former Labor MK Colette Avital who as head of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors has campaigned strongly against Eitam said in a letter to the prime minister that criteria for a new Yad Vashem chair should be “above any political considerations.”
And it is not only Eitam’s candidacy that has aroused accusations of politicization, but also reports of other possible appointments at Yad Vashem.
Yediot Aharonot reported on Thursday that Albert Sahrovitz, a former director of the Knesset and ally of senior Likud politician and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein will be put forward to fill the position of Yad Vashem director-general.
Additionally, the report said Elkin adviser Roni Tzubari would be nominated as deputy director-general.
Elkin said neither the director-general or deputy director-general positions had been discussed.
Critics have also noted that neither Eitam, Sahrovitz or Tzubari have any experience or qualifications related to the field of education or Holocaust studies, and alleged that they are merely being appointed for the political connections to the Likud and senior Likud ministers.
But politicians and others on the political Right have pushed back against claims that Yad Vashem is being politicized.
Elkin, who said in an interview this week with Maariv that Netanyahu selected Eitam off a shortlist he had presented the prime minister, argued that Eitam could be “statesman-like” and had proved as such in the past through his involvement in societal reconciliation initiatives.
And he also argued that appointments to Yad Vashem have in the past been political, and that it was hypocritical of the opposition to accuse the right-wing of politicizing the institution.
He referenced the late leader of the now defunct Shinui Party Tommy Lapid, Yair Lapid’s father, who was the former chairman of the Yad Vashem Council and an avowed secularist.
“Tommy Lapid said very severe things about Jewish communities, specifically the ultra-Orthodox, worse than anything Eitam has said, and no one said he shouldn’t serve at Yad Vashem,” said Elkin.
“I don’t see why there should be a principle that only left-wing politicians can serve at Yad Vashem,” he continued pointedly, adding that Eitam has been out of politics for a decade while Tommy Lapid moved straight from politics to his Yad Vashem position.
Others such as the journalist Erel Segal have also been sharp in their criticism of the Israeli centrists and left-wing for their claims of politicization of Yad Vashem, saying that the institution has had a liberal bent for some time.
In a recent article in Israel Hayom, Segal asserted that Yad Vashem and its senior leadership have adopted a “universalist” position regarding the Holocaust and that its message was to protect humanity at large from hatred.
Segal lamented what he said was the rejection by Yad Vashem of the more particularistic stance of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and that its central message was for the protection of the Jewish people at all costs, a worldview which Eitam’s hardline nationalism more closely reflects.
Yad Vashem chief historian Dan Michman pushed back against Segal’s arguments however, writing in his own Israel Hayom op-ed that Yad Vashem has for many years integrated both stances in its educational approach to the Holocaust.
Michman also said that Yad Vashem has been attacked for adopting both a universalistic narrative on the one hand and a nationalistic narrative on the other, something he said demonstrated the center’s balanced approach.
Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, said he believes Eitam is an inappropriate choice for Yad Vashem chair, primarily due to the controversial statements he has made about Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.
“Yad Vashem educates about the history of the Holocaust and the necessity to learn its lessons,” said Zuroff who said he was speaking in a personal capacity.
“If those lessons are to take extreme measures against non-Jews then that would seem to contradict Yad Vashem’s message of tolerance and understanding, and fighting xenophobia and antisemitism,” said Zuroff.
He said that the position of director-general was more of an executive position requiring managerial skills and expressed less concern about such appointments being politically motivated.
Zuroff said it was in some respects inevitable that Yad Vashem becomes part of the political debate since the conflicts over the historical memory of the Holocaust arise with great frequency both in Israel and Europe.
But he said that Eitam’s appointment was beyond that.
“Effi Eitam is an IDF hero, he has many merits, but this appointment would be extremely damaging to Yad Vashem. Israel haters from around the world would jump on his appointment, and allege that it shows Israel’s ‘fascist nature,’ and similar. It would be a disaster.”