Renowned Jewish historian, Deborah Lipstadt, together with nearly 160 academics, historians, museum curators and Holocaust survivors have signed a petition opposing the appointment of Effi Eitam as the new chairman of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The Anti-Defamation League has also joined the campaign against the appointment of Eitam, a former far-right politician and military commander, to the top position at Yad Vashem, citing his “problematic moral record.” According to Haaretz, “It is unusual, if not unprecedented, for the American non-profit that monitors antisemitism around the world to intervene in appointments in other Jewish organizations.”
Eitam, who lives in the Israeli settlement of Nov in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, is a former brigadier-general in the Israeli army and racist politician who has in the past made comments endorsing the forcible expulsion of Palestinians and has spoken in favor of blocking participation in Israeli politics by Arab citizens of the state. He has, however, been selected by Higher Education Minister Ze’ev Elkin to fill the role of Yad Vashem chairman which will soon be vacated by the incumbent, Avner Shalev.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Lipstadt said Eitam’s appointment would politicize and tarnish Yad Vashem and that Israeli government ministers would bear responsibility for such consequences, should he be appointed. In their petition, the historians, curators and Holocaust experts noted that Yad Vashem’s declared goal is “not only documentation, research and education but also prevention – of barbarity and future acts of genocide,” and that its International School for Holocaust Studies aims to combat “antisemitism racism and exclusion” within society at large. “This urgent mission – to encourage civil society to actively watch, involve and intervene wherever racism and hatred threaten religious, ethnic or other groups and communities – is now at risk of being handed over to the outspoken right-wing extremist and historically illiterate politician Effi Eitam,” wrote the petitioners. “We are shocked by this outrageous proposal and protest against it in the strongest possible terms. Appointing Effi Eitam as Chair of Yad Vashem 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,” they added.
Along with Lipstadt, the signatories include Chief Curator of the Core Exhibition at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett; Chief Curator of the new permanent exhibition of the Jewish Museum Berlin in Germany, Cilly Kugelmann; Executive Director of the World Society of Czestochowa Jews and their Descendants, Lea Sigiel-Wolinetz; as well as numerous other academics and historians from prestigious universities around the world.
In 2006, at a memorial event for a soldier killed in the First Lebanon War, Eitam said that Israel would need to “expel the large majority of Arab residents of Judea and Samaria,” i.e., the occupied West Bank. At the same event, Eitam said Arabs in Israel need to be “removed” from the Israeli political system,” describing them as “a fifth column,” and that “we cannot continue to allow such a large and hostile presence within the Israeli political system.”
Eitam has also come under criticism due to an incident in his military career in 1988, during which soldiers under his command beat a Palestinian captive to death during a military operation in Gaza. The soldiers involved said Eitam had given orders to beat captives and was heard over a radio telling his troops to beat and break the bones of a 21-year-old Palestinian prisoner Ayyad Aqel. They beat him to death. In 2002, Eitam called for Yasser Arafat to be assassinated. Of the Palestinian leader and political prisoner Marwan Bargouthi, then being investigated by Israel, he said, “Take him out to an orchard and shoot him in the head.”