Yad Vashem holds an almost sacred place in the Jewish world. The foremost repository of materials relating to the Holocaust, and Israel’s official memorial to the victims of Nazism, the centre is practically an obligatory destination for visiting diplomats and foreign dignitaries. It is a solemn place dedicated to the terrible past, but with an explicit vision for a future without hatred and genocide.
Yad Vashem is rightly focused on the Jewish particularity of the Shoah. We take for granted the logic of Yad Vashem being located in Jerusalem. The capital of Israel and, spiritually, of the Jewish people seems a logical place to remember this massive cataclysm in Jewish history. But it commemorates a history that took place thousands of kilometres away, in Europe. Its presence in the Jewish state is itself a statement about Jewish particularism. But this does not erase the universal lessons Yad Vashem advances.
Since its founding in 1953, it has been a model for the world in commemorating and educating about the worst chapters in human history. The events of the 20th century that necessitated the invention of the word “genocide” did not end with the Holocaust. Genocides have occurred since 1945 – and before. Educators and others who strive to preserve and transmit these histories and their lessons struggle over the balance between respecting the very specific characteristics of the Holocaust, for example, with the broader messages for all humanity. At a time when antisemitism is experiencing a resurgence, it is essential that the role of Jew-hatred be addressed and confronted, at least in part with the recent past as a warning for the dangers of complacency.
While the struggle between universality and particularism is challenging, all can probably agree that Yad Vashem stands as a monument to human rights and the dignity of all people – and as a lesson to those in societies where those values are compromised. At the same time, the existence and focus of Yad Vashem safeguards the particular and monumental horrors of the genocide against the Jews.
This is why there is rightful concern over the proposed appointment of former brigadier general Effi Eitam as head of Yad Vashem. His proponents – including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who nominated him for the position – contend that Eitam’s career has been spent defending the Jewish state. And among the lessons many people take from the exhibits of Yad Vashem is the necessity of a Jewish state as a bulwark against a world that has yet to cure itself of antisemitism.
But Eitam’s military record is more than troubling, and this is the main reason for concerns about his appointment. During the First Intifada, he brutally instructed his troops to break the bones of a 21-year-old Palestinian prisoner, Ayyad Aqel. The soldiers beat the young man to death. Four of Eitam’s soldiers were court-martialed and the Military Advocate General reprimanded Eitam and recommended he never be promoted. (He was.) In addition to his military career, he served two terms in the Knesset representing various religious parties, and held several cabinet portfolios.
Beyond Eitam’s record of heinous action is a record of deeply concerning and racist ideas. He has referred to Arab Israelis as a “cancer” and promoted ethnic cleansing of West Bank Palestinians: “We’ll have to expel the overwhelming majority of West Bank Arabs from here and remove Israeli Arabs from political system,” he said in 2006.
Referring to human beings with terms like “cancer” is precisely the sort of dehumanization that can be a precondition to genocide. In any society – including one as open as Israel, where diverse views and expressions are the norm – these statements must preclude someone from a role like head of the world’s foremost research centre about, and memorial to, the Shoah. Eitam’s military service – he was part of the raid on Entebbe, among other things – can be seen as evidence that a strong Israel is the best defence for the Jewish people in a world capable of genocide. But Eitam’s statements cannot be justified from the mouth of one who seeks to advance the lessons, particular or universal, that Yad Vashem is expected to convey.
The nomination is threatening to create yet another schism in the government, as Netanyahu’s coalition partner Benny Gantz opposes Eitam’s appointment. Ideally, a more suitable leader will be found for this important role, one who stands as a defender of the sanctity of the Shoah and its lessons for humanity.