Skip To Content

Why would the government of Israel undermine the legacy of Yad Vashem?

The proposed nomination of Effie Eitam to head Yad Vashem would irrevocably wound Israel and the Jewish people’s memorial to the Holocaust.

It will seriously weaken Israel’s ability to invoke the moral authority conferred on the Jewish people by that event. The move is unwise and undermines the memory of the Shoah’s victims and the efforts of survivors to give moral meaning to the memory of the Holocaust. They plead for human decency, dignity and responsibility as individuals and as members of the Jewish community with the goal of promoting human rights and preventing genocide—all genocide.

Angela Merkel at the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel in 2008. Image by Getty

I care deeply about this nomination because I care deeply about Yad Vashem and the State of Israel and have spent my life in service to the memory of the Holocaust.

When we began work on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust almost 40 years ago, we looked to Yad Vashem as our model. President Jimmy Carter charged us with recommending an “appropriate national memorial to the Holocaust.”

What could be more appropriate than building a museum to tell the story of the Holocaust in the nation’s capital? It was important to build an Educational Center to teach its history and its lessons, with an Academic Research Institute to expand the then-nascent field of Holocaust Studies. It was imperative to create an archive to collect and preserve Holocaust documentation and a library to gather, in one place, tools for scholarship and learning.

We wanted to build an American Yad Vashem on the Mall.

When we opened 14 years later, there were times we viewed Yad Vashem as colleagues, as a friendly rival and as collaborators. And there is no doubt the success of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) spurred the reimagining of Yad Vashem under the dynamic leadership of the outgoing Chairman of the Directorate, Avner Shalev.

The rivalry between the two institutions honed the skills of both parties, giving them the confidence to be bolder and more successful in their messaging. Together, Yad Vashem and USHMM scholars pursued massive gatherings of archival material from every relevant country on Earth, most especially in countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain. Scholars wrote books together. We participated in each other’s conferences, we translated each other’s books, we trained each other’s teachers. We worked together to strengthen the field and preserve the memory of the Shoah. The results have enriched scholarship and education.

So why is Mr. Eitam such an affront to the field?

Because soldiers under his command beat and killed captive Palestinian prisoners. An IDF report wrote: “Eitam’s violent behavior became the norm [in his brigade] and was taken as an example by those under his command.” He was reprimanded by the IDF and denied a promotion.

As a National Religious Party MK between 2003 and 2009, Mr. Eitam repeatedly called for the expulsion of the Arabs of Judea and Samaria. In 2008, he addressed the Arab MKs in Knesset and said, “Fellow citizens of Israel, the day will come when we will banish you from this house.” He advocated ethnic cleansing, as did Meir Kahane, who was expelled from the Knesset for his racism.

Everyone in Holocaust Studies knows ethnic cleansing is one of the elements of genocide outlawed by the International Convention.

Jewish history and Jewish memory impose their own norms. Jews recall, in sadness and anger, the Expulsion from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497. Those who call for the expulsion of Arabs from Judea and Samaria would seem to empathize with Queen Isabella—who sought a homogenous Roman Catholic population instead of the multi-religious community that constituted pre-Inquisition Spain. Jewish history and Jewish memory do not permit us to expel others because they are different.

There are politicians who want to undermine Yad Vashem. Its commitment to truth is an irritant when Prime Minister falsely tries to shift blame from Adolf Hitler to the Mufti of Jerusalem for the gassing of the Jews. Yad Vashem called him out when he tried to score cheap political points by wrapping himself in false historical points. The accurate rendering of history by Yad Vashem reminded the Israeli public and the world that PM Netanyahu’s timetable was wrong, the son of a distinguished historian, his history amateurish.

Yad Vashem’s commitment to academic integrity and serious scholarship was an irritant when the Israeli government tried to curry favor with the Polish government and found the wool pulled over its eyes when the Polish “Holocaust law“ went from being a criminal to a civil offense. The Israeli government did not notice the Polish government had removed the law’s previous protections for artistic and academic work. Now, every Polish scholar, every Polish artist, every foreign scholar writing in Poland, teaching or speaking in Poland, creating films, novels and sculptures worries about being bankrupted by legal costs for proceedings challenging the truths they tell.

Effi Eitam in the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 30, 2008.

Effi Eitam in the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 30, 2008. Image by Tess Sheflan

History is irritating when, in Auschwitz at a Yom Hashoah ceremony with European Education Ministers from nine countries, the Israeli Education Minister castigated the French and the Austrians for the ghettos in Paris and Vienna. He did not know and did not bother to check with those who do know what his French and Austrian colleagues and the others already knew: that there were no ghettos in Paris and in Vienna. He made a fool of himself in front of 12,000 people and the Education Ministers he was imploring to teach the Holocaust.

I fail to understand why this Israeli government would seek to undermine the memory of the Holocaust. There are other jobs for an aging Israeli politician from a now-defunct party who advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Judea and Samaria. But certainly, the chair of the Directorate of Yad Vashem is not one of them.

The memory of the Shoah requires a person of moral stature to lead the preeminent institution of remembrance. And even if it doesn’t, the least we can expect is the appointment of a person who understands empowerment of Jews in their own land is one important lesson of the Shoah and not the only one.

For Holocaust survivors, scholars and educators, for religious leaders throughout the world, the memory of the Holocaust is invoked as a plea for human decency and dignity, as a call for mutual responsibility, with implications for democracy, pluralism and tolerance, for how we treat “The Other,” those who differ in race and religion. Surely, it cannot mean less for Yad Vashem, or less for the State of Israel.

Israel and the Jewish people deserve better.

Michael Berenbaum is the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He was project director overseeing the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the first director of its Research Institute, and was president and chief operating officer of The Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.