Chairman of "Yad Vashem" is not just another public position. "Yad Vashem" is a symbol; it is a holy place. Effi Eitam has a personal history that disqualifies him from this special position.
I have always been hesitant to attack people. Whenever it has been necessary, I have tried to attack deeds or positions. Moreover, for many years, I have been operating under the belief that at least in my corner, I can bring about significant change to our society, in the Middle East and perhaps even in the world through fruitful dialogue and collaborations with people very far from my positions.
Of course, it would be great if all Israeli society were “Meimadniks” who believe, just like me, in the right balance between Judaism and Democracy, between particular and universal. People who are willing to build a society on the same foundations of charity and justice and fight with me for peace, welfare, health and the environment, as a basis for a fair and just society. But the real world around me is not that way. There are secular and religious people, even those that are no less religious than myself, but are very far from my opinions. With the religious among them, I have a poignant debate about the heart and soul of Torat Israel. I am convinced that my interpretation outweighs theirs but I cannot deny the sources on which they rely, even though I totally disagree with their conclusions. At the same time, I am convinced that if I want to work for change in the world, I cannot just talk to myself or preach to the choir. I must be in discourse and listen carefully to those within the Jewish people as well as those among our neighbors, who are very far from my opinions. I have seen over the years, that together with them, I have managed to reach agreements and create extensive collaborations to save lives and bring joy and well-being to human beings. In short – Tikkun Olam under Divine Sovereignty.
All of this work also means that I pay a price for these unconventional collaborations. My partners also pay a price when they work so closely with me.
A similar issue has recently made headlines, the collaboration of MK Dr. Mansour Abbas with the Likud party and the Prime Minister. For many years, I worked with the mentor and teacher of MK Abbas, the founder of the Islamic Movement, the late Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish. Together, we founded the Religious Peace Initiative in the Middle East.
Sheikh Abdullah implored me and taught me to not be afraid to work with people who are considered extremists on the other side, just as he was willing to work with extremists on our side, to reach common goals. In this respect, Abbas is not a revolutionary, but effectively carrying out what he has learned over the years from his instructor. Does he thereby give legitimacy to the Prime Minister? He did not elect the Prime Minister. Rather, a majority in the Knesset elected him. That is his legitimacy. I know Abbas would prefer another prime minister but probably his dream prime minister will not come soon. But Abbas is in politics to bring results to his constituents, to society and for peace. With whom will he promote these goals if he does not do so with the government? Will he pay a price for this collaboration? Certainly so. But the gain may be much greater.
There's also a benefit that has not been written about. It is related to breaking the barriers in our society. The government, although right-wing, is willing to work openly and closely with the Arab representatives in Knesset. Not just Arabs, not seemingly 'enlightened' Arabs but those considered ‘dark’ and ‘extremist Islamists’. Suddenly, people see that the ‘demon’ is not so terrible and it is possible to reach agreements and have a proper and respectful dialogue. There is a public and educational benefit here that I would not underestimate.
Does this mean that everything is pragmatism? For sale? That there are no values? No red lines? Certainly not. There is always a very clear moral line that cannot be crossed in any way, otherwise you are not a leader but rather an opportunist who has lost his own soul.
An example of the clear line is the issue that recently arose with the candidacy by Prime Minister and Minister Ze’ev Elkin of Effi Eitam as Chairman of "Yad Vashem". Effi Eitam is a good example of a person with opposite positions to mine, as different as East is to West. Will I therefore oppose his appointment to senior public positions? Not at all! Can he be a dialogue partner in different settings? Absolutely. Minister Elkin's treatment of this appointment, however, was as if it were an appointment to just any position. He claimed that Eitam has administrative and business skills, that he is well-acquainted with the corridors of power and, most importantly, the treasury. I guess all of this is true. The problem is that Chairman of "Yad Vashem" is not just another public position. "Yad Vashem" is a symbol; it is a holy place. I myself have worked with "Yad Vashem" for 30 years and my stance whenever I approached the place has always been of extreme reverence.
Effi Eitam has a personal history that disqualifies him from this special position. This is not because he was a politician, nor because he is a man of the Greater Land of Israel but because of his actions and positions.
Under his command in "Givati" in 1988, four of his subordinates were on trial for the murder of a prisoner. When they claimed to have acted under the express instructions of their direct commander. The military tribunal decided, based on doubt, not to prosecute Eitam but concluded in its ruling that his violent conduct had become the norm and was the example to all who served under his command. Following this, the army gave him a severe reprimand and stopped his promotion. After his discharge from the army in 2000, Eitam lectured on the need to reoccupy all of Judea and Samaria and to expel overnight the entire Arab population from there. He said the army has the ability to do so but it only lacks the will. He has spoken several times over the years about the expulsion of the Arabs from Judea and Samaria.
As for the Arabs within the State of Israel, he said they were the ticking bomb under a democratic order. An elusive threat similar to cancer. Cancer is a type of disease that people usually die from because the diagnosis is too late and then impossible to treat. He referred to all the Arabs of Israel this way.
I heard Effi Eitam give a drasha at Fifth Avenue synagogue in Manhattan shortly after 9/11. He explained to the audience that what happened that day was God's way to return to the world arena and stir the world to a religious war. I was together with the late Elie Wiesel z"l at that service, who was in sheer shock that a Jew was able to utter such assertions.
In 1986, Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize. This was not only because of the intensity of his stories from the Holocaust, which, like all survivors' stories, left such a strong impression on his readers in describing what happened in the death camps. Rather, he received the award because of his ability to turn his existence, his story, out of the uniqueness of the Holocaust into a central motive of struggle for humanity and against all forms of anti-Semitism, racism, genocide and ethnic cleansing around the world.
The same goes with "Yad Vashem". As the central institution for commemoration in the world, "Yad Vashem" has become a major factor in the global fight against genocide and ethnic cleansing, even without this being part of its exhibitions and outright agenda. Teachers from all over the world come to study at the "Yad Vashem" International School to get tools on how studying Auschwitz crematoria can also teach them to fight anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and hatred of the other in their society.
In 2000, the largest conference ever held on the study of the Holocaust and its consequences was organized by the Prime Minister of Sweden, Göran Persson. It brought together 45 heads of state and delegations from around the world to step up Holocaust study and research. I had the privilege of being involved in the preparations for the conference and being the head of the Israeli delegation there. Eli Wiesel was the honorary chairman and Prof. Yehuda Bauer was the academic chairman of it. The conference boosted the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) - the world's leading body in the fight against anti-Semitism and Holocaust remembrance, which today has 34 member states and 8 other observing countries. The State of Israel and its government rightly adhere to the IHRA's definition of anti-Semitism in the fight against the growing hatred of Jews around the world. The main professional body of the IHRA, of all the Holocaust museums and Holocaust researchers in the world is of course "Yad Vashem". The one who stood at the forefront of "Yad Vashem" for 27 years was Avner Shalev who built, expanded, led and represented the institution. Thanks to him, together with Prof. Bauer and other researchers from "Yad Vashem" we were able to reach where we are today in the struggle to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust and against anti-Semitism. The IHRA states in its mission: "A sacred commitment to fight genocide, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism and xenophobia."
It is essential to understand that we will succeed in perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust for all mankind and the fight against anti-Semitism, the oldest and most persistent hatred that led to humanity's great crime. But this is only if we show, on the one hand, the uniqueness of the Holocaust and on the other hand, the universality of its consequences. The fight against anti-Semitism must be part of the overall, international struggle for the dignity of every person.
This is the background that led the 220 leading Holocaust scholars in the world to write dumbfounded at the intention to appoint Effi Eitam as Chairman of "Yad Vashem". Eitam did not commit genocide or ethnic cleansing. But in his views, which he has expressed in his speeches and declarations, he supports what the world has defined as “ethnic cleansing.” Therefore, it is understandable that Holocaust scholars and many survivors are shocked by what they call “the appointment that will bring ridicule and disgrace to Yad Vashem."
I am writing this not only because Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and other haters will take advantage of it, but because this appointment puts us beyond the moral, basic red line that we simply do not cross. "Yad Vashem" is a holy place.
I call upon the Prime Minister, The Alternate Prime Minister and Minister Elkin: Find a suitable role for Effi Eitam, and save "Yad Vashem" as a symbol of remembrance and as an active challenge for humanity of today and for generations to come.