Israel nominates controversial right-wing figure to head Holocaust memorial

Campbell MacDiarmid
·2-min read
Effie Eitam, retired general and leader of the National Religious Party, photographed in 2002 - EPA
Effie Eitam, retired general and leader of the National Religious Party, photographed in 2002 - EPA

The nomination of a former Israeli minister who once called for the expulsion of the Palestinians from the West Bank to head the country’s official holocaust memorial has sparked outrage, with critics maintaining his appointment would undermine the apolitical institution’s moral credibility. 

A government appointments committee has approved the candidacy of Effie Eitam, a retired brigadier general and former member of the Knesset for the National Religious Party, who was put forward with the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A cabinet vote is needed to finalise his approval.

Mr Eitam, 68, told the Associated Press he was a “unifier” and consensus builder, and said his full record would be fairly reviewed.

“Those people who will have to make the decision, no doubt they will consider all the aspects of the nomination and they will come to a decision,” he said.

But critics say his harsh rhetoric on the Palestinians, his support for Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and his military record make him unsuited to head the world’s leading institution for Holocaust rememberance.

“Yad Vashem has to stay above politics and remain a place that is solely focused on preserving the memory of the victims of the most atrocious act of genocide perpetrated against the Jewish people,” wrote the editorial board of the Jerusalem Post, a moderate conservative newspaper.

“Anyone who openly calls for ethnic cleansing is unfit to lead an institution dedicated to preserving the horrors of Nazi ethnic cleansing and mass murder,” wrote Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the former executive director of the US President’s Commission on the Holocaust, in the same publication. 

While a member of the Knesset between 2003 and 2009, Mr Eitam called for the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank. In 2008 he told Arab parliamentarians that “The day will come when we will banish you from this house.”

He also previously compared Arab citizens to a cancer and a "ticking bomb". 

During his time in the military in the 1980s, soldiers under his command were prosecuted for beating a Palestinian man to death, which in their defence they said they did on Mr Eitam’s orders. Mr Eitam was reprimanded and his promotion delayed. 

Jewish Voice for Peace, an American activist organisation, called his nomination “sickening”.

“We are appalled at the repeated desecration, distortion, and instrumentalisation of Holocaust memory to support the violent actions and words of people like Effie Eitam,” the group wrote.

Mr Eitam would replace Avner Shalev, 81, who announced his retirement in June after a 27-year tenure.