Yad Vashem is not a Political Toy

The Holocaust is no doubt the most traumatic episode in the history of the Jewish people in modern times and even in retrospective of the seventy-five years that have passed, it is still difficult to comprehend that six million people were exterminated because they were Jewish.

After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, many holocaust survivors arrived at its shores to settle in their “own” country as Jews in a Jewish State. Their number is dwindling and only about 190,000 survivors remain today in Israel, and their average age is about 84.

Israel has made it one of its major goals to preserve the memory of the holocaust for future generations, and the promise of “Never Again” is not an empty slogan but a crucial part of Israel’s existence.

To keep the promise of “Never Again” alive, the State of Israel established in 1953 a Memorial Authority: Yad Vashem.

Over the years, Yad Vashem has grown into a Holocaust museum, with a diverse scope of activities, many of which are directed towards education. Education of Israeli youth, so they would learn about what happened to their family members who didn’t make it to Israel, what happened to the rich cultural history of their people in Europe. Education of the World, with exhibitions, seminars, courses, projects and conferences. The museum has become an obligatory stop in the schedule of international dignitaries, presidents and kings, who all pay their respects.

Since 1993, Avner Shalev has been the chairman of Yad Vashem and the driving force behind many of its programs.  Under his direction, Yad Vashem has developed in a multi-facetted organization, which, while having as its major goal the preservation of holocaust history as a major catastrophic event in Jewish history, it also recognizes the universal aspects of genocide and the opportunities to educate in a broader aspect about human relations, while using the holocaust as a platform.

In June of this year, Avner Shalev, who is 81, announced that he will step down as chairman after 27 years of leading Yad Vashem. And as with almost all situations like this, where an important public post needs to be filled, politics puts down it heavy hand.

Higher Education minister, Zeev Elkin, has suggested Effie Eitam for the post, an ultra-right retired general with highly questionable opinions about Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. The function of chairman of an institution like Yad Vashem requires both a sensitivity towards the importance of holocaust remembrance as well as the understanding that a universal change of attitude is necessary in order to prevent the next genocide. Eitam cannot and must not be that person. If only half of his reported actions and remarks against Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular, are true, a picture of racism, violence, and maybe even worse, emerges and such a picture must not be connected to Yad Vashem.

There is no doubt that (particularly in Israel) there are many who would bring to the position, both the broad background on all aspects of the Holocaust as well as the management capabilities to become a worthy replacement for Avner Shalev, and continue the road of education and universality that he has chosen. So how did Elkin come up with Eitam’s name? Or maybe we should ask, why does Netanyahu want an ex-general with a very questionable reputation to take over an institution as emotionally and historically sensitive as Yad Vashem? And Netanyahu does have his hand in this, because, beside the fact that nothing of this importance will happen without Netanyahu knowing and approving, Eitam already stated that Netanyahu offered him the job two months ago.

Luckily, the noise that is being generated surrounding the appointment of a new chairman for Yad Vashem, will hopefully make Netanyahu see that there are limits to political messing around and the opposition to Eitam coming from influential figures such as Ms. Collette Avital from the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, will hopefully stop this shameful attempt to blemish the name of Yad Vashem.

Netanyahu would do better to make sure that the holocaust survivors who are still alive, will not have to continue making choices between spending their small amount of money on medicine or on food, with 50,000 of them going hungry in Israel, even today. But then, what good are these holocaust survivors going to do him?  

I hope you found this article interesting and I welcome any comments you may have.

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