Israel’s Pick to Head Holocaust Memorial Stirs International Uproar [petition includes 19 Canadian signatories, some notable non-signatories]

Striking and disappointing that none of the Canadian delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance signed the petition, including the recently appointed head, Irwin Cotler nor any of the participating organizations. The 19 Canadian signatories are largely academics:

For years, his name was synonymous with intolerance and right-wing extremism.

So when Israel’s conservative-led government nominated Effie Eitam to be chairman of Yad Vashem, the country’s official Holocaust memorial and one its most hallowed institutions, it prompted an uproar.

Mr. Eitam, a 68-year-old retired brigadier general and former minister, has spent the last decade in the private sector. But his provocative statements from the early 2000s advocating the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and barring Israel’s Arab citizens from politics linger on the public record.

The appointment could have “devastating consequences,” said Israel Bartal, a professor of modern Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who said he would be forced to cut all contacts with Yad Vashem’s research institute after years of cooperation. “An institute headed by a person with such extreme opinions and controversial human values will never be taken seriously within the global academic community,” Mr. Bartal said.

Holocaust survivors, Jewish organizations and an international array of historians have denounced the appointing of such a contentious figure to head Yad Vashem. They say that in addition to recognizing the Nazi genocide of six million Jews as a unique event, the institution is also responsible for upholding universal moral values and educating people about anti-Semitism and racism.

Yet despite the pushback, a government appointments committee vetted and approved Mr. Eitam’s candidacy in mid-November. Only a cabinet vote now stands between him and the post.

“This is more than a colossal mistake — it’s a tragedy,” said Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta who has written several books on the subject. “Appointing Eitam to this position would be a blot on Yad Vashem’s reputation and Yad Vashem’s record.”

Mr. Eitam and Yad Vashem declined to comment on the appointment.

But Mr. Eitam’s defenders say he is the victim of a kneejerk left-wing campaign purely because he is right-wing and religious. They view him as a war hero and an experienced manager who could steer Yad Vashem out of a severe financial crisis that has been compounded by government budget cuts and a drop-off in donations because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The upshot is that Yad Vashem, an almost sacred institution that world leaders are expected to visit while in Jerusalem, has gotten caught up in the political and culture wars of a polarized country where the dominant right-wing battles the liberal left and is increasingly at odds with the more liberal streams among world Jewry.

Worse, experts say, it comes at a time when anti-Semitism is resurgent and far-right forces in other parts of the world are promoting Holocaust denial.

“You don’t play politics with the Shoah, and this is playing politics with the Shoah,” Professor Lipstadt said, using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.

Worse, experts say, it comes at a time when anti-Semitism is resurgent and far-right forces in other parts of the world are promoting Holocaust denial.

“You don’t play politics with the Shoah, and this is playing politics with the Shoah,” Professor Lipstadt said, using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.

She is one of 750 historians, Jewish studies experts and cultural figures who signed a petition protesting the appointment, which was submitted to Yad Vashem’s board of trustees and Israel’s Parliament this month.

Yad Vashem’s current chairman, Avner Shalev, 81, is a respected, apolitical figurehead. He announced in June that he was stepping down after a 27-year tenure.

Zeev Elkin, the minister with responsibility for Yad Vashem from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, chose Mr. Eitam with Mr. Netanyahu’s full support.

Still, government approval may not be imminent. Because of coalition infighting, all senior appointments are frozen, and Benny Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White party in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, is likely to block Mr. Eitam’s advancement by denying him a majority if it comes to a cabinet vote.

But Mr. Elkin and Mr. Netanyahu insist that he is still their sole candidate. 

Mr. Eitam, a resident of a settlement in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, grew up as a secular Jew and became observant after the 1973 Middle East war.

He was decorated for his role in one of the war’s most desperate battles and later took part in a raid to free mainly Israeli hostages in Entebbe, Uganda. Mr. Netanyahu’s older brother, Yonatan, a legendary figure in Israel, was killed while leading the raid.

But Mr. Eitam once compared Israel’s Arab citizens to a cancer and a “ticking bomb” and said Israel would ultimately have to expel most Palestinians from the West Bank.

During the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, when he was a brigade commander, some of his soldiers were prosecuted for beating a Palestinian man to death. The soldiers said they had beat him on the commander’s orders.

Ultimately, Mr. Eitam received a severe reprimand, and his promotion to the rank of brigadier general was long stalled. Yet his military career spanned nearly three decades.

Mr. Elkin, the minister responsible for Yad Vashem, denounced what he called an “ugly” and “hypocritical” campaign spearheaded by political forces who never objected to appointments from the left wing of the political spectrum.

“True, he made a few unsuccessful remarks,” Mr. Elkin said of Mr. Eitam in a telephone interview, “but that was 15 or 20 years ago.” Mr. Elkin also said that some of those statements had been taken out of context.

Mr. Elkin cited as a reference point Joseph “Tommy” Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and acerbic leader of a liberal, secular, centrist party who went on to become chairman of Yad Vashem’s advisory council. Mr. Lapid once said that Palestinians “might begin to think” of the effects if 10 car bombs were to go off in 10 Palestinian cities and kill 500 Palestinians.

“That’s a more shocking statement to my mind,” Mr. Elkin said, “and nobody opposed his appointment.”

One leader of the campaign against the appointment is Colette Avital, a former Israeli diplomat and Labor party lawmaker who now chairs the Center Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, an umbrella group for 58 Holocaust organizations. She said she had suggested alternative candidates to Mr. Elkin from the political right.

“There are people who don’t represent the left but can project an image of tolerance, understanding and moderation,” she said. Regarding the claims against Mr. Lapid, she said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Other apolitical bodies have criticized Mr. Eitam’s nomination, including the Anti-Defamation League and some Yad Vashem donors.

“Yad Vashem should stay above Israeli politics and keep its irreproachable record and moral high ground,” Joel Herzog of the Swiss Friends of Yad Vashem wrote in an email.

Critics are baffled as to why Mr. Elkin settled on Mr. Eitam. But it might signal a desired shift that would bring the institution more in line with the government after some recent run-ins.

In 2018, Yad Vashem issued a stinging critique of a joint statement by the prime ministers of Israel and Poland that was meant to resolve a rift between the countries over a Polish law criminalizing some statements on the Holocaust. Complicating matters, Yad Vashem’s chief historian, Prof. Dina Porat, was involved in drafting the joint statement, apparently in a private capacity.

Supporters of Mr. Eitam said that he could project a more muscular, Jewish and Zionist-centric image from Yad Vashem for Israel’s battle against anti-Semitism. Mr. Elkin said Mr. Eitam’s whole army career had been devoted to the lesson of the Holocaust summed up by the phrase “Never again.”

“That is something fundamental in his character, the essence of his character,” Mr. Elkin said.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/28/world/middleeast/israel-yad-vashem-eitam.html?action=click&module=Latest&pgtype=Homepage

Putin at the World Holocaust Forum

Of note:

Earlier this month, some ten days after the World Holocaust Forum held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem to commemorate the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz, the museum issued an unusual apology for a film presentation that contained “inaccuracies” and “created an unbalanced impression”—by, among other things, memory-holing the 1939 division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the Soviet occupation of the Baltics in 1940.

The apology letter, signed by Professor Dan Michman of Yad Vashem’s International Institute of Holocaust Research and published in Haaretz, referred to this assault on historical facts as a “regrettable mishap.” But the presentation was actually part of a much bigger problem: the degree to which the forum was turned into a showcase for Russian President Vladimir Putin, his revisionist history, and his friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The January 23 forum—funded mostly by Russian Jewish billionaire, European Jewish Congress president, and Putin ally Moshe Kantor, and organized in partnership with the Israeli government—more or less channeled the Kremlin propaganda narrative of World War II, in which Soviet Russia was virtually the single-handed victor over the Nazis and rescuer of the Jews. There was no mention of Soviet collusion with Nazi Germany in 1939–1940 under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or of Soviet war crimes such as the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and elite professionals—including, by the way, about 900 Jews—at the Katyn Forest.

No one questions the importance of the Soviet Union’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany after 1941. Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz and were the first witnesses to its horrors. But nor is there any serious dispute about the darker side of the USSR’s role in World War II. In his prime-slot forum speech, Putin not only asserted that it was the “Soviet people” who “liberated Europe from Nazism”; he also attempted to position Russia, in seamless succession to the Soviet Union, as having a special role in Holocaust remembrance. (Along the way, he made the blatantly false claim that about 40 percent of Jews murdered in the Holocaust were Soviet citizens, which quickly drew protests from historians: The actual figure is estimated at 15 to 25 percent.)

What Putin conveniently left out is the Soviet regime’s long record of covering up and minimizing the genocide of Jews in order to keep the focus on Nazi war crimes against the Soviet people—as well as Stalin’s persecution and murder of Jewish anti-Nazi activists in the postwar years. At first, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Soviet leadership was anxious to mobilize prominent Jews—particularly cultural and intellectual figures—for propaganda purposes to win foreign support for its war effort and its alliance with Western democracies. In August 1941, two dozen Soviet Jewish writers, journalists, and artists, led by actor and theater director Solomon Mikhoels, issued an appeal to Jewish communities around the world to support the Soviet Union in its fight against Germany. (As the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe notes, “To allow Jews to appeal to their fellow Jews was an extraordinary step for the Kremlin.”) They formed the core of the Jewish Antifascist Committee, officially created in April 1942. In 1943, Mikhoels and fellow JAC member poet Itzik Feffer went on a seven-month tour of the United States, Mexico, Canada, and England; they met with Jewish leaders as well as renowned public figures such as Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall and Charlie Chaplin, headlined a rally of 50,000 in New York, and raised millions of dollars in aid.

But as the war drew to a close, with Soviet forces victorious and Western alliances secured, the Jewish “antifascists” had outlived their usefulness—and their work to collect evidence of the Nazis’ targeted extermination of Jews was met with barely disguised hostility. The Soviet leadership’s attitude toward this issue is can be gleaned from the fact that the Soviet special report on the “monstrous crimes in Oświęcim” (Auschwitz), issued on May 8, 1945, did not contain a single mention of Jews. It referred to Auschwitz as a “camp for the extermination of captive Soviet people” and described the victims as “citizens of the Soviet Union, Poland, France, Belgium, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Rumania and other countries.”

When JAC completed the “Black Book” documenting German atrocities against Jews on Soviet territory, compiled by journalists Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman, the volume was reluctantly approved for publication in early 1946 after revisions to ensure that it followed the party line. But before a single copy could be printed, it was banned for “grave political errors,” and the typeset galleys were destroyed. (The book did appear in English in New York the same year; its first Russian-language edition was published in Israel in 1980.) Meanwhile, the Ministry of State Security, or MGB—the KGB’s predecessor—was sending reports to Communist Party leadership accusing JAC of “bourgeois nationalism” and contacts with foreign intelligence.

JAC was disbanded in November 1948; Mikhoels had been murdered by MGB agents several months earlier, his death officially blamed on a hit-and-run accident. There soon followed a massive anti-Semitic campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans.” This coincided with the Soviet leadership’s reversal of its initially friendly stance toward the new state of Israel, a turnabout due to several factors—from Israel’s pro-American position and failure to embrace Soviet-style socialism to suspicions of disloyalty among Soviet Jews, particularly after tens of thousands turned out to see Israeli envoy Golda Meir on her visit to Moscow’s Choral Synagogue. (Meir’s request to Stalin to permit Jewish emigration to Israel added more fuel to the fire: no one could seek to exit the workers’ paradise.)

In the general persecution of Jews, former members and staffers of the JAC were especially hard hit: over a hundred were arrested, and more than a dozen, including Feffer, were executed in 1952. Prominent Jewish doctors were accused of deliberately murdering patients; even the Jewish wife of Politburo member Vyacheslav Molotov, Polina Zhemchuzhina, was arrested as a “Zionist agent.” There were rumors of a planned mass deportation of Soviet Jews to the “Jewish Autonomous Republic” in Siberia (ostensibly to save them from the wrath of the people).

Stalin’s death in March 1953 brought a halt to the Soviet war on Jews, but Soviet virtual silence about the Holocaust continued. There was no commemoration, for example, of the massacre at Babi Yar, the site near Kyiv where some 33,000 Jews were slaughtered in two days in September 1941 (an event mentioned in Putin’s speech). In 1961, Yevgeny Yevtushenko briefly broke this silence with his poem “Babi Yar,” published in the weekly Literary Gazette; it explicitly identified the victims as Jews and described the murders as part of the long history of anti-Semitic violence. In response, the poet was viciously trashed in the Soviet press for fomenting ethnic division, and the editor who had accepted and printed the poem was fired “for insufficient vigilance.” At a meeting with writers and artists, then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev himself assailed the author for his ideological lapse. While Yevtushenko eventually found his way back into the regime’s good graces, “Babi Yar” was not included in any of the Soviet-era editions of his poetry except for one three-volume collection. (Incidentally, the poem’s opening line—“No monument stands over Babi Yar”—remained true until the fall of the Soviet Union. The first memorials on the site were built in an independent Ukraine.)

All that history was missing from Putin’s speech. So was the well-known role of Soviet propaganda in fomenting anti-Jewish vitriol—under the guise of “anti-Zionism”—from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. Putin did, however, find the time to take swipes at ex-Soviet republics that currently refuse to march to Russia’s orders—Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia—by pointedly noting their populations’ complicity in the Nazi slaughter of Jews. (Nazi collaboration in Russia and in mostly Russia-friendly Belarus got a pass.) He may have also subtly taunted Poland by referencing the Nazi massacre at the Belarusian village of Khatyn—a name almost identical to Katyn. Many historians believe the Soviets deliberately amplified the Khatyn tragedy in the late 1960s because of the name similarity, in the hope that the confusion would distract from the matter of Katyn.

For Putin, such distortions and lies are business as usual. But abetting them was a shameful moment for the Israeli government—especially since, as Times of Israel editor David Horovitz noted, the Kremlin strongman was clearly “the dominant presence” at the January 23 event. Before the start of the forum, Putin was greetedon the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who offered his personal thanks for the Soviet Army’s liberation of Auschwitz. He was the star speaker at the inauguration of a memorial to victims of the German siege of Leningrad, with Israeli president Reuven Rivlin and prime minister Netanyahu at his side. Then, arriving slightly late at the forum itself, he was introduced and escorted to his seat by Rivlin. He got, as Russian Jewish commentator Ilya Milshtein wrote on the independent Russian website Grani.ru, “a Tsar’s welcome.”

The indecency of this spectacle was compounded by the fact that Putin was allowed to posture as the savior of Kremlin hostage Naama Issachar, whom he pardoned after his trip. (The 26-year-old Israeli, arrested during a brief layover at a Moscow airport over a few grams of marijuana in her checked luggage to which she did not even have access on Russian soil, had received a draconian seven-year sentence; her release apparently involved Israeli concessions in a dispute over a valuable religious site, the Alexander Courtyard in Jerusalem.) Writing about Putin’s moment as “the Tsar-liberator of the Jewish people” in a blogpost widely reprintedin the Russian-language Israeli press, Ukrainian Jewish journalist Vitaly Portnikov called it “an abomination.” Strong language, perhaps. But the fact that Putin’s self-congratulatory spin was allowed to color an event commemorating the dead of the Holocaust deserves no less.

Netanyahu has long courted anti-liberal leaders, from Putin to Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who are willing to support Israel in the face of growing antagonism from liberal democracies. One may sympathize with this quest, at least if one believes—as I do—that the current efforts to isolate Israel are unjust and rife with double standards. But the scandal at the World Holocaust Forum is a reminder that fraternizing with authoritarians has its price.

Source: Putin at the World Holocaust Forum