Yad Vashem: A Memorial, a Name, a Controversy

European Diary, 26.11.2020: Almost exactly ten years ago, an aspiring nationalist politician from Austria visited the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It was at the beginning of December 2010. Instead of wearing a kippa or a hat, he entered the memorial site with a fraternity cap, a symbol of the right wing, often Antisemitic traditional students organizations in Austria and Germany. At home in Vienna, right-wing extremists of all colors were thigh tapping happy about this macabre joke. Others were worried that the demonstrative pro-Israel course could now make right-wing populists presentable in Austria as well. If Israel welcomes him into the country like this, “sooner or later no one in Austria will be able to say anything. He makes himself capable of governing”, a representative of the Viennese Documentation Archive of the Austrian Resistance warned. Well, seven years later the strange guest from Austria was Vice-Chancellor of Austria. And he would probably still be today, if he had not run into a fake oligarch on Ibiza, a trap created by critical journalists who exposed the corruption of these right wing politicians.

Now there is a dispute about Yad Vashem again. Also this time it is about a right-wing extremist racist. But according to Benjamin Netanyahu, this racist is not supposed to visit, but to take over the management of the “World Holocaust Memorial”: Effi Eitam.

Eitam’s military career as a brigadier general culminated in the fight against the Palestinian intifada. Four of his soldiers beat a Palestinian prisoner to death on his orders and were – after all – sentenced. Eitam got off with a reprimand, but was no longer promoted.
Consequently, he was drawn into politics, where he attracted attention as a member of the Knesset and as a minister with racist statements, among other things, when he called Arab Israelis a cancer and demanded that these citizens be deprived of the right to vote. He demanded that Palestinians be forcibly expelled from the West Bank and that one of the most popular Palestinian leaders, Marwan Bargouti, be murdered.

The planned appointment has triggered protests worldwide, from Holocaust survivors as well as scientists, memorials, archives and Jewish museums. Finally, Yad Vashem is also a scientific institution and one of the most important archives in the world. Should it be the plaything of nationalist politics and the explicit oppression of minorities in the future? On Tuesday, survivors of the Shoah took to the streets in Israel and protested outside the offices of the responsible minister Ze’ev Elkin. “The way Eitam talks about our citizens and neighbors reminds me of what I heard when I was a child,” one of the aged and apparently awake and young protesters, 92-year-old Eva Morris, told the Jerusalem Post.

In the conflict over this occupation, of course, only those contradictions that have long been a problem are revealed in a grotesquely exaggerated way. And not only in Israel. Memorials are and have always been a plaything of nationalist politics. Whether in Poland, where for decades in Auschwitz the Polish suffering was celebrated as “Jesus among the nations,” and the Jewish victims were appropriated among the Polish. Or in Buchenwald, where the “true” Germany, liberated from fascism and capitalism, ranked among the peoples of the world whose salvation consisted in communism. Whether in the “Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny”, where an inflated copy of a “Pieta” by Käthe Kollwitz since 1993 also commemorates all Jewish and other victims of mass extermination in Christian iconography and as anonymously fallen soldiers. And thus at the same time declared victims of an equally anonymous evil that had nothing to do with Germany. Or in Yad Vashem, which, as a memorial, not only claims to be a universal world memorial, but at the same time incorporates all victims of the Holocaust not only in an understandably Jewish but also in a nationalist narrative. As a “memorial to the martyrs and heroes of the State of Israel in the Holocaust”, Yad Vashem (following an Israeli law) declares the dead posthumously as Israeli citizens. My grandfather would turn over in his grave – if he ever received a grave.

The path through the history museum of Yad Vashem, which was reopened 15 years ago, does not end with an architectural gesture of trauma, no authentic or staged expression of what the survivors since 1945 have to cope with. No, the path through the museum ends on an imperial balcony, a view from above in triumph over the land – and with a side view of that hill on which the village of Deir Yassin stood, whose inhabitants were massacred by right-wing militias under the orders of Menachem Begin in 1948.

As early as 1988, Yehuda Elkana captured the inner contradiction of every Holocaust remembrance in a memorable formula. There are two conflicting imperatives that lead to completely different consequences: “this shall never happen again” – or “this shall never happen again to us“.
At the same time, the conflict over Eitam also reveals the fundamental dilemma of the Israeli state, which wants to be both a democracy and a Jewish state. Omri Boehm has described this in his new book “Israel- a Utopia” with good reasons as an attempt to say something like: “A square is square in so far as it is round, and a circle is round in so far as it is square. One asserts nothing more than a contradiction, but with pathos, and believes in it.”

As a “national memorial”, Yad Vashem, too, is supposed to be a squaring of the circle, a manifesto against racism and the oppression of minorities, and at the same time an institution for the establishment of Jewish Israeli identity, which symbolically excludes a growing number of Israeli citizens. Effi Eitam would indeed be the man to “dissolve” this contradiction. With fatal consequences, of course. For Yad Vashem is also one of the most important archives in the world, a research site where many people have seriously dedicated their lives to the memory of the greatest crime of humanity. A crime that can only be remembered if its universal and Jewish dimensions are taken into account equally. Without abusing it for national political purposes, that is, for domination over others.

And finally, the dispute over Yad Vashem reveals a growing contradiction between Jews in the Diaspora and the Israeli state, which usurps Jews even against their will, dead or alive, and plays them off against the Arab citizens of Israel and against the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. A dispute that has now even encompassed the occupation of leading positions in Zionist organizations around the world, decisions that the Israeli government has made the sole concern of its internal coalition deals, instead of coordinating them with Jewish organizations in the diaspora as it has done in the past.

If the appointment of the chairman of the board of directors of Yad Vashem is now also the subject of a coalition dispute between Israel’s “best enemies”, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu and Benjamin (Benny) Gantz, then it is not because Benny Gantz has problems with abusing Yad Vashem as a place of nationalist brainwashing, but because a number of top positions within Israel are currently being occupied again. And both of them want to make a good cut. After all, Netanyahu needs people in leading positions in the judiciary who will spare him the threat of a trial.
Ze’ev Elkin, the minister responsible for Yad Vashem, who wants to hold fast to Eitam’s occupation, has already reached the peak of cynical hypocrisy:  He hopes, he told the Israeli daily Haaretz, that “Yad Vashem will not become a hostage in a political game. There are things that are above politics. If Effi Eitam can be prevented, a bitter aftertaste will remain. And much to do. We need to know that.