The politics of memorization are never straightforward. All the more so when it comes to one of the most horrific events of the 20th century. Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial is one of the country’s sacred sites. It’s also ground zero for a burning controversy over how the state uses the event to reconcile its behaviour. The nomination of a far-right political figure to lead Yad Vashem has rekindled this debate. It’s not the first time the memorial and its purpose has been weaponised.
Yad Vashem sits on an idyllic hillside just outside Jerusalem. The primary exhibition meanders through dimly lit and confined spaces filled with artefacts describing the Nazi genocide of six million Jews. The experience is claustrophobic and unsettling. Finally, at the end, the walls of the museums spread open, leaving visitors on an expansive deck overlooking the rolling hills of Jerusalem.
The design is not an accident. The visitor is transported to the ghettos of Europe filled with death and destruction only to end in the warm embrace of the Jerusalem hills. From captivity to freedom. What’s missing at the end of this uplifting journey are mention of the Palestinians villages that once dotted those same hills but have since been depopulated to make way for the Israeli state.
The design gets at the controversy over Yad Vashem: does the museum serve as a memorial to the past or a justification for Israel’s creation at the expense of the Palestinians? The recent nomination of far-right figure Effi Eitam to lead the museum indicates where the Israeli government falls on this issue.
In the early 2000s, Eitam was one of the leading voices advocating for the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank. As a commander of the elite Givati infantry brigade, four of Eitam’s soldiers were convicted of beating a Palestinian to death on his orders. Eitam also has pushed to have Palestinian citizens of Israel barred from politics. He has a long history of being one of Israel’s most unsavoury public figures.
Jewish groups and Israeli intellectuals have denounced the nomination of Eitam, saying it will undermine Yad Vashem’s critical educational message. Israel Bartal, a professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The New York Times that “an institute headed by a person with such extreme opinions and controversial human values will never be taken seriously within the global academic community.”
Eitam’s appointment is seen to be politicizing the critical education and academic work of Yad Vashem. True, but it also misses the more important point. Israel has politicized Yad Vashem from day one, and it began with the decision to build it in Jerusalem overlooking the remnants of Palestinian villages. And it goes even deeper than that.
The first stop for foreign leaders visiting Israel is invariably Yad Vashem. Autocratic leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has been accused of participating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, all have been honoured guests. From Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the luminaries of the global far-right have all made appearances at the memorial. Bolsonaro even made a joke at the memorial about Nazis being leftists. This isn’t a new development either. In 1976, South African Prime Minister BJ Vorster read a psalm in Afrikaans next to the memorial flame in Yad Vashem’s crypt.
Israel’s openness to welcome such figures into an ostensibly sacred space designed to educate the world about the horrors of racism and genocide raises several questions about the real purpose of the monument. How can it be that a memorial to the victims of far-right fascism has become such a popular spot for today’s far-right? The answer lies in how Israel’s leadership understands the nature of racism and the far right.
For Israel’s own far-right, anti-Semitism and racism don’t matter as long as there is support for Israel and, by extension, its policies of occupation and domination. Rising levels of anti-Semitism have alarmed Jewish communities from the US to Hungary over the last four years. Still, the Israeli government has remained mostly silent, instead preferring to focus on leftist anti-Zionism and the Palestinian-led boycott movement. From this perspective, the appointment of Eitam to lead Yad Vashem makes perfect sense since the memorial is a critical vehicle to solidifying support for Israel.
By focusing solely on the personality of Eitam, however, the outcry of his appointment misses the more profound point. Yad Vashem has become a tool to advance Israel’s right-wing agenda. In so doing, the memorial abuses the memory of the Holocaust and insults survivors. The politics of memorialization are complicated because historical events can be used to achieve nefarious goals. When Germany was building its Holocaust memorial in Berlin, there was a years-long debate in newspapers and public spaces. On the side of the construction site, someone spray-painted “The conversation is the memorial.”
So what does the conversation about Yad Vashem reveal about Israel?