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New Yad Vashem chair seeks ‘firewall’ between politics and remembrance

NEW YORK — For much of its history, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust authority, tried to steer clear of political controversies as it went about creating a lasting memorial and research center dedicated to the Nazi genocide of six million Jews.

Dani Dayan, left, chairman of Yad Vashem, presents German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a painting in Jerusalem, Oct. 10, 2021. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP/Getty)

That changed abruptly last year, when then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped Effi Eitam, a former general and far-right politician, as Yad Vashem’s first new chair in 27 years.

Holocaust survivors, politicians and Jewish organizations said a non-academic known for harsh views about Israeli Arabs and Palestinians had no place as head of Yad Vashem, and his appointment never went through.

Instead, the Israeli government approved Dani Dayan as the new chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, succeeding Avner Shalev. Although Dayan himself was identified with right-wing politics — he previously served as chairman of the Yesha Council representing Jewish settlers — he had just come off a successful run as Israel’s Consul General in New York from 2016-2020.

During his term here, Dayan managed to win over skeptics who felt a champion of the settler movement couldn’t relate to a diverse Jewish community’s liberals.

Last month, Dayan, 65, traveled to the US for the first time as Yad Vashem chair, meeting with politicians and Jewish leaders in Washington and New York.

On Nov. 8, he spoke with the Jewish Week via Zoom from Jerusalem, in an interview that touched on the uses and misses of Holocaust memory, his goals for the institution and how he intends to keep Yad Vashem out of politics.

For the readers who don’t know, what is Yad Vashem? We always say “Israel’s Holocaust authority and museum,” but what does that really mean?

Dayan: The museum is only one component of Yad Vashem, and since it’s open to the public is obviously the most famous. But Yad Vashem is probably the most important research center on Holocaust studies, with by far the most extensive archives of Holocaust documents, more than 200 million.

Yad Vashem has by far the most extensive library on Holocaust studies and films, from a full feature film like “Schindler’s List” or 15 seconds taken in a village in Ukraine, during the Holocaust. We have a collection of art that was created during the Shoah. We have an invaluable collection of artifacts.

One of the most important components is the international school for Holocaust education that trains teachers on how to educate on the Shoah.

And we are also the authority that is entitled to award what I believe is the most prestigious award the Israel can give a human being, and that is the Righteous Among the Nations.

Those are Holocaust rescuers.

Yes, non-Jews who endangered their lives to save the lives of Jews. So it’s a multi-faceted institution, a vast organization that has as its mission to never forget — I would say almost obsessively in the positive sense of the word.

What specific purpose do you think the institution serves? Is it about national Israeli goals, global Jewish people goals?

I believe it fulfills necessities of Israel and the Jewish people and actually all of humanity. First, it’s a place of mourning, a place in which you bow your head and shed tears.

The second thing is to know we have an obligation to our future generations. Such an atrocity is not to be forgotten. I think about the young girl that was taken from her home in Bialystok and locked in the synagogue in her town and set fire alive with her family and the congregation. We are obligated to know her name and to know what happened to her. Who were her parents? What were her aspirations in life? So we do that as I say almost obsessively.

The third is probably the most difficult: to feel empathy towards all victims or survivors. We read in the Passover Haggadah that “every generation has to see himself or herself as if he or she themselves left Egypt.”

People draw different conclusions or different lessons from the Holocaust. My conclusion, and I would say Yad Vashem’s conclusion, are clear.

First the vital necessity for an independent, robust, secure Jewish state in our homeland. Second is that when you see anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, don’t let them grow. Confront them immediately and forcibly, because we know something today that the world and the Jewish people probably in the 1930s didn’t know, and that is [anti-Semitism] can grow to monstrous proportions. And it can be devastating.
So confront it when it is small and weak, and immediately and forcibly. That refers both to groups in society but also to regimes that are fanatic and extremist and devoted to annihilating Israel or any other country.

Yad Vashem serves a national purpose. Every world leader who arrives in Israel, one of their first stops is to the Hall of Remembrance.

Yes, I’ve recently hosted Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany; the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and today the president of Colombia. But Yad Vashem does not exist in order to advance Israeli political interests. It is not about that. They come to pay respect, to better understand Israel better but, first and foremost, to pay respect to the victims of the Jewish genocide in the 20th century.

Your question implies that we serve Israel’s diplomatic interests or political interests, and we are not that. I can show you a very clear case: in 2018, the quarrel between Israel and Poland regarding the legislation that prohibited, actually limited, free research about the Holocaust, etc.

The prime ministers of Poland and Israel, in trying to solve a diplomatic crisis, published a joint statement. [Poland had passed a law making it a crime to implicate Poland in the Holocaust. The statement, meant to calm the Polish-Israeli rift, suggested the Polish government-in-exile and resistance acted resolutely to save Poland’s Jewish citizens during the war.]

I wasn’t chairman yet, but we would have behaved exactly the same way: Yad Vashem is bound only by historical accuracy, and we rejected the document [saying, “Much of the Polish resistance in its various movements not only failed to help the Jews, but was also not infrequently actively involved in persecuting them.”]

So we are not in any way an arm of the Israeli foreign ministry. We are completely independent and bound only by historical accuracy.

Because you had come from a political and diplomatic background, and had led the Yesha Council, there were people concerned that that would change that focus of Yad Vashem from an academic to a political institution. How have you responded?

I think that everybody who saw me in New York as Consul General didn’t have the least doubt that I will lead Yad Vashem in the same manner, meaning apolitically. The moment that I was appointed chairman of Yad Vashem, I created a virtual firewall between me and politics.

You will not hear me giving opinions on any political matter, neither domestic nor external of Israel.

I vow to keep Yad Vashem completely apolitical and only, as I said, bound by history, by historical research.

I know Yad Vashem has commented on what I’ll call bad Holocaust analogies, whether it’s comparing vaccine mandates to Nazi Germany or comparing Israel itself to the Nazi regime. How active do you want to be in policing those misuses and in trying to protect the integrity of the Holocaust?

I don’t think the chairman or this venerable institution should react to every provocation or every single outrageous thing that is being said. The two examples that you mentioned are somewhat different. One is a gross distortion of the Holocaust: When you say that what Israel does has any similarity to the Holocaust, you are distorting the nature of the Holocaust.

The other example is trivialization of the Holocaust. We are definitely determined to fight both, trivialization and distortion, but that doesn’t mean we have to publish a press release on every single provocation that someone does.

I must tell you that, today, Holocaust denial is not the real problem. It was during the ’80s and the ’90s. In social media you can find anything, but no world leader, no serious person in politics or arts or journalism will deny that the Holocaust happened.

But we do have a serious issue of distortion and trivialization. The Holocaust distortion that we are seeing these days is very well funded and organized and is done or backed by governments. A myriad of European governments are saying, “Of course, the Holocaust happened, but my country was innocent.”

Well, that is also a distortion. Basically all countries in Europe had their collaborators, sometimes large numbers, sometimes smaller numbers, sometimes the government itself.

I was in Ukraine to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Babi Yar last month, and I had the opportunity to open an academic conference. And I said that we welcome, for instance, Ukraine to the family of democratic nations, and we welcome the fact that Ukraine today acknowledged that the victims were Jews, but there are many European countries — Ukraine and Poland, but also Western European countries — that still have to acknowledge their people’s collaboration with the Nazis.

What do you bring to this role personally?

It’s somewhat paradoxical that my paternal family was saved that terrible fate by anti-Semitism, because they fled Europe in 1920 because of the pogroms to Argentina. But two of my dad’s uncles stayed in in Europe and perished in what then was Poland and now is Ukraine.

But the Shoah was always extremely close to my soul. During my years in New York I had a very strong relationship with the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which is basically the Holocaust museum of New York State. In my speeches at Temple Emanu-El [in Manhattan] at the annual Holocaust commemoration, I would talk of my relationship with survivors, so for me, yes, the Shoah always was omnipresent.

Do you ever worry that it has shaped too much of Jewish thinking?

No, no, I don’t think it’s too much. You know, to say about the murder of six million Jews, the extermination of a third of our people, that it influenced too much or shaped too much our way of thinking, I cannot accept that. No.

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