The new chair of Yad Vashem wants to build a ‘firewall’ between politics and Holocaust remembrance. Can he?


(New York Jewish Week via JTA) — 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 6 million Jews.

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.

This week, Dayan, 65, will travel to the United States for the first time as Yad Vashem chair, meeting with politicians and Jewish leaders in Washington and New York.

On Monday 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.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

JEWISH WEEK: 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 if not 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-, 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 world.

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

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 of all the necessity, the vital necessity, for an independent, robust, secure Jewish state in our homeland. And the second is that when you see antisemitism 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 [antisemitism] 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. 

I want to tease out something you just said, about Israel as a secure Jewish homeland. I guess that’s what makes Yad Vashem obviously different than, let’s say, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is that it is very much tied into the case for an independent, autonomous Jewish state to protect the Jews.

I would say the main difference between us and all other big institutions is that we are the museum that represents the victims and the survivors. 

That’s an important distinction. But I’m thinking more about how Yad Vashem serves a national purpose. I know 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 you know, 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.

Angela Merkel is welcomed to Yad Vashem

Dani Dayan, left, chairman of Yad Vashem, presents German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a painting during a reception outside the Holocaust museum and research center in Jerusalem, Oct. 10, 2021. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images)

But 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. And 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 or something like that. We are completely independent and bound only by historical accuracy. 

It came up in your appointment that 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?

No, 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 have 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, either in your own biography or in your family history? 

It’s somewhat paradoxical that my paternal family was saved that terrible fate by antisemitism, 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, whether in the Diaspora or in Israel? 

No, no, I don’t think it’s too much. You know, to say about the murder of 6 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.

What will you bring that is new or different to the institution?

I want to look outwards. That doesn’t mean I won’t be interested in what happens on the Mount of Remembrance — our location in Jerusalem — but I will be more interested in what irrigates from the mouth of the river of remembrance outside to the Israeli society and to the international arena, to the entire world. I think that my perspective will be more outwards than [Yad Vashem] was until now. Using technology, education, media and also probably diplomacy: I think that one of my goals is to strengthen the presence of the lessons of the Holocaust in the international diplomatic arena.

What changes now as Holocaust survivors are dying? How does that change the messages you can convey or the way you go about your goals?

That makes our mission more difficult without the witnesses, the actual witnesses, but it makes it much more important, much more vital. I don’t believe that it’s a full replacement, but obviously we gather testimonies, and we will have to be much more creative in finding ways to replace the actual victims when they are gone. I hope that many of them are going to be with us for many years but we have to be extremely cautious, and not to fall into the trap of, you know, using techniques that are not appropriate.

We have a big debate in this country about the teaching of slavery and the teaching of the treatment of African Africans who were brought to this country in chains. When you think about American Jewish students or any student in America, and they’re going to learn about the Holocaust, what do you want them to learn? What is the takeaway? 

I have a vast interest in African-American history. I think I have visited every single African-American history museum and been to every single place that was relevant to Martin Luther King Jr. and his life. I by no means underestimate the gravity of African-American history in the United States. 

But you know, for me it’s probably sad to say but Holocaust remembrance is the thing in which we Jews all over the world and Israel find unity. We have far less differences of opinion and in the end the same sense of tragedy and pain. While other issues divide us, this one unites us. We have to build on the unity that the Shoah creates between us.

I want to just push you a little bit: It unites us around what?

When I think about the Shoah the first thing I think about is pain. And I think it unites us in a common search for knowledge. And basically, I believe that there are also no big differences over the lessons we learn from the Shoah. There are different shades of American Jews and differences with Israeli Jews, but I think that in many senses it unites us more much more than any other issue in the Jewish experience. 

I wanted to end with a personal question: What do you miss the most about New York?

My close relationship that I had with the Jewish community. It was a love story. 

I once heard Rabbi Shlomo Riskin say that what he missed most was Sundays.

There’s that. I must tell you I loved my work in New York. I love the New Yorkers. I am not such a fan of the city itself.

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.