WASHINGTON (JTA) — The top U.S. officials charged with combating antisemitism and Holocaust denial called on Israel to sustain the independence of Yad Vashem amid reports that its chair could be fired.
Public statements by Ellen Germain, the State Department’s special envoy on Holocaust issues, and Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, represent an unusual intervention in Israeli governance. They come as the Biden administration has expressed unease about the recent leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli media reported last week that Netanyahu’s government is planning on firing Dani Dayan, the incumbent chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum and research institute. Dayan was appointed under the previous government and does not come from Netanyahu’s political party. Yoav Kisch, Netanyahu’s education minister, has acknowledged his unhappiness with Dayan’s performance, but has so far denied plans to fire him.
“The U.S. values the crucial work of @YadVashem & its director’s leadership as we work together on Holocaust education, remembrance, & research,” Germain said on Saturday on X, formerly known as Twitter. Germain’s job, created more than two decades ago to encourage compliance with Holocaust compensation, has transitioned in recent years into combating Holocaust denial. “Maintaining the independence of such institutions around the world is key as we face efforts to distort/deny the facts of the Holocaust.”
Lipstadt, a noted Holocaust historian, quoted German’s tweet on Sunday. “My research and advocacy about the Holocaust dates back to the 1980s; I have long valued the work of institutions like @yadvashem,” she said. “Yad Vashem’s painstaking and invaluable research on the Shoah is in no small part due to its professionalism and independence.”
Also weighing in was Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Union’s coordinator on combating antisemitism.
“The World Holocaust Center @yadvashem is a key partner for the European Union when it comes to #Holocaust research,” she said on X. “Its expertise and #independence of its leadership are essential in times of #Holocaust #distortion and attempts to politicise #Shoah remembrance.”
Dayan has also drawn support from the Holocaust scholarship community. In an open letter reported by Haaretz, more than 120 scholars said “each attempt to seek political control over Yad Vashem is a clear threat to the memory of six million victims of the Shoah, and a challenge to the legitimacy of an institution which enjoys tremendous, and well-deserved prestige, worldwide.”
The politicization of one of the world’s leading, if not the lead, Holocaust research organizations would undercut what has become in recent years a key priority for those combating Holocaust denial: pushing back official efforts by some nations to diminish the role of their populations in carrying out the massacre of the Jews, and to claim the victimization of their people was equal to that of the Jews.
The appointment to lead Yad Vashem is made by the government of the day, but Dayan’s predecessors have lasted in the job for years, working for prime ministers from parties that opposed the one that appointed them. Netanyahu reportedly is unhappy that Dayan is tied to Gideon Saar, a political leader who once was close to Netanyahu and who in recent years turned on him as corruption allegations mounted against the Israeli prime minister.
Dayan, who was appointed in 2021 by the government Netanyahu ousted late last year, said Kisch’s accusations of incompetent leadership are meritless and has welcomed Kisch’s stated plans to more closely scrutinize the institution.
One Israeli media report said that Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, was pushing for Danan to be fired over the appearance at a Yad Vashem ceremony of a singer, Keren Peles, who has criticized the government’s efforts to sap the power of the country’s judiciary. The Netanyahus batted down the allegations on Sunday.