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Head of Yad Vashem Dani Dayan in his Jerusalem office, in front of a quote from murdered artist Gela Seksztajn. (Alex Kolomoisky/Yad Vashem)
(Alex Kolomoisky/Yad Vashem)
Interview

Dani Dayan: Yad Vashem is fulfilling Holocaust victims’ last will and testament

The good news? ‘Outright Holocaust denial is today a marginal phenomenon,’ says the new head of Israel’s Shoah memorial. ‘But we do have a serious problem of Holocaust distortion’

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

(Alex Kolomoisky/Yad Vashem)

After Dani Dayan took up the mantle of the Yad Vashem chairmanship in August, for the first time Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust had a leader who was born after the end of the Holocaust. He is the only the third individual to helm the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, and the first former politician.

Prior to heading Yad Vashem, Dayan was the consul general of Israel in New York, an appointment he took up after Brazil rejected him as envoy there.

Dayan, a longtime activist and head of the right-wing settler movement’s Yesha Council, was born in Argentina in 1955 and moved to Israel in 1971. He is a former supporter of ex-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but in the most recent elections ran on the New Hope ticket headed by Netanyahu rival Gideon Sa’ar. Dayan, who didn’t place high enough on the party’s slate to enter the Knesset, was appointed chair of Yad Vashem by Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, also of New Hope.

Despite his former political ties, Dayan declares that he and Yad Vashem are strictly nonpartisan in their work, and he is determined to combat the cynical political distortion of Holocaust history and ensure the perpetuation of an accurate record of the horrors and lives lost in the Holocaust.

Much of the work ahead, Dayan says, is not at all anchored to the physical museum, but rather to its vast archives and teams of researchers and educators, which have international resonance. However, with a tenth of the pre-pandemic number of visitors, Yad Vashem, like all museums, is feeling the pinch. The government recently infused some NIS 30 million ($9.5 million) for one-time relief. That is it much needed is seen on a sunny Jerusalem winter day last week when The Times of Israel visited an almost empty institution.

The inevitable pandemic-pivot, as well as the recent Texas synagogue hostage siege, were among our topics as we sat with Dayan for a wide-ranging interview in his Jerusalem office ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked on January 27.

What do you see is Yad Vashem’s role in marking International Holocaust Day?

One of my intentions is to put the Holocaust legacy at the forefront of the international agenda, the international diplomatic agenda, the international educational agenda. And I have no doubt that January 27 is a day on which we can strengthen that.

I think that the legacy of the Holocaust is relevant to the world today in 2022. And I think that International Holocaust Day encapsulates and focuses the effort that we have to make in order to put the Holocaust and its legacy and its lessons at the forefront of the international agenda.

We’re speaking a few days after a hostage situation in [Colleyville near] Dallas in which a synagogue was infiltrated and four Jews were taken hostage for about 11 hours. Do you see any connection between a lack of Holocaust education and this kind of arguably antisemitic event?

Holocaust education can be a mitigating factor in antisemitism. I’m not naive enough to imply that Holocaust education will erase antisemitism from the face of Earth, but it definitely can mitigate it, at least in some sectors of society. I’m not sure regarding this specific individual who took the hostages in Texas, but in some sectors of society, definitely, it can mitigate prejudice against Jews and can mitigate antisemitism.

I must admit that I was naive enough to believe that, at least in the United States, it would take longer after the Shoah [Holocaust] before we see a reemergence of antisemitism. But I was wrong.

When I came to New York to serve as Israel’s consul general, I thought that antisemitism would not be high on my agenda. But then Charlottesville came with Nazi flags being waved in the center of an American city. And then Pittsburgh with 11 Jews murdered while davening [praying] and then [shootings in] Poway and Jersey City and Monsey [New York]. And now in Texas — thank God without innocent victims.

This is actually the second time that we’re meeting. We met in Pittsburgh following the shooting. I was there covering for The Times of Israel. You have spoken in the past about how this was somewhat of a turning point for you. How do you see it now, several years on?

I still see it as a turning point, one that unfortunately did not awaken American society. I remember that I arrived in Pittsburgh that same Shabbat, when the bodies were still lying in the shul [synagogue]. I stayed in Pittsburgh the entire week, participating in all the funerals, the shiva with the families, and meeting elected officials and embracing the community.

For me — even after Charlottesville which was a kind of wakeup call — I didn’t believe I would have to witness something like that in America. But the fact is that though it was the worst one, it was not an isolated event.

So, no, the world and the American society did not learn the lessons from Pittsburgh, unfortunately.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, of Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Congregation hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein, left, of Dor Hadash Congregation and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman during a community gathering held in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Following the shooting, I remarked upon the solidarity of the [Pittsburgh] community. However, there are several Israelis who came in, including yourself and our current prime minister, Naftali Bennett. And there was a lot of criticism of the tone the Israelis took following this event.

I’m seeing this kind of criticism again following the Dallas event in which Jew is criticizing Jew for political beliefs immediately after a fellow Jew is being attacked. How do you fathom that?

I for sure wasn’t a part of that. I said very clearly that I came to Pittsburgh in the first days [for] mourning, and then it’s time to take action and to learn lessons. But I heard that criticism. In some sense, I shared parts of it. But ultimately an antisemitic attack anywhere in the world is local news for Israel. It’s a domestic issue for Israel.

American society did not learn the lessons from Pittsburgh

I always thought that on the one hand we don’t have the authority to act as Israel outside of our boundaries, but on the other hand, in spite of that, we do have the responsibility. And yes, this is a responsibility that may come without full authority, but we have to find a way to fulfill that responsibility: talking about it, applying pressure on elected officials at all levels to combat antisemitism. You know, the difference between our generation and the generation of [our predecessors] is we are not in Europe of the 1930s. I’m not implying in any way that we are in a similar situation or even anything close to resembling Germany of the ’30s. But there is a huge difference between us and the generation of those days. And the difference is that we have the experience that they lacked.

Probably they couldn’t imagine that antisemitism could grow to such monstrous dimensions as it did. We know that it can. And if it happened once, it can happen again. That’s the reason why when dignitaries from all over the world come to Yad Vashem to visit, I always tell them that there are many lessons from the Shoah. Some are individual lessons, some are national lessons, others are universal lessons.

But I take two of the lessons and point them out. One is the vital necessity of a Jewish state, an independent, robust, secure Jewish state. We all wandered on the St. Louis ship from port to port, from dock to dock in North America and the Caribbean, in Latin America, and were denied entry. Israel is the guarantee that there will be always a safe haven for persecuted Jews.

And the second is that when you see antisemitism, combat it immediately, forcibly and decisively. Don’t assume that it’s a marginal phenomenon, because antisemitism, we know, can develop into terrible dimensions. So our duty is to point it out very clearly. The duty of the leaders of the world is to take that and act.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, right, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, carry white roses to lay at the synagogue of Halle, Germany, November 7, 2019. (John Macdougall/Pool via AP)

As we all know, antisemitism can come in many guises, have many different forms. And one of the forms that we’re seeing more and more, at least in Eastern Europe, is Holocaust distortion, the distortion of history. Talk a little bit about this and what Yad Vashem can do.

Let’s start with the good news. The good news is that outright Holocaust denial is today a marginal phenomenon. It’s relegated to the lunatic fringes of social media. But no serious leader, influencer, journalist or intellectual — except maybe in Iran or other parts of the Muslim world — will deny outright that the Holocaust happened. By the way, that wasn’t the case even in the ’80s or ’90s, where there was an intellectual fashion of trying to deny the Holocaust.

But we do have a serious problem of Holocaust distortion. And the main manifestation of that Holocaust distortion — you mentioned Eastern Europe, but we can see it even in Western Europe — is the following: People saying, “Yes, of course the Holocaust happened. Of course, there were gas chambers and 6 million Jews were annihilated. But in my country,” each one of them says, and sometimes it’s governments that say, “in my country there were no collaborators with the Nazis. We were victims, exactly like the Jews.”

And unfortunately, that is not true. Almost in every single European country there were collaborators with the Nazis, were perpetrators of war crimes against the Jews. So that is a severe way of distorting history, distorting the Holocaust. And we are very adamant and active in combating that.

Head of Yad Vashem Dani Dayan (far right) with United States Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides (center). (Alex Kolomoisky/Yad Vashem)

I was in Kyiv and I said very clearly in the conference that opened that we welcome Ukraine to the family of democratic nations. And we acknowledge with gratitude the fact that today the Jewishness of the Holocaust is acknowledged in Ukraine, but they have to go the extra mile and also recognize that there were a lot of Ukrainian collaborators. In Poland, we see the situation in which it’s even punishable to research the truth about the Holocaust. In Belarus recently, legislation talked about the genocide of the Belarusian people — obviously the Belarusian suffered, no doubt about it — but the genocide was only against the Jews.

And even I remember President [Emmanuel] Macron from France coming to Yad Vashem in January 2020 and giving a wonderful speech, but not mentioning one word: [the antisemitic authoritarian regime] “Vichy.” So yes, he didn’t deny that Vichy existed, but he didn’t also mention that. So that way of distorting the Shoah is very troubling and we have to combat it.

I very frequently meet different ambassadors who are posted in Israel. And I remember one European ambassador from a former Soviet Union country that told me something that I quote frequently. He told me, “Diplomats should make us feel comfortable. You have the task to make us feel uncomfortable.” And we do that.

We have a very uncomfortable relationship right now with Poland, for instance, as you mentioned, which is attempting to regulate historians’ research. Do you see Yad Vashem as having the obligation to speak out against this kind of government policy?

We have an obligation to speak against a) any distortion of the Shoah, b) any limitations, for sure criminalization, of historical research. Look, there is only one thing we are committed to, and that is historical accuracy. We are also not committed, by the way, to Israeli diplomatic interests.

Yad Vashem exists as a statutory organ established by law, but we are not a governmental agency. We are bound only by historical accuracy. That’s what the Jewish people bestowed on our shoulders.

You are a political appointee, however, are you not?

The chairman of Yad Vashem is always appointed by the government. Yes, that’s the law.

Dani Dayan (left), in charge of the Yesha Council’s international relations, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2013. (Gideon Markowicz/ Flash 90)

It’s a very interesting intermingled relationship, if you think about it. You were a politician, you had your own party, so obviously you had your own ideology and your own thoughts. And now you’re meant to head a nonpartisan organization. How do you divorce your previous political life?

First of all, it’s not the first time I’ve done it. I was a consul general in New York. I was at the helm of Israel’s largest diplomatic mission in the world. And I think that no one who saw how I performed in New York would accuse me of politicizing that diplomatic position. On the contrary. So for me, it’s very natural.

The moment I assumed the position as chairman of Yad Vashem, in my mind at least, I created in my attitude, a firewall between me and politics

But I agree with you that it is even more critical to depoliticize Yad Vashem and to depoliticize my behavior. The moment I assumed the position as chairman of Yad Vashem, in my mind I created a firewall between me and politics, and certainly between me and parties and politics.

But make no mistake, I’m an Israeli, I am a Jew and a Zionist. Yad Vashem is an Israeli Jewish and Zionist organization, but not political whatsoever.

You are the former head of Yesha, the settler movement. Has this come to bite you in the back at all in terms of your dealings internationally? 

Well, I live in Samaria, and for four years I was the senior diplomatic representative of Israel in New York, and its surrounding states, and I felt no problem. The same applies to Yad Vashem. I just met the Secretary General of the UN António Guterres while visiting New York and many other dignitaries. That’s not an issue.

And you don’t think that the international public will now identify Yad Vashem as a settler institution?

Not at all. I think that I am much more than one category. Anyone who has watched the way I’ve acted in all my previous and present offices knows that that assumption is absurd.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel pauses after laying a wreath at the Hall of Remembrance, as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, second right, looks on during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, October 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Let’s focus back on Yad Vashem. You assumed the mantle during the coronavirus crisis, which has changed everything throughout the entire world and especially public institutions. How has Yad Vashem pivoted and adapted to this new reality?

It was tough. It was tough for everyone. In our museum — Yad Vashem, as you know, is much more than a museum, but it’s an institution that has several museums, the Museum of Art and others. It affected us, obviously. The museums were closed for a period.

From 1 million or more than 1 million visitors per year, 70% of them from abroad, we went down to 100,000 per year, almost all of them Israelis. So definitely it affected that side of our activity, but it affected the others less.

Who is the museum for?

Yad Vashem is the institution of the victims. If you go, for instance, to the museum in Washington, you will see an important section about the American liberators. If you go to Auschwitz, you visit the place in which the crimes were perpetrated.

We are the institution of the victims of the Jewish people, who was the victim of the Shoah. But we present those events both to Israelis and to the world.

From left: Head of Yad Vashem Dani Dayan with Holocaust survivors Yakov Wexsler and Berthe Badehi. (Yad Vashem)

One of the most moving sections of Yom Hashoah is, of course, the ceremony in which Holocaust survivors present their life story through little films that Yad Vashem creates. What is going to happen in another 5 or 10 years when these stories won’t be told in first person anymore?

That’s a great question. And you know, it’s an inevitable reality. We know that the number is, for natural reasons, unfortunately dwindling rapidly. I hope it will take longer than the numbers you said, but yes, definitely, we will live in a world without actual witnesses. That will make our task much more difficult, much more challenging, but also much more vital, much more important.

Head of Yad Vashem Dani Dayan (Alex Kolomoisky/Yad Vashem)

But don’t forget that there are 6 million Jews who were never able to give testimony. The vast majority was never able to give testimony. So the documentation that we gather obsessively — yes, obsessively, I’m not ashamed of using that word — the research that we do, the large number of books that we publish, including memoirs, those are the testimonies that will remain for us when the physical presence of the survivors is not with us.

And people ask me sometimes why we are so obsessive in gathering every single piece of documentation. We have more than 200 million documents in our archive, by far the largest archive on Holocaust issues across the world. We have the largest library in the world. And my answer is that it’s twofold. On the one hand, it’s for the future, when the survivors are not here. The documents will be the testimony.

But I believe that it’s also an obligation we have for the victims. I am haunted sometimes by this vision of a young Jewish girl from, let’s say, Bialystok in Poland — let’s call her Sara or Gita or Zelda or Hannah — who was pushed with her family into a synagogue in Bialystok, and then set afire with the entire congregation. And I am sure that in her last moment, she expected us to know everything we can about her: her name, her face, the names of her parents and siblings, her expectations from life as she wrote in letters to her friends. So it’s an obligation we have to the future, but no less than to the victims themselves.

And if you ask me, how do I know that she expected this? In my first day in Yad Vashem, I toured the campus and at the exit from the art museum, I saw this inscription carved on the wall. It’s a quote from Gela Seksztajn. Gela Seksztajn was a painter in the Warsaw Ghetto. And in August 1942, she wrote, “As I stand on the border between life and death, certain that I will not remain alive, I wish to take leave from my friends and my works, my works I bequeathed to the Jewish museum to be built after the war.”

So Gela Seksztajn knew in August ’42 that she was doomed. But she also knew that the Jewish people would establish Yad Vashem.

When I saw that, it sent shivers all over my body. I knew that I wanted that inscription on my office so I could see it every single day. To head an organization that is basically the last will and testament, not only of Gela Seksztajn — of the 6 million Jews who were murdered who expected us to do what we do today and every single day. For me, on the one hand, it is terrible, but on the other hand it is so inspiring.

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