After an initial, somewhat subdued start, the head of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum Dani Dayan has become a full-throated excoriater of Russia’s ongoing invasion of neighboring Ukraine, calling its attacks “outrageous” and appalling, and utterly rejecting Moscow’s claims it launched the offensive to “denazify” the country.
“It is not based on fact, it distorts and trivializes the Holocaust, and we deplore it,” Dayan said, speaking to The Times of Israel in his office at the museum in Jerusalem.
Reflecting on the historical context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is the largest conventional military conflict in Europe since World War II, Dayan lamented that the continent, and the world, were returning to the prospects of massive nation state-versus-nation state wars.
“We have returned to an era in which, in Europe, they are trying to resolve conflicts by invasion instead of diplomatic talks. That is a lesson that we hoped Europe would have learned from World War II. And unfortunately, we see that some countries didn’t,” he said.
With a wry smile, he added that launching invasions of neighboring countries ultimately did not work out well for Germany. “I also would like to remind [Russia] that sometimes the one that starts belligerence pays a heavy price, as we learned in World War II,” he said.
“We are appalled by the loss of innocent civilian lives. And the immense, the huge, the giant stream of refugees reminds us of the fact that war causes tremendous suffering for civilians,” he said.
Yad Vashem was relatively slow to issue a statement on the Russian invasion of Ukraine last Thursday. Unlike its counterparts the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which issued denunciations within 24 hours, Yad Vashem’s only came four days later and its criticism was relatively tame. Since then, however, Dayan has been more unequivocal and vociferous in his denunciation of Russia, though he firmly rejects attempts to compare the Russian president to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, as Ukraine has done.
For his comments against the Russian invasion, Dayan said he has received significant pushback from Russian officials, a letter of protest from the country’s ambassador in Israel, and a public response from the speaker of the Kremlin, who invited him to see the “alleged atrocities” committed by Ukraine against ethnic Russians, which he claimed justified the “denazification” remarks.
“That means that our statements were effective. That even the Kremlin took notice, this is because of the moral standing that Yad Vashem rightly enjoys,” Dayan said.
But the Yad Vashem chairman also does not hold back criticism from Ukraine for its repeated references to the Holocaust, some of which he said amounted to a “distortion of historical fact.” Most notably, this included a recent comment by the Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk, who claimed Israel should do more to take in Ukrainian refugees in light of the Jews saved by Ukrainians during the Holocaust.
“We saved the Jewish lives at that time, we are [asking] you to help the Ukrainians… This is a humanitarian catastrophe, and I want you to consider that seriously,” he said.
Dayan, who entered office late last year, was taken aback by the brazenness of Korniychuk’s claim, given the fact that a particularly large number of Ukrainians worked with the Nazis to kill Jews — far, far more than tried to save Jews — specifically through the Einsatzgruppen, which carried out the massacre at Babi Yar, slaughtering tens of thousands of Jews.
“This statement by the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel, saying that Ukrainians saved Jews — I’m not commenting on Israel’s policy on Ukrainian refugees, only on the rhetoric of the ambassador, the argument made by the ambassador — yes, indeed, Yad Vashem bestowed the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ award to many Ukrainians, even recently. But there were many, many, many more collaborators than righteous,” Dayan said.
“We regret the fact that false equivalence is being used. It denigrates the memory of the Shoah, which was a unique event in human history, and that it is being used in this propagandistic discourse,” he said, using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.
In terms of Israeli policy on Ukrainian refugees, Dayan said Israel should play a role in helping to alleviate the “humanitarian crisis that is being created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” In part, he said, Israel should agree to take in anyone recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” and their descendants who are in Ukraine.
“I spoke yesterday with both ministers — [Foreign Minister] Yair Lapid and [Interior Minister] Ayelet Shaked — and asked them specifically to help rescue and give shelter to descendants of Ukrainian ‘Righteous Among the Nations.’ I believe it is our duty, and bureaucratic rules should not apply in this case. We have to reciprocate to the descendants of those who endangered their lives to save Jews and give them shelter here in Israel, refuge in Israel,” Dayan said.
The Times of Israel’s full interview with Dayan will be published in the near future.
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