Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial chairman resigns after 27 years

Avner Shalev, 81, informs Netanyahu of his decision, but does not name a successor to take over national remembrance institute

Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Museum, during a press conference at the Keren Hayesod headquarters in Jerusalem, on December 8, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Museum, during a press conference at the Keren Hayesod headquarters in Jerusalem, on December 8, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The chairman of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center resigned Sunday after nearly 30 years on the job, without naming a successor.

In a letter to staff at the Jerusalem memorial-museum, Avner Shalev said he had notified Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister for Higher Education Ze’ev Elkin “of my decision to conclude my period of service here, by the end of 2020.”

“Clearly, it was not easy for me to reach this decision, which has entailed thorough self-examination,” he wrote. “Of course, I will share with you further details relating to my retirement once they are known, including regarding a transition to my successor, yet to be designated.”

The Jerusalem-born Shalev, 81, did not give any specific details about his resignation.

With Shalev at the helm, the museum established its International School for Holocaust Studies and the International Institute for Holocaust Research, both in 1993. The Holocaust History Museum, the main exhibition hall at the site, underwent a major refurbishment and reopened in 2005.

In 2003 the museum won the Israel Prize for its contribution to the state and society and Shalev has been personally honored with awards from Spain, France, and former president Shimon Peres.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, Israel, January 23, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, recently the museum has run into financial difficulties due to the coronavirus pandemic, and has also faced controversy over its handling of politically sensitive issues regarding Russia’s and Poland’s involvement in the Holocaust.

Last month Yad Vashem said it was putting 107 workers on unpaid leave for four months due to the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on its finances. The museum said senior managers were taking a wage cut and that it had cut back or canceled many activities.

The museum said that its budget had been severely impacted “due to a decrease in operating income, both because of a cut in government funding and because of a decrease in donations and in the fundraising forecast in the foreseeable future.”

In February the museum was forced to issue an apology for “inaccuracies” and “partial” facts presented at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem the month before, after being criticized for overly emphasizing Russia’s role in ending the war and avoiding information Moscow finds unpalatable.

Videos presented at the ceremony attended by dozens of world leaders, among them Russian President Vladimir Putin, focused almost exclusively on the Soviet Union’s role in defeating the Nazis, while downplaying the role of the United States, Britain, and other countries.

The events of the Forum, which was organized to mark the 75th anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, were widely criticized as overly fawning toward Putin.

“The videos… do not portray the [full] complicated picture,” the museum admitted to the Haaretz daily.

Dina Porat, chief historian of Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, at the museum on May 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In 2018 Yad Vashem’s chief historian Dina Porat was involved in the forming of an agreement between the governments of Israel and Poland regarding the latter’s record during the Holocaust, but the museum itself slammed the deal, saying it would stifle free research on the subject.

On June 27, 2018, Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki signed an agreement that ended a spat between the two countries over a controversial Polish law that criminalized any accusation of the Polish nation of being “responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.”

Minutes after the Polish parliament passed legislation to remove the troubling passages and President Anderzej Duda signed it into law, the Israeli and Polish governments issued a joint statement on the Holocaust and Poland’s role in it.

It declared the term “Polish death camps” to be “blatantly erroneous” and said that the wartime Polish government-in-exile “attempted to stop this Nazi activity by trying to raise awareness among the Western allies to the systematic murder of the Polish Jews.” It also rejected anti-Semitism and “anti-Polonism.”

Most controversially, it condemned “every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during…World War II,” but noted “heroic acts of numerous Poles, especially the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jewish people.”

But, in an embarrassing blow to Netanyahu, Yad Vashem said the joint declaration “contains highly problematic wording that contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field.”

In a statement, museum historians also said that “the essence of the statute remains unchanged even after the repeal of the aforementioned sections, including the possibility of real harm to researchers, unimpeded research, and the historical memory of the Holocaust.”

Porat later defended her role in the affair, saying “we can live with” much of the controversial declaration’s claims about the Holocaust. She also said she had been consulted on the talks between Israel and Poland, but only on a “voluntary, personal and confidential basis,” and not as a representative of Yad Vashem.

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