Analysis |

Adoption of False Russian WWII Narrative Calls Yad Vashem’s Integrity Into Question

To preserve its good name, credibility, and reputation, Yad Vashem has to tell the public the whole truth about what went on behind the scenes at the ceremony

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Putin attends the World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020.
Putin attends the World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020.Credit: AFP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

There are a lot of question marks surrounding the behavior of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Center, with regard to the International Holocaust Forum held last month. The extraordinary apology that Yad Vashem published as a letter to the editor in Haaretz (running in Tuesday’s Hebrew edition), in which it admits that the content of the impressive event contained “inaccuracies,” “a partial picture of the historical events,” and an “unbalanced impression,” raises as many questions as it answers.

On the one hand, the publication of the apology is welcome, since it is difficult for any organization, certainly one as large and prestigious as Yad Vashem, to admit mistakes and take responsibility for them. But the content of the apology raises issues that certainly require much broader and more transparent attention than what appeared. To preserve its good name, credibility, professionalism and reputation, Yad Vashem has to tell the public the whole truth about what went on behind the scenes at the ceremony, which from the beginning caused considerable consternation in Israel and elsewhere.

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First and foremost, it must clarify the exact nature of the ties and relationship between Yad Vashem and Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, who organized and funded the ceremony after obtaining the sponsorship of President Reuven Rivlin, the participation of Yad Vashem and the Foreign Ministry’s organizational skills.

Kantor, an oligarch considered close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a donor to Yad Vashem. He also funds the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University, which is headed by Prof. Dina Porat, whose other job is chief historian of Yad Vashem.

The public has the right to know if there is a connection between his financial support and the content of the event held at Yad Vashem. Yad Vashem must also explain the degree to which Kantor was involved in the program, whose content Yad Vashem now admits was problematic, since it essentially served the Russian narrative being promoted by Putin. This narrative portrays the Soviet Union as practically the sole liberator of Europe during World War II and blurs its role in the outbreak of the war, its cooperation with Nazi Germany until 1941 and its occupation of Poland and other countries during and after the war.

Moshe Kantor (L) chats with Israel's chief rabbi (R) at the president's residence, January 22, 2020.
Moshe Kantor (L) chats with Israel's chief rabbi (R) at the president's residence, January 22, 2020.Credit: POOL/REUTERS

Yad Vashem must also explain why Kantor was granted the exceptional honor of being scheduled to speak at the opening of the event, immediately after Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and before any of the world leaders in attendance. It must explain how it allowed the screening of a PR film at the event’s opening that depicts Kantor as a Messiah rescuing the world from anti-Semitism. You don’t need to be a major historian to know that this kind of event is no place for screening such films.

If Kantor is indeed the man who dictated the content of the event, then essentially Yad Vashem was just hosting the ceremony, whose content was written by someone else, someone with interests, an agenda, and a worldview that doesn’t necessary square with those of Yad Vashem. Even worse, the public might begin to suspect that one can “buy” Yad Vashem’s imprimatur with money. If this is true, then this is an especially grave precedent, which undermines the reputation of the institution and thus demands a more serious response.

If, on the other hand, Yad Vashem was involved in the content presented, then it must undertake a serious investigation to find out how, despite its involvement, so many errors, distortions and misrepresentations slipped into an event attended by dozens of world leaders and watched by millions of people around the world.

In this context, Yad Vashem must also explain why it objected – and who exactly objected – to having Polish President Andrzej Duda speak at the ceremony, and if it is linked to Putin’s recent battles with Duda over the historic truths of World War II. Yad Vashem’s explanation that only the victors in the war were allowed to speak is a weak excuse.

The apology published in today’s Letters to the Editor column is signed by Prof. Dan Michman, head of Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Studies. One might wonder why a historian – as renowned as he may be – had to apologize for such egregious errors, and not a member of the administration. This wasn’t an editing error in an article in an academic journal, which a historian might indeed have to apologize for, but a series of errors made at one of the most important events held in Israel in recent years.

World leaders pose for a photo during the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020.
World leaders pose for a photo during the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020. Credit: Abir Sultan,AP

It should be recalled that this isn’t the first time in recent years that the historians of Yad Vashem have had to correct historical distortions that the institution was involved in, directly or indirectly.

In 2018, after Poland passed a controversial “Holocaust Law,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu published a joint statement with his Polish counterpart that sought to settle differences between the two countries over Poland’s role in World War II. Netanyahu at the time thanked Yad Vashem’s Porat for approving the declaration.

But three other senior historians at Yad Vashem – Michman, Prof. Chavi Dreyfuss and Dr. David Ziberlang – harshly and publicly criticized the declaration, saying it “contravened historical fact.” To this day, it is unclear what role Porat, or the institution as a whole, played in the wording of the controversial declaration. The Foreign Ministry rejected a petition a few months ago to release information on the issue, citing “fears of harming Israeli foreign relations.” It would behoove Yad Vashem to finally clarify what exactly happened.

Some of the most professional and world-renowned historians work at Yad Vashem, devoting all their time and effort to researching and documenting the Holocaust. It’s too bad that an improper mix of history and politics is staining their good name.

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