The public search for a new chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, which ended with the appointment of Dani Dayan, former settler leader and consul general of Israel in New York, brings to mind the all-too-often-misquoted Karl Marx maxim: History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
The nomination of the initial leading candidate for the position, former Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. Effi Eitam, was effectively withdrawn after a backlash over Eitam’s past statements calling for the expulsion of Palestinians and the exclusion of Israeli Arabs from the country’s political system.
Dayan seems like the right wing’s pareve version of Eitam: a well-spoken settler who made money from high-tech before venturing into politics. A self-proclaimed “Jewish, Zionist, national, liberal,” he wrote in a recent op-ed in Haaretz that establishment of civil marriage in Israel is more important than the evacuation of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank. And, as consul in New York, he did important outreach to the Reform and Conservative communities.
After serving as a chairman of the Yesha Council of settlements in Judea and Samaria, he was the settlers’ self-appointed “foreign minister,” traveling around the world speaking in universities and on TV panels. Unlike Eitam, who called for the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank, Dayan agrees they can stay. And unlike Eitam, Dayan is a secular Jew who sees the state as a vehicle for national liberation and not a biblical-messianic one. That’s why he’s open to all streams of Jewish identity and why he was so popular among many of America’s Jewish communities during his tenure as consul.
His seeming candor and jovial nature made Dayan popular because he represents the opposite of the stereotypical bearded, solemn, machine gun-wielding right-wing settler.
And that’s why his appointment is so egregious.
When Eitam was nominated, an op-ed published in The Forward posed the question: “What if an American university appointed a known, vocal racist with no academic training in the field to head its Holocaust Studies program? Surely an outcry would occur.”
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Well, that’s what ended up happening: Dayan is eloquent, but he’s no Holocaust expert, nor has he any experience running such an institution. He is another scion of the Dayan dynasty, but unlike his relatives, he hasn’t quite been successful in the public arena: He failed time and again to enter the Knesset, most recently this year, and his nomination to become ambassador to Brazil faced backlash in that country and was ultimately withdrawn.
Appointing a person with no relevant background to the post shows how it is ultimately about cronyism, like many things in Israel. He was appointed by his party member, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton. Being the head of the most important Holocaust commemoration institution in the world shouldn’t be a consolation prize for failing to enter the Knesset.
But his appointment is more than a mixture of self-made money, jingoism and a famous last name. Make no mistake about it: The fact that a former chairman of the Yesha Council is now the head of Yad Vashem wouldn’t have been possible without another former chairman of the council having become prime minister.
Both Naftali Bennett and Dayan represent the normalization of the settler movement that has also managed to erase the Green Line and capture other prominent positions within Israeli society. They’re modern, articulate, willing to break from the political views of the orthodox mainstream to be more inclusive, and have a broader view of civil society.
But scratch the high-tech veneer and their ideas are older than penicillin. Dayan espouses the most extreme right-wing views: he started his political life as secretary-general of Tehiya, an ultranationalist party formed in opposition to the Egypt peace agreement. Like his ideological hero, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, he sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a deterministic duel between two nations without solution, and he will not accept any compromise. The Palestinians can stay, as long as they denounce their aspiration for self-determination.
Despite his pleasant manner, when confronted by the unsustainable reality of seeping racism within Israel, he doesn’t have solid answers. He baselessly accuses groups like Breaking the Silence of being part of “an orchestrated attack to delegitimize Israel.” And when pressed on issues, he reverts to out-and-out lies like in a debate when he denied the existence of Jews-only roads in the West Bank.
As for religion, Dayan says, “I am secular, but my religion is Zionism.” Dayan sees liberation and redemption not in religion, but in nationalism, a belief shared by virtually all totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. In 2018 he ascended Temple Mount, not necessarily because he sees it as holy, but because to him it’s a symbol of Israeli sovereignty.
But Dayan’s ideology is by no means an automatic disqualifier. What serves as the strongest case against his appointment is what hasn’t been discussed up until now: the Holocaust.
Dayan became such a symbol of the new right wing in international Jewish communities that it would be hard for many young Jews not to see Yad Vashem as a political institution serving the immediate needs of the Israeli right.
Dayan’s appointment shifts public discussion from the sphere of historical documentation and commemoration to that of politicking. Couldn’t the board find a better choice than a political macher who spent the last decade arguing against charges of Israeli apartheid with undergrads?
Dayan’s appointment will further the transformation of Yad Vashem and other Holocaust remembrance institutions and programs into handy devices that are used and abused by Israeli politicians.
The use of the Holocaust to whitewash the occupation as a modus operandi of politicians on all sides of the aisle has been widely discussed in the past 20 years, by Israeli politicians like Avraham Burg and scholars like Norman Finkelstein.
Yad Vashem was also at the center of numerous controversies in the last decade. In 2015, Yad Vashem challenged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini played a “central role in fomenting the Final Solution.”
Dayan is replacing Avner Shalev, who served for more than a quarter of a century. To the public, Shalev’s politics is pretty unknown. But with Dayan, all he’s known for is his politics.
In the few times he did speak out, Shalev made appeals on behalf of asylum seekers who ended up in Israel. How would Dayan have reacted when Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who as interior minister pledged to fight the courts that ruled against placing asylum seekers in the Holot internment camp?
In what world can a person who doesn’t believe in equal rights and who wants to erase a narrative of a another people head an institution dedicated to documenting the most horrible consequences of the actions of a nationalistic, racist regime? How can Holocaust survivors and their descendants view this place as hallowed when it’s subject to cronyism and immediate political expediency?
Yad Vashem is “the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.” Therefore, despite being an Israeli institution, it belongs to the world, specifically to those the Holocaust has touched. It is a place that should be above the politics of the day, above any agenda other than the need to collectively safeguard the memory of what happened. Unfortunately, Dani Dayan’s appointment threatens this goal.
Etan Nechin is an Israeli-born journalist, author and online editor for The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee literature. Twitter: @Etanetan23