Even Liberals Are Happy With Choice of a Former Settler Leader to Head Yad Vashem

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Dani Dayan in 2016
Dani Dayan in 2016Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / AP Photo
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

It is perhaps a sign of the times that the appointment of a former West Bank settler leader to the top job at Yad Vashem has gone down remarkably well in the Jewish world – even within progressive circles.

Consider this response from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, to Dani Dayan’s appointment on Sunday as chair of the national institution for Holocaust remembrance: “I am confident that Dani will be very effective in energizing Yad Vashem’s core mission to combat Holocaust amnesia so prevalent across the globe. We’re also counting on Dani to use his considerable diplomatic skill and determination to keep Holocaust memory from being trivialized and manipulated by offensive analogies in contemporary culture wars.”

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Or consider this response from Colette Avital, chairwoman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, as well as an active member of the left-wing Meretz party: “I think that this is a good choice because of Dani’s character, his openness and knowledge. He served Israel well when he was the consul-general in New York, did not use his position to promote any political agenda, understood well the complexity of the Jewish world and its pluralism, and I am confident that he will promote and respect the freedom of research.”

But it would be a stretch to conclude from these and other positive responses to Dayan’s appointment that the settler movement is suddenly in vogue. What is more likely is that given the alternative, Jewish world leaders and organizations are simply relieved.

For the sake of those who may have forgotten, that alternative was Effi Eitam, a former far-right politician and military commander who famously called for the expulsion of West Bank Palestinians and the ouster of Israeli Arabs from the Knesset. Indeed, next to him, Dayan might even be described as a bleeding-heart liberal.

Eitam had been former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top pick for the job, recommended by Ze’ev Elkin, who was then a Likud cabinet minister whose portfolio included jurisdiction over Yad Vashem.  According to widespread speculation, Netanyahu was hoping the appointment might help improve his popularity within the religious nationalist community since Eitam is Orthodox.

News of his nomination drew condemnations across the Jewish world, with many noting Eitam’s unsuitability for an institution dedicated to teaching lessons of the Holocaust given his anti-Arab views. Eitam would have replaced Avner Shalev, who served as chairman of Yad Vashem since 1993 and retired at the end of last year.

But before the appointment came up for a final vote in the cabinet, Netanyahu’s government collapsed and new elections were called. By then, Elkin had quit Likud and joined a new right-wing party created by Gideon Sa’ar, putting an end to Eitam’s candidacy. Upon returning to Israel last year after his stint in New York, Dayan also split from Likud and joined Sa’ar’s party.

A resident of the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Shomron, Dayan used to lead the Yesha Council, the lobbying organization of the settler movement. He was eventually succeeded in that position by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Unlike Bennett – or Eitam, for that matter – Dayan does not wear a kippa and is a proud secularist.

Many wondered how a right-wing ideologue like Dayan would fare in one of the most progressive cities in the world, but he proved to be a surprising success as a diplomat, forging close ties with leaders of the non-Orthodox movements.

The Yad Vashem MuseumCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

As Jacobs noted in a statement emailed on Monday: “I was one of many people who felt that when Dani Dayan was named the Israeli consul-general in New York he could not possibly succeed in engaging our liberal Jewish community because of his previous role as the leader of the settler movement.  But it turned out that Dani was remarkably effective in building bridges of understanding across a wide political spectrum.  He and I disagreed on key issues but still were able to work together on critical areas of mutual concern including combatting the alarming rise of anti-Jewish hate threatening all parts of our Jewish community.”

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, chief executive officer of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, also noted Dayan’s diplomatic skills, saying he believed they would serve him well in his new role. “I saw firsthand and up close how very responsive and helpful to the Jewish communities of New York and the United States he was, and we expect he will bring those same skills of diplomacy and his passionate care for Israel and the Jewish people to his new role as chairman of Yad Vashem,” said Blumenthal.

Last fall, the Anti-Defamation League joined the campaign against Eitam, citing his “problematic moral record.” It was unusual, if not unprecedented, for the American non-profit that monitors antisemitism around the world to intervene in appointments in other Jewish organizations. The response published Sunday by the organization’s Jerusalem office to Dayan’s appointment was of a completely different nature. “We are confident that Dayan will fulfill well Yad Vashem’s mission of preserving the memory of the Holocaust and fighting those who wish to destroy and trivialize it,” it tweeted. “We are excited to continue the cooperation between us.”

David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, called Dayan’s appointment an “inspired choice.” “Dani brings the right combination of skills to this vitally important position — a deeply-rooted sense of history, eloquence, passion, vision, diplomatic experience, deep understanding of both Israel’s place in the world and the glue of Jewish peoplehood, and a keen ability to connect with a wide range of countries and communities,” Harris said in a statement.

In a letter sent to Dayan congratulating him on his appointment, Eric Fingerhut, president of the Jewish Federations of North American, and Mark Wilf, chairman of the board of trustees, wrote: “Yad Vashem plays a crucial role in shaping the collective memory of Jews across the world, and we are happy it will continue to be led by a person who understands its relationship to global Jewry, its importance to Israel, and its role in perpetuating the memory of the victims of the Shoah.”

Menachem Rosensaft, associate executive vice president and general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, went so far as to call Dayan “the ideal person to head Yad Vashem.”

“As someone born in Argentina to parents and grandparents who had fled antisemitism and pogroms in Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus, he is intuitively and intellectually sympathetic to and has empathy for the victims and survivors of the Shoah, who constitute the true constituency of Yad Vashem,” said Rosensaft, who had spoken out strongly last year against Eitam’s candidacy. “Dani understands that they deserve to be remembered for who they were and how they lived, regardless of religiosity or political ideology – the Nazis did not differentiate between Zionists and Bundists, or between Hasidim, agnostics, and atheists – and that their memory cannot be allowed to be denied, distorted, exploited or trivialized.”

He added: “I have no doubt whatsoever that Dani Dayan will lead Yad Vashem with the critical combination of integrity, intelligence, determination and compassion that this important institution requires and deserves.”

Here and there, voices critical of Dayan’s appointment have also emerged. Indeed, many on the left still find his passionate support for the settlement movement hard to stomach. Dror Etkes, the founder of Kerem Navot, an anti-occupation group, put it this way in a post on twitter: “We live in a period when we’re supposed to breathe a sigh of relief when an elegant and light racist/nationalist like Dani Dayan is appointed chair of Yad Vashem instead of a vulgar and hardcore racist/nationalist like Effi Eitam.”

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