Yad Vashem at Risk Due to Reliance on Donations, Israel's State Watchdog Says

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Yad Vashem's Hall of Names.
Yad Vashem's Hall of Names.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

About half of the annual income of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem comes from donations, mostly from a small group of major donors, and reliance on these donors could jeopardize Yad Vashem’s operations, a report by the State Comptroller’s office released on Tuesday said.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said reliance on such a small group is problematic because it makes Yad Vashem, which is a government institution, vulnerable to a future economic crisis that might cause a sharp drop in contributions.

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Data in the comptroller’s report show that over the years, contributions from donors have grown and “in recent years, these donations have become the largest component of Yad Vashem’s financial sources.”

In 2019, for example, they amounted to 101 million shekels ($31.4 million at current exchange rates), equal to 53 percent of the institution’s operating budget. The report cited Yad Vashem documents showing that “a significant share of the Yad Vashem budget relies on donations that have to be raised from scratch every year,” and that “a decline in donations could seriously impact Yad Vashem’s income and consequently bring about a considerable reduction in operations and even the closure of departments.”

The purported overreliance on a small group of contributors is reflected in the fact that 1 percent of donors accounted for 79 percent of all of the significant contributions between 2016 and 2019. In 2019, for example, 83 donors accounted for most of the funds contributed to Yad Vashem – a total of $30 million.

Between 2007 and 2019, the Israeli government’s share of Yad Vashem’s income fell to 31 percent from 42 percent, according to the report. During that period, the share of total income received from private donors jumped from 16 percent to 52 percent.

“The decision by one or a few donors to stop contributing to Yad Vashem or to significantly reduce their donations could impact Yad Vashem’s budget and in any event seriously undermine its ability to sustain its operations,” the comptroller said in the report.

Yad Vashem employs two full-time fundraisers, who earn a combined 80,000 shekels a month on average, according to the report.

In response to concerns raised by Englman, Yad Vashem said that “since only a third of Yad Vashem’s budget is provided by the government, if the state were to increase its contribution to the budget, it would be able to restore the balance that existed. In addition, as an institution that relies mainly on donations, Yad Vashem has acted cautiously and with a long-term perspective ... to avoid deficits, with a multiyear fundraising program that is adjusted annually, among other things.”

Yad Vashem's Hall of Remembrance.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

About half of the contributions that Yad Vashem receives from donors in Israel are actually the estates of Holocaust survivors who die without heirs, data that Yad Vashem provided to the State Comptroller show. Yad Vashem identifies such potential donors prior to their deaths to encourage them to bequeath their assets to the Holocaust remembrance institution, Englman noted.

For this purpose, Yad Vashem has a list of potential people who could leave bequests and maintains relations with them over the years, the report said. This connection is sustained, among other ways, by “sending them greeting cards, help with errands, aiding them in times of crisis and assistance in various facets of life, including medical care.”

The comptroller noted that there were no written guidelines addressing the issue of “unfair influence” on such people.

In response, Yad Vashem said that “over the years detailed directives have been developed that form the basis of policies on which Yad Vashem operates. These directives are based on professional legal guidance to ensure proper compliance with all the legal aspects of the matter both major and minor.”

The comptroller also expressed concern over the care of items at Yad Vashem – a collection that includes about 44,000 artifacts from the Shoah, including 12,000 pieces of art from the period and hundreds of thousands of photographs, among other things.

The report quoted an internal Yad Vashem report from 2018 that found that “most of the collection of artifacts has never gone through a process of preservation and have yet to be put in proper storage in accordance with museum standards that would ensure their preservation for generations to come. A large part of the collections of art and objects are in a precarious condition that requires immediate treatment.”

The comptroller estimated that about 10,500 items were “in need of urgent preservations.”

The report quoted a 2016 report from the Yad Vashem archive that the comptroller said provided evidence of problems with cataloging and preserving items. “An inspection revealed archival treasures that were not known to us at Yad Vashem or to the public because they hadn’t been sorted or cataloged,” the Yad Vashem report said.

The institution said in response that “in light of the importance that Yad Vashem sees in preserving and commemorating objects from the period of the Shoah, it was decided several years ago to erect a new home for the collections – an underground structure now under construction that will house Yad Vashem’s collections in the world’s best and most advanced storage conditions. In addition, the site will include preservation facilities meeting international museum standards.”

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