Avner Shalev, the chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center, will step down this year after 27 years in the post, as he announced on Sunday in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Shalev, 81, did not explain the reason for his departure, but wrote: “My decision was not an easy one, and I made it after thorough self-clarification.”
Over the past few months, Yad Vashem has faced a major challenge in light of the damage to its revenue and operational capabilities due to the coronavirus crisis. More than 100 employees have been put on unpaid leave, executives’ salaries have been reduced, ongoing expenditures have been cut back and various activities have been postponed.
“In recent months there has been a sharp decline and even a cancellation of activities at Yad Vashem due to the situation. This decline is expected to partially continue in the coming months because of the global coronavirus crisis. In addition, due to coronavirus, government funding has been cut back and contributions and predictions for fundraising in the near future have fallen,” the institution said in a statement last month.
Shalev established the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, which trains hundreds of teachers every year from around the world, as well as students, young people and soldiers. The International Institute for Holocaust Research and the new Holocaust History Museum were also opened during his tenure, and the names of Holocaust victims were put into an online database. In 2003, Yad Vashem received the Israel Prize for special contribution to society and state. Shalev was also the recipient of prestigious awards from Spain, France, from the late President Shimon Peres, from the Hebrew University and a special award from the city of Jerusalem.
However, in recent years some negative headlines have been associated with Yad Vashem while Shalev chaired the center. In February, in an exceptional step, the institution apologized for content it presented at the World Holocaust Forum, attended by leaders from around the world. The apology was for “inaccuracies,” a “partial presentation of facts” and an “unbalanced impression” regarding the Soviet Union’s role in World War II.
In 2018, after the publication of the Polish Holocaust Law, Yad Vashem’s senior historian, Prof. Dina Porat, won praise from Netanyahu for her part in formulating a joint statement by Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart in an effort to resolve a dispute between the two countries regarding Poland’s role in World War II. However, three other senior historians at Yad Vashem sharply criticized the statement, which they said ran counter to historical facts. To this day the part played by Porat and Yad Vashem itself in formulating the controversial statement is unclear. The High Court of Justice recently rejected a petition seeking to make information on the matter public.
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Shalev was born in Jerusalem in 1939. During the Yom Kippur War he headed the office of then Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff David Elazar, and later became the IDF’s chief education officer. After retiring from the army, he was appointed head of cultural administration in the Education Ministry.