Since taking up his position as chairman of Yad Vashem five months ago, Dani Dayan has been under “wild attacks,” as he puts it. Various people on the right demand that Dayan, formerly chairman of the Yesha Council of settlements, hang the famous photo of the 1941 meeting of Hitler and Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, at the Holocaust Museum. “I will not display that photo, I won’t yield to pressure,” Dayan surprises me, in an interview for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“Those who want me to put it up aren’t really interested in the Mufti’s part in the Holocaust, which was limited anyway, but seek to harm the image of the Palestinians today,” he says. “The Mufti was an antisemite. But even if I abhor him, I won’t turn Yad Vashem into a tool serving ends not directly related to the study and memorialization of the Holocaust. Hasbara, to use a term, is an utterly irrelevant consideration that shall not enter our gates.”
Dayan’s words surely would not please the previous prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who caused an uproar in 2015 when he claimed that it was the Mufti who persuaded Hitler to consolidate the final solution – a claim debunked by Holocaust scholars. The comments may also come as a form of payback. Dayan says Netanyahu was the man who scuttled his appointment as Yad Vashem’s chairman, offered to him by Minister Ze’ev Elkin, then heading the Higher Education Ministry. Only then, says Dayan, was the job offered to Effi Eitam – but following criticism of his nomination, the original plan was reinstated and the current government appointed Dayan last August.
He is stepping into big shoes. His predecessor, Avner Shalev, who served in the post for 27 years, was the man who turned Yad Vashem from a “monument,” as Dayan puts it, into a museum and research facility of international repute. But its operation is now threatened by budgetary issues, a reclusive approach to the archival materials it holds, and an outdated public image.
In this regard Dayan provides a current example: “I met with the ‘Zikaron Basalon’ people and was surprised to learn that their connection to Yad Vashem is slim to none. I told them, we’re here for you. They cried.” Zikaron Basalon (Living-room memories) is a private initiative under which Holocaust survivors tell their stories in private homes around the country in intimate settings. The highly publicized initiative grew in the vacuum left by Yad Vashem as an overly official and distant institution. Dayan vows to make Yad Vashem more accessible to the public and not just to scholars and cognoscenti. This includes the institute’s archive, which according to Dayan includes over 200 million documents, tens of millions of which are original, and most which are not digitized or available online. “We have an archive of inconceivable size, but we have to understand that a document isn’t just there for us to brag about how many we have.”
At the same time he commits to continuing the collection of such documents in the most remote locations, which he says can speak for the victims. Yad Vashem is currently engaged in an intriguing operation in this regard. Once the materials involved are secure, discussion of one of the Holocaust’s most controversial chapters will be expanded.
This month the government approved a one-time increase of 30 million shekels ($9.5 million) to Yad Vashem’s budget. This follows a state’s comptroller’s report decrying the institute’s dependence on private donations, which constitute half its annual revenue.
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Dayan warns of two consequences should the government not permanently increase its support, the first being budgetary instability, the other a certain compromising of the institute’s independence. “Money doesn’t dictate content, but people donate for certain purposes, so that could cause a bias. We try very hard to prevent that.”
Dayan received an official complaint this month from attorney Eitay Mack, who decries discrimination in honorary plaques for donors at Yad Vashem. The entrance to the museum is adorned by a large sign for Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, her husband who died a year ago. The institute’s website notes that the couple donated $25 million to Yad Vashem in 2006 – “the largest private donation in the institute’s history.” Neither the fact that the couple’s fortune was made in part from the casino business, nor their ideological associations and political interference in Israel, is mentioned.
“It’s unclear why the Adelson couple were chosen for particular favor over Holocaust survivors who gave as much as they could – and at times more,” Mack says, referring to the institute’s previous administration. As for the Adelson's donation, Dayan clarifies, “I greatly appreciate and thank Miri Adelson and her late husband Sheldon for their commitment and ongoing contribution to Yad Vashem given without any intervention or attempt to influence the content.”
One of the most sensitive topics in recent years is the clashes between the views of Yad Vashem, which must be free of ulterior motives, and that of the government. “We are the gatekeepers of historical truth. We’ll be zealous about this issue and not let it go without a fight, even when inconsistent with Israel’s political interest,” Dayan promises.
He proved true to his word in October, delivering harsh remarks in Kiev at the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, and bucking the recent political, diplomatic and financial interests, which have lead to the minimization of the role of many Ukrainians in persecution of Jews in the Holocaust. He adds that in regard to Israel’s complex relations with Poland, Yad Vashem didn’t compromise in contradicting the official position of the previous Israeli government. This came after Netanyahu, then still prime minister, signed a controversial document with his Polish counterpart, minimizing the involvement of the Polish people in the Holocaust.
Dayan says that while Holocaust denial is a marginalized phenomenon today, Holocaust distortion is growing and spreading. “Unlike Holocaust denial of the past, Holocaust distortion today is backed and financed by governments and powerful civil society entities. Even Jews,” he says, who “cleanse the past” of their respective countries, contrary to historical fact.
As for what happens when controversial figures, from the left or the right, enter the gates of Yad Vashem? The visit by Heinz-Christian Strache, former leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, which has Nazi roots, happened before Dayan’s time, and privately. “Of course I think anyone tainted by sympathy for Nazism is unwanted at Yad Vashem,” he says, but lays the burden with the government. “If you’re allowed in Israel, you’re welcome here,” he says. In 2020 the High Court of Justice rejected an appeal requiring the institute not to host racist figures, antisemites or those involved in war crimes.
“I’m glad the anti-Israeli [U.S. Congressman] Jamaal Bowman visited,” he says, explaining the educational value, and extending his welcome to progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as well. Recently Dayan suggested that the UN promote a Holocaust education program at its institutions. “I couldn’t help myself and asked them to start with UNRWA,” he says, referring to the agency aiding Palestinian refugees.
At the end of the interview he is asked about the film by David Fisher, which raises a question mark about the hallowed round number of six million Holocaust dead. “Unlike IDF casualties, whose number is known because they are recorded, we have not and never will locate the names of all Holocaust victims. But dealing with the number – if it’s 5.9 million or 6.5 million – is ridiculous to me. I have no other word for it.”