The Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich will give tens of millions of dollars to Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial announced Tuesday.
Abramovich, who has been said to be a supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, announced on Saturday that he was handing over "stewardship" of the Chelsea soccer club to its charitable foundation trustees, amid calls to sanction him over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The businessman's donation to Yad Vashem, the exact amount of which was not disclosed but is estimated according to information obtained by Haaretz to be “a few tens of millions of dollars,” comes at a complex time for the commemoration institution, due to a decline in funding by the state and increased dependence on private donations. Abramovich, who is a major donor to Jewish philanthropies, also contributes widely to Israeli institutions.
Abramovich’s contribution is apparently the largest ever to Yad Vashem by a single private donor, surpassing the contribution of the late Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam. In 2006, the Adelson’s contributed $25 million, which was said at the time to be the largest private donation Yad Vashem had ever received.
Abramovich, 55, grew up in the Soviet Union in a Jewish family with roots in Lithuania. He lost his parents at a young age, and made his money during the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, when he invested in oil companies that had been privatized. He later increased his wealth by investing in the iron and metal industries. Abramovich leads a lavish lifestyle, and owns private planes and yachts.
According to Yad Vashem, the billionaire’s donation will go toward strengthening the institution’s research work, “at a time in which phenomena of distortion and denial of the Holocaust and political use of the Holocaust are worryingly on the rise throughout the world.” The contribution will also go toward construction of a new building for Yad Vashem. Another project the contribution will fund is a book to include the names of those murdered in the Holocaust that are recorded in Yad Vashem’s database – 4.8 million people.
Four months ago, State Comptroller Matanyahu Engelman warned against Yad Vashem’s reliance on private donors, and noted that about half the institution’s annual income came from donations, mostly from a few donors. Engelman said that such dependence is problematic in periods of crisis that might see a decline in donations that could put the institution’s continued activities at risk.
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In recent years, the relative portion of Yad Vashem’s budget from state funding has declined; at present, only a third of its budget comes from the state. Last month, following actions by Yad Vashem’s new chairman, Dani Dayan, the government approved a one-time allocation of 30 million shekels ($9.3 million) to the institution’s budget. Dayan welcomed the move, but said he hoped the government would do more.
In an interview with Haaretz last month, Dayan warned of two problematic outcomes if the government did not increase its allocation to Yad Vashem: “Instability” stemming from ups and downs in funding from year to year, and “damage, to some extent, of the independence of Yad Vashem.”
According to Dayan, “the money does not impact the content. But people give money for certain purposes, and the tendency can develop – even if we are very strict about this not happening.”
Handing over Chelsea
This week, in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a British MP called for sanctions to be imposed on Abramovich, claiming that he had a document confirming that Abamovich was wanted for questioning in Britain in 2019 over his ties to Russia.
Abramovich denies reports indicating a close association with Putin. Abramovich sued a British journalist for libel, after she wrote in her book, “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West.” A British court ruled late last year that the book claims that Abramovich was under Putin’s control, but did not provide proof. The parties later reached a compromise in which it was made clear that the book’s claim was not backed up by facts.
After the criticism, Abramovich announced on Saturday that he was transferring the club’s management to a blind trust.
"During almost 20 years I have owned Chelsea, I always saw my role as protecting the club, ensuring that we be as successful as possible, and to build a better future while playing a positive role in our community. I remain committed to these values. That is the reason that I am transferring management rights to a blind trues, and I believe it will see to the best interests of the club, the players, the professional staff and the fans,” he said.
The West has recently imposed sanctions on large entities and on senior individuals close to Putin due to Russia’s invasion. It is unclear how these sanctions will impact Chelsea, whether Abramovich’s move will harm the club, and whether this is just a stepping stone on the way to selling the club.
Over the past few days public criticism of the club has increased because of Abramovich’s ownership, in the context of the Union of European Football Associations’ decision to move the Champions League match from Russia to Paris; the announcement by the German soccer team Schalke that it will play without displaying the logo on their shirts of their longtime sponsor, the Russian majority state-owned gas company Gazprom; and Poland’s announcement that it would not play against the Russian team in the World Cup qualification playoffs. Abramovich’s announcement does not directly relate to these developments, but the timing of the move leaves no room for doubt about the connection.
Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003. During his tenure, the team won five British championships (2004/05, 2005/06. 2009/10, 2015/15 and 2016/17) and the European championship twice (2011/12, 2020/21). The team also reached the Champions’ League finals in 2007/2008 with Avram Grant as coach, but was crushed on penalty kicks by Manchester United.