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The Writing Has Been on the Wall for Yad Vashem's Schnorrer Culture

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich leaves a division of the High Court in central London in 2011.
Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich leaves a division of the High Court in central London in 2011. Credit: REUTERS
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

The embarrassing appeal by Yad Vashem to the U.S. ambassador to prevent the imposition of sanctions on the Israeli-Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who is considered close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, casts a heavy shadow not only over the donation of tens of millions of dollars that Yad Vashem received from him recently, but over the whole system of generations of schnorring by Israel’s primary Holocaust museum and memorial.

The writing has long been on the donors’ wall, but the Abramovich affair makes the need clear to deal urgently with this issue. The state comptroller’s report in October warned that about half of Yad Vashem’s annual income derives from contributions, and most of these are from a small number of donors. This creates significant reliance on private individuals for what is supposedly a national institution.

“In recent years, the contributions are the largest component of the financial sources of Yad Vashem,” the report warned. For example, in 2019, contributions constituted 52 percent of the institution’s budget. The report also found that in 2007–19, the government’s share in funding Yad Vashem fell to 31 percent from 42 percent. That is, the budget did not decrease, but donations and the culture of begging for handouts grew to the point where it surpassed the public funding.

In an interview with Haaretz, Yad Vashem’s chairman, Dani Dayan, warned of two central problems involving private donors. The first is a lack of stability and the second is “damage, to a certain extent to the independence of Yad Vashem … even if we are very strict about this not happening.” And now Dayan, who himself warned of this dependence, finds himself lobbying on behalf of the donor Abramovich in a situation Yad Vashem should not be involved in under any circumstances.

In recent years various public figures, movements and countries have tried to polish their historical or current conscience by “Shoah-washing” – a stamp of approval by Israel or Yad Vashem. For example, extreme right-wing parties in Europe, which have a neo-Nazi past or present, sought to become close to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party. Netanyahu, for his part, enlisted conservatives and the extreme right in the fight against the European consensus on the Palestinian and Iranian issues. As part of these alliances, Yad Vashem found itself more than once hosting leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, who in their countries represent the polar opposite of the values Yad Vashem is meant to promote.

This danger of the use of Yad Vashem to whitewash global racism, a danger that still exists despite the changeover of government in Israel, along with this reliance on private donations, requires the government to deal with the issue and move ahead on legislation to fund Yad Vashem from public money only. This institution, which is so important to the Israeli Jewish ethos, must not be managed any other way. Such legislation will also of course require close scrutiny of Yad Vashem’s budget and its ballooning needs.

On the other hand, it is clear that full government funding of Yad Vashem will require complete separation between politicians and its activities. Dependence on politicians is often no less dangerous than dependence on private individuals. The attempt to appoint far-right former politician Effi Eitam as the institution’s chairman is an example of this; this practice must be diminished, not increased.

A new law to regulate the activities of the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority could protect the independence of Yad Vashem from a whole range of interests as well as from politicians – and this should be done soon, not before another report or embarrassment emerges.

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