Less than a week elapsed between Yad Vashem’s announcement that it had received a donation of tens of millions of dollars from Russian-Israeli oligarch Roman Abramovich, and the lobbying on Abramovich’s behalf by officials from the Holocaust memorial center in the United States.
This followed reports that America and Britain planned to impose sanctions on Abramovich due to his alleged ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There’s a line, and not a fine one, between having accepted this donation in the first place and mobilizing now for a lobbying campaign to defend Abramovich.
Even if Yad Vashem is convinced that the Russian-Israeli billionaire has clean hands and no connection whatsoever with Putin’s murderous regime, it’s not the institution’s job to act as his defense attorney. And it especially shouldn’t do so right now, in light of both the timing of the donation and the Russian attack on Ukraine, and the unpredictable global conflict.
Abramovich has been cited in the international media as someone the West is considering sanctioning due to his close ties with Putin. In Britain, one member of parliament argued that because of Abramovich’s ties to “corrupt activity” in Russia, he ought to be investigated.
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The fact that at one time Abramovich had influence in Russian politics and supported Putin during the latter’s early days in office is no secret. But there’s as yet no information about the nature of his ties with Putin, to the extent that any such ties exist today.
Abramovich’s decision, announced Saturday, to transfer to someone else the management of the English soccer club Chelsea, which he owns, shows that he’s evidently worried by all the talk about this issue. And this requires a distinguished institution like Yad Vashem to keep its distance from him, even if his money is helping to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.
Just last month, Yad Vashem Chairman Danny Dayan told Haaretz that the institution’s dependence on private donors could undermine its independence and even slant its activities. The state comptroller also warned recently that the existing situation, in which the government funds only a third of Yad Vashem’s budget, could severely undermine its functioning if, for any reason, the institution’s donations declined.
This latest incident shows how important it is that Yad Vashem’s budget not depend mainly on the kindness of billionaires. And a moral issue must also be considered – it’s not possible to know what interests spur donors to open their pockets, but those interests aren’t always confined solely to concern for perpetuating Jewish heritage. Sometimes, there’s also a desire to launder their reputation or cleanse their conscience.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.