Yad Vashem, Israel’s national authority for commemoration of the Holocaust, is supposed to be above politics. But politicians — both the domestic and international types — have a way of using and abusing the Holocaust. Time and again in recent years Yad Vashem has been dragged into controversy, forced to uphold what its experts consider historic truth.
Last year, under a new Israeli government and a new chairman, it looked for a while as if it could move to a more peaceful period, but then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and with it more storms — and also the threat of a major financial shortfall due to the potential loss of Kremlin-linked donors.
The role Yad Vashem plays in Israeli society is complex. Most people know as it as a museum of the Holocaust, open the year round for visitors from around the world. It also has a symbolic national role as the main venue for Holocaust commemoration, on Yom Ha’Shoah next week and on official visits to Israel by heads of state. It is also a centre of knowledge, where researchers and historians write academic papers and compile records, chief of which is the archive of the names of the victims. There is often tension between these roles.
Then there’s the question of funding. As a national institute, Yad Vashem is funded by the Israeli government but in order to fulfil its roles it needs to fundraise as well. As of last year, only 36 per cent of Yad Vashem’s budget came from the government. Another 5 per cent came from the institute’s commercial activities and no less than 59 per cent was from private donations and legacies.
When an organisation is so reliant on private money, the question mark will always hover among its employees and the wider public as to what degree it is influenced by donors. For example, when casino moguls Sheldon and Miriam Adelson became Yad Vashem’s greatest benefactors with a $25 million donation in 2011 (just one of a number of hefty gifts to Yad Vashem), would the fact that they were also considered at the time to be Benjamin Netanyahu’s main patrons have any effect?
The answer to that came four years later when Mr Netanyahu caused a furore by claiming in a speech that the German “Final Solution” of exterminating the Jews of Europe had been the idea of the former Mufti of Jerusalem and the father of Palestinian nationalism, the pro-Nazi Amin al-Husseini. In an unprecedented rebuke to the prime minister, Yad Vashem’s chief historian put out a statement saying that it was “completely erroneous, on all counts”.
That wasn’t the only time Yad Vashem took on Mr Netanyahu. It did so again in 2018 following a joint statement signed with his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki, regarding the collaboration of Poles with the Germans in the Holocaust. In this case the Yad Vashem historians said that the prime ministers’ statement contained “grave errors and deceptions” and that its implications could cause “real harm to researchers, unimpeded research, and the historical memory of the Holocaust”.
In 2020, when Yad Vashem’s veteran chairman Avner Shalev was about to step down, the Netanyahu government tried to nominate Effie Eitam, a far-right politician with a history of anti-Arab statements, provoking an international outcry of historians and Jewish figures. The appointment was stalled in the dysfunctional cabinet until the new Bennett-Lapid government came to power and appointed Dani Dayan, a staunch right-winger but a much more agreeable candidate who had served as Israel’s consul-general to New York City, winning over many in the Jewish establishment there who didn’t share his political views.
But he has faced his own share of controversies in the short period in which he has been at the helm. The most damaging came in the wake of an announcement in February that Yad Vashem would partner with the foundation of Russian-Israeli-Portuguese billionaire Roman Abramovich. The donation, which would total an unspecified “tens of millions of dollars”, was to go to funding research on the Holocaust and would have not raised an eyelid had it not been announced just two days before Russia began its “special military operation” to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, putting oligarchs such as Mr Abramovich with ties to Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin in the spotlight, and on the sanctions list.
Yad Vashem was once again at the forefront of setting the historic record straight and three days after the war began said in a statement that “the propagandist discourse accompanying the current hostilities is saturated with irresponsible statements and completely inaccurate comparisons with Nazi ideology and actions before and during the Holocaust. Yad Vashem condemns this trivialization and distortion of the historical facts of the Holocaust”.
Two weeks later they put out another statement: “In light of recent developments, Yad Vashem has decided to suspend the strategic partnership with Mr. Roman Abramovich.”
Their troubles weren’t over yet.
Another major donor to Yad Vashem over recent years has been Moshe Kantor, a Russian-British billionaire, who was until last month president of the European Jewish Congress, a post he held for the last 15 years. Due to his donations, he also held the grand title of Chancellor of the Yad Vashem board.
Mr Kantor, Russia’s “fertiliser king”, had already caused Yad Vashem major embarrassment in early 2020 when another organisation he founded and chairs, the World Holocaust Forum, held a massive conference in Jerusalem, to which no less than Russian President Vladimir Putin was invited as guest of honour. Yad Vashem naturally had to be partners in the event but after it was over there was another statement from the historians, following criticism over the presentation at the forum which had centred on Russia’s role in the war, downplayed that of Britain and America and omitted “inconvenient” historic facts such as Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Adolf Hitler.
“Sadly, videos at the event, and particularly the one intended to summarise key points of World War II and the Holocaust, included inaccuracies and a partial portrayal of historical facts that created an unbalanced impression,” they said in the statement. “These videos do not represent Yad Vashem’s research position on these issues.”
Last month, the relationship with Mr Kantor and his connections with the Kremlin came back to haunt Yad Vashem, as the British government included him in a new sanctions list of “a further eight oligarchs active in these industries, which Putin uses to prop up his war economy”. Institutions that had received his money over the years, even the European Jewish Congress which he has bankrolled for so long, began dropping him. Yad Vashem has so far remained silent.
With Yom Ha’Shoah coming immediately after Pessach, the institute has enough on its plate trying to organise the annual commemoration ceremonies that will be relevant to the news of war crimes coming out of Ukraine, while not creating too many political waves. A senior official at Yad Vashem said that “Kantor doesn’t fulfil any role in Yad Vashem, he just has a title, and we’ll discuss it in due course. But we don’t publicly execute people here just to satisfy the mob. If the Israeli government took full responsibility for commemorating the Holocaust, we wouldn’t have all these problems.”