From Diplomat to Chairman: Dani Dayan Reflects on Antisemitism

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Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan was Israeli consul general in New York from 2016-2020

Polish nationals shout “Death to Jews” while burning a book representing a historic pact protecting the rights of Poland’s Jews. Protesters march over the Brooklyn Bridge in opposition to the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict yelling, “Free, free Palestine; intifada, intifada.”

Antisemitic incidents are becoming more commonplace worldwide and the need to combat them begins with an understanding of their place in history as threats to the Jewish people. As such, the imperative of examining the Holocaust and the significance of institutions like Yad Vashem in Israel are becoming increasingly relevant.

This past September, Yad Vashem appointed Dani Dayan as its new chairman. Dayan, who served as Israel’s consul general in New York from 2016-2020, ran unsuccessfully in the most recent Israeli elections with the New Hope party. Prior to serving at the Israel Consulate in New York, Dayan acted as chairman of the Yesha Council in Israel and as CEO of Elad Software Systems Ltd., a company he founded.

With a wealth of experience dealing with Jewish causes on both sides of the ocean, Dayan takes the understanding and knowledge he gleaned from those positions and applies it to his new one. Dayan said upon accepting his appointment, “Leading Yad Vashem is more than a position; it is a mission that I take today with awe and reverence.”

On Dayan’s recent trip to New York, I spoke with him about his new chairmanship, Yad Vashem, and what the Holocaust and antisemitism mean to Jews in today’s world.

You have gone from being an ambassador, with an eye to building current and future relationships, to being the chairman at Yad Vashem, memorializing the past. How did your political experience prepare you for your current position?

Well, that assumption is only partially correct because the legacy of the Shoah also has a lot to do with the present and the future of the Jewish people, though not exclusively. When I returned from New York, after serving for four years as Israel’s senior diplomat there and the liaison of the State of Israel to the largest Jewish community outside Israel, I wasn’t sure I would find another mission that is as exciting and as important as that one. But when I was asked by the government of Israel to serve as chairman of Yad Vashem, I found that, surprisingly, this is another mission that is as important and as relevant as the previous one. If you are a Jew with a historical conscience, you don’t refuse such an offer.

As it relates to antisemitism, its relevance seems more pertinent than ever. We are witnessing overt antisemitism, such as the recent shouting of “Death to the Jews” by far-right Polish nationals and increasing worldwide anti-Zionism. How does this challenge affect the institution’s messaging?

When I came to America to serve as Consul General, I thought antisemitism would not be high on my agenda. But then Charlottesville came, which was a watershed moment for me, to see Nazi flags being waved in an American city. And then Pittsburgh happened, with 11 Jews murdered. Later, there were even more instances of people being killed because they were Jews. I underestimated the threat of antisemitism in this country.

I am not implying that the U.S. in 2021 is similar to Germany in the 1930s, not at all. But we have the experience that our brethren lacked in the 1930s in Germany; and we know that when you see antisemitism you have to combat it immediately and forcefully because otherwise it can grow to monstrous dimensions. That’s one of the most important lessons of the Shoah and it’s one that we at Yad Vashem convey.

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Dayan and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Richard Nides observe a moment of silence in front of the eternal flame in the Hall of Remembrance in Yad Vashem last month. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In addition to overt antisemitism, we see a form of historical revisionism regarding the Holocaust in certain European countries that try to distance themselves from complicity in the Holocaust. Poland passed a law making it a criminal offence to accuse the country of complicity in Nazi war crimes and there is controversy in France over the extent of the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazis. How can we protect ourselves from this?

You are completely right. I think that today we must be sincere and say that Holocaust denial is not the issue. Of course, you will find Holocaust denial in the fringes of social media. But there is no serious journalist, leader, or intellectual who will deny that the Holocaust happened, which was not the case 30 years ago when there was a movement of denial even among so-called intellectuals.

On the other hand, we do have a very serious movement today of Holocaust distortion that is very well funded and sometimes endorsed and promoted by governments or by strong political forces. They basically admit that there was a Holocaust and six million Jews were murdered and there were gas chambers. But they say, “My country was OK. All our citizens were righteous among the nations.”

That’s a distortion of the Holocaust. We know for a fact that the murder of six million Jews couldn’t have been possible in each and every country in Europe without local collaborators. This is a serious threat, and we are very determined to fight it. I was in Kiev not long ago for the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of Babi Yar. When I opened a Ukrainian academic conference, I said that we are definitely satisfied by the fact that today Ukraine acknowledges the Jewishness of the victims, but we also definitely expect Ukraine to acknowledge the collaboration of local Ukrainians, which they have still to do.

This distortion comes from the right. Would you agree that there seems to be a distortion from the left characterized by co-opting the Holocaust and using it for their own purposes, such as comparing Israel to Nazis and accusing it of racism and apartheid?

Again, you are completely right. However, I would categorize that in a different category. I would call it trivialization. It’s a serious manifestation of Holocaust trivialization to say that what Israel does is in any way similar to what happened in the Shoah. Basically, they are saying that the Shoah was not what it really was. We also see anti-vaxxers use it with the yellow star of David. That is also something that I think is repugnant.

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Dani Dayan with Aluf Amikam Norkin, the Commander of the Israeli Air Force, at Yad Vashem in October. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism includes comparing Israel to Nazis and calling it racist and apartheid and the practice of applying a double standard to Israel that isn’t applied to other countries. Do you think this definition has helped in any concrete way?

In some sense it has. Of course, the importance is the implementation but even in the fact that many countries, European and others, have adopted this, we see that it’s a very positive development.

A controversy recently arose regarding the alleged removal of a large photo following the refurbishing of the Yad Vashem museum around 15 years ago, that showed Hitler meeting with Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem. In a piece on the Yad Vashem website last week, you addressed accusations of political overtones surrounding the topic. Can you talk about that?

That picture was never in Yad Vashem, so those who claim it was removed are wrong. Al-Husseini was a despicable person, an antisemite and he deserves contempt, but his role in the Holocaust is negligible. We are a Holocaust museum and we don’t deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore, his picture is in the museum but in the proportions that he merits, no more and no less than that. If we will exaggerate the role of a person in the Holocaust in order to serve the political interests of Israel or any other cause, in that way we would have legitimized other distortions of the Holocaust. We are indebted only to historical accuracy, nothing else.

Some Holocaust scholars might disagree that his role was only marginal.

I doubt that is right.

But isn’t the flip side of saying that al-Husseini is not so important also a political statement about the Israeli Palestinian conflict?

No, it’s not a political statement at all. It’s an academic statement. Nothing to do with politics. It’s a historical fact.

The Holocaust Museum in Washington ran an exhibit several years ago on the Syrian refugee crisis, likening it to genocide and stating that “the exhibition is part of the museum’s ongoing focus on drawing attention to genocide and mass atrocities being committed in the region.” Do you think such exhibits belong in a museum about the Holocaust or do they dilute the worst atrocity perpetrated against the Jews?

I will not comment on other museums. Yad Vashem is the victim’s museum. It is the museum of the Jewish Holocaust, and the center of our mission is the Jewish people and what happened to them in Europe, not North Africa. I believe that the six million Jews who were murdered deserve an institution that is dedicated solely to them. The Shoah is unique and the most atrocious event in modern human history, and unfortunately Jews were its victims.

Last year a nationwide survey in America showed a “worrying lack of basic Holocaust knowledge” among adults under 40, including over one in 10 respondents who did not recall ever having heard the word “Holocaust” before. What can be done to combat such ignorance?

Basically, the answer is education. When I was Consul General here in New York, however, I refrained from endorsing education of any kind because it’s not the task of a foreign diplomat to endorse legislation. But I made an exception when N.Y. Rep. Carolyn Maloney presented her “Never Again” bill to fund Holocaust education all over the nation, and I stood beside her at the press conference when she presented that bill.

Education is a basic; but we understand at Yad Vashem that we also have a responsibility for global Shoah education, not limited to Israel and the Jewish world, but also to the larger global arena. We will strengthen those efforts.

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Dayan walking with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Richard Nides during his visit to Yad Vashem last month. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

There are organizations here like Project Witness, which emphasizes Holocaust education, and the Shem Olam Museum in Israel, that emphasize the religious and spiritual aspects of the Holocaust and the devastation of the Jewish religion through the destruction of yeshivos, talmidei Torah, Rabbanim, shuls, etc. What emphasis does Yad Vashem place on this aspect of the Holocaust?

We do not discriminate between different aspects. Of course, the destruction of Olam HaTorah in Europe is an essential part of the devastation caused to the Jewish people by the Shoah. It is one of them. It’s something we represent very clearly in Yad Vashem, but we do not represent exclusively that. We represent the many facets of Jewish life in Europe that were destroyed. That is a central one but not the only one we concentrate on.

During your years in New York, you encountered secular Jews, many of whom perceive the Holocaust as a defining aspect of their Jewish identity. Do you see any positive effects from this negative association?

During my term in New York, the biggest event in the yearly calendar was the Yom HaShoah Remembrance event organized by the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which drew thousands of people from all shades of the Jewish community. That being said, I think that in an era when politics and religion divide us — Israeli Jews against American Jews and also within Israeli and American communities — the Shoah can be a unifying force. As a person who is extremely passionate about Jewish peoplehood and the Israeli-Diaspora relationship, I definitely think that it can be a platform to create a greater Jewish unity.

On a personal note, do you have any family members whose lives were affected by the Holocaust and what impact did that have on you?

My father was born in Ukraine and his family fled because of the pogroms in Ukraine in the early 1920s; 50,000 Jews were murdered in those pogroms. We forgot about them to some extent because of the much more terrible calamity of the Holocaust, which came after. My father’s family left first to Poland and eventually to Argentina. My maternal family arrived in Argentina before WWI from Belarus and Moldova. But two of my father’s uncles stayed in Poland and they perished in the Holocaust.

I am very conscious of Jewish history, not only in things related to me and my family personally, but because, in general, I am a person that lives Jewish history, it’s always present in my mind. And that includes the darkest chapter in Jewish history, which is the Holocaust.

I remember once hearing you speak about a trip you took to New Square, New York, to attend a family simchah with Skverer Chassidim and your elation at being there. Can you share that experience?

I am very close to the Skverer Rebbe because my family in Europe were Skverer Chassidim. I forged a relationship with the Rebbe and he welcomed me very warmly. He told me more than once that I am not a guest at New Square and that I should feel at home. He used to invite me to all his simchos and I attended many of them.

While attending those simchos, like a wedding of the Rebbe’s grandchild, I used to ask myself why I was so elated. They are so different from me in their lifestyle and in many other things. I think the answer is that I am quite sure that the children of that marriage will remain Jewish. For me, Jewish continuity is extremely important.

The challenge of continuity also exists regarding Holocaust survivors, who are, sadly, dying out and taking their testimonies with them. How can we best preserve their memories and keep them relevant?

First of all, we take their testimonies in a myriad of techniques today on camera. But there is no doubt that as the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling our mission becomes much more challenging but also more important and vital.

What overriding message would you want visitors to Yad Vashem to take with them?

First of all, I want them to acquire knowledge. You, yourself, mentioned the fact that there is huge lack of knowledge about the Shoah. We’d like them to have knowledge of the facts. In terms of the future, there are many lessons of the Shoah. My two main lessons are for the vital and existential necessity of the Jewish State — an independent, robust, secure Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

The second is, when you see antisemitism you should not be complacent. You have to confront it immediately and forcefully. That includes not only groups in society but also fanatical and fundamentalist regimes and countries that call for the elimination of the Jewish State. You should not appease them but confront them directly before that bigotry develops into dimensions that are uncontrollable.