Those of us who live in the greater New York metropolitan area remember Dani Dayan as a moderately successful Israeli consul general in New York, who could never quite measure up to the warmth and charisma of his immediate predecessor, Ido Aharoni. He was, in the words that Barack Obama used to describe Hilary Clinton, “likeable enough.” But when he returned to Israel, he quickly became hyperpolitical, abandoned his patron, Benjamin Netanyahu, and joined forces with Gideon Saar in the New Hope Party, perhaps in the hope that he could rekindle his flailing political career.
It worked. After Naftali Bennet put together a coalition government and became prime minister, he rewarded Dayan in August 2021 by naming him head of Yad Vashem, Israel’s most hallowed institution — and one that Dayan was wholly unqualified to head.
Now, two years later, Dayan is back in the news because the global media is reporting that Israel’s education minister, Yoav Kisch, is trying to fire Dayan because he has failed at his job. Opponents of Netanyahu and his government swear that this is a political firing, meant to punish Dayan for his disloyalty.
But there is another reason why Dayan should have been fired more than a year ago, a cause I highlighted in a column that may have been little noticed at the time but shows just how degraded the venerated institution has become under his and perhaps even previous leadership.
In short, as I wrote in March of 2022, “Yad Vashem has slowly been bought and sold by Putin cronies and Russian oligarchs, using its unmatched credibility to whitewash their ill-gotten gains and ties to the foremost monster of the 21st century.”
Here is where Dayan comes into the picture. In early 2022, just a few months after Dayan became head of Israel’s greatest memorial to the six million, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, a close associate of Vladimir Putin, decided to give an eight-figure donation to Yad Vashem. This seemed to follow Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Shortly after the announcement of the donation, Dayan actually wrote a letter to the American ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides, begging the United States not to sanction Abramovich as a Putin stooge.
Are you kidding me? A Russian oligarch billionaire announces, say, a $10 million donation to Yad Vashem, right when the heat is on him for his pal Vlad’s invasion of Ukraine, and the head of Yad Vashem is acting as his lobbyist? Let me repeat that. THE HEAD OF YAD VASHEM WROTE A LETTER TO THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT PLEADING THE CASE OF A RUSSIAN OLIGARCH AFTER GETTING A HUGE DONATION.
Dayan should have been fired on the spot.
Here is how the Washington Post, under the headline, “Israel’s Holocaust museum is so dependent on a Russian oligarch that it wants to protect him from sanctions,” reported Dayan’s actions:
“Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial and museum, is embroiled in controversy after attempting to
intervene in planned sanctions against Israeli Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, a longtime supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a letter to U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides, Yad Vashem … asked that the United States not sanction Abramovich, a major donor to the memorial and … that sanctioning him would cause harm to Jewish institutions … said Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan. He said Abramovich was the museum’s second-largest private donor, after the late Sheldon Adelson and his widow, Miriam.”
Dayan has never responded to these essential questions. First, did the Abramovich donation come with strings?
Were there any stipulations that the sacred memory of six million Jewish martyrs be leveraged to protect the close friend of a fiend? Was this a case of pay-once-they-are-already-slayed? And finally, why the heck are any political appointments, from any party or prime minister whatsoever, tolerated at a place as holy as Yad Vashem? Is everything in Israel politicized?
We all remember how Prime Minister Bennet disgraced himself by traveling to Moscow on Shabbat, 5 March 2022, to meet with Vladimir Putin. How did a first-ever kippa-wearing, second-ever Orthodox Prime Minister of Israel justify not only traveling to legitimatize a tyrant, but do so on the holy Sabbath?
Let’s be clear. Israel has mostly had secular leaders, and Prime Minister Netanyahu is not Orthodox. But there has always been an understanding among Israel’s leaders that you don’t have meetings with other heads of state on the Sabbath, and you certainly don’t publicly travel on the Sabbath. Well, Bennet told us it was for “pikuach nefesh.” He was saving lives. Yes, a man as smart and accomplished as Naftali Bennet talked himself into the absurd and humiliating proposal that only he — the Jewish messiah — was going to change the dark heart of Vladimir Putin and get him to stop murdering babies in Ukraine. And it had to be that exact day. The Sabbath! And we see how many lives Bennet saved.
And that’s bad enough, the leader of the only Jewish country on earth, being the first head of state to sit with Vladimir Putin and grant him legitimacy after his horrid invasion of Ukraine. But leveraging Yad Vashem and the six million for cash to also legitimize his cronies?
A month before the covid-19 lockdowns, I traveled to Auschwitz for the 75th anniversary of liberation of extermination camp. There were almost no senior Israeli leaders present. Where were they? Well, just four days earlier, in Jerusalem. Yad Vashem organized its own 75th commemoration. But wait? The Jews were gassed not in Jerusalem but at Auschwitz.Why did Israel put on a commemoration that directly challenged and even belittled the commemoration at the actual death camp?
You guessed it. Another Russian oligarch. This time it was Moshe Kantor, a man accused of being another crony of Putin, who funded the Jerusalem commemoration through his World Holocaust Forum Foundation. Putin would never have gone to Poland — Poles hate him with the deepest loathing, and he returns the favor. So Kantor, it seems, with the help of Yad Vashem, stepped in to help the Russian killer save face, traveling to Jerusalem for the Red Army’s liberation commemoration instead of Auschwitz.
JTA says of Kantor, “He heads the multinational agrochemicals giant Acron Group, which is based in Russia… Kantor is that country’s 27th richest person with a fortune of $3.8 billion, according to Forbes.”
Seems like the dots are starting to come together. You don’t become a billionaire in Putin’s Russia without Vladimir Putin.
At the Jerusalem commemoration a documentary made by Yad Vashem aired that tragically distorted history in order to placate Putin. Yad Vashem was heavily criticized for going overboard in emphasizing the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazism, forgetting that it was Stalin who made a pact with Hitler to invade Poland in September 1939. That is what started the Second World War in the first place.
Yad Vashem was forced to apologize for presenting a film that “distorted” historical facts, essentially depicting Russia as the victor over Hitler. Yad Vashem acknowledged “inaccuracies” and “partial presentation of facts,” which “created an unbalanced impression.”
In placating Putin, Yad Vashem forgot that Putin collaborated in the slaughter of some 600,000 Arabs in Syria by Bashar Al Assad, who used poison gas on multiple occasions in the mass murder of children.
It’s time for Israel to clean house at the venerated Holocaust museum. When he was appointed, Dani Dayan had every incentive to rid Yad Vashem of the terrible Putin tarnish. Instead, he affixed his name and signature as the American ambassador to protect a Russian oligarch. He has to go.
As to the future, while the chair of Yad Vashem can be nominated by the political leadership, as the head of the Holocaust museum is here in the United States, it should be vetted by a group of world-class Israeli historians of the Holocaust, just as the same should be done in Washington with American scholars. Most important, a committee of survivors should be given veto power to make sure Yad Vashem is chaired by people of impeccable character and professionalism. Finally, as I wrote in 2022, “Yad Vashem must act with complete transparency making it absolutely clear to all donors that while funding Holocaust memory is of monumental significance, no favors whatsoever will be afforded to those who do so, aside from the recompense of the unparalleled mitzvah of never forgetting those whose sacred tomb is the subsequent generation’s memory.”
To learn more about this story, see the JTA report on page 34.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood is the author of 33 books, including most recently “Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell.” Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.