There are three reported reasons why the Netanyahu government is looking to fire Dani Dayan as head of the Israel’s Holocaust memorial center – ranging from a diplomatic push with far-right European parties to plain old revenge
The Biden administration, the European Union and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum all issued statements in recent days in support of Dani Dayan, who heads Yad Vashem – Israel’s national institution for commemoration of the Holocaust. To many supporters of Israel in the United States and elsewhere, these statements came as a surprise: They were not aware of any crisis at the respected, Jerusalem-based institution.
So what is happening at Yad Vashem, and how is it related to the policies of Israel’s far-right, ultranationalist government? Haaretz explains.
Dayan has been leading Yad Vashem since August 2021, after being appointed by the previous Israeli government headed by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. He succeeded the previous Yad Vashem chairman, Avner Shalev, who had retired after 18 years on the job. Dayan had served in the past as Israel’s consul general in New York – a role to which he was appointed in 2016 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Prior to that, he led the Yesha Council of settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Dayan was for years a Netanyahu supporter, but changed his view of the prime minister after completing his diplomatic service in the United States. In the March 2021 Israeli election, he was part of the New Hope party led by Gideon Sa’ar, who had left Likud in protest over Netanyahu’s adoption of a populist, Trumpist style of politics.
Ever since Netanyahu’s return to power in December 2022, his government has reportedly set its sights on replacing Dayan, even though there is no apparent justification for doing so. Dayan is highly appreciated among the professional ranks of Yad Vashem, enjoys consensus support in the Jewish Diaspora (where he won many allies during his years in New York) and has not been involved in any scandal during his time leading the institution. His two immediate predecessors both held the position for almost two decades.
At first, Dayan’s removal was seen as a relatively low priority for the government, which was focused exclusively on passing its controversial legislation against the judicial system. In recent weeks, however, there has been a renewed push to oust him and replace him with a Likud loyalist (though the national and international backlash may have caused the government to now rethink).
The main reason for this is seemingly a desire to punish a critic of the government. But there are other forces at play, which is perhaps why the Biden administration chose to get involved.
The current Netanyahu government is leading a diplomatic effort to “whitewash” far-right European parties with problematic histories of antisemitism and Holocaust denial. A recent example has been the decision by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to end Israel’s boycott of the far-right Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) party. There is a similar push regarding far-right parties in Sweden, Finland and, down the line, also the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Dayan has faithfully represented the position of Yad Vashem historians against legitimizing far-right European parties unless they unequivocally rid themselves of Holocaust denial. This has made him a thorn in the side of the Netanyahu government’s diplomatic agenda.
Yad Vashem has strongly opposed these efforts, warning that statements put out by these parties in which they express opposition to antisemitism, without fully accepting the historical facts of the Holocaust, should be treated with skepticism by Israel. In the Romanian case, Yad Vashem’s opposition to AUR was so persistent that Likud’s Cohen ordered the institution’s experts no longer be invited to meetings on the subject.
Behind this policy of recognizing far-right parties is a transparent diplomatic “deal”: Israel provides these parties with public legitimacy and a mark of approval that they are no longer antisemitic or Holocaust-denying. In return, these parties support Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
In the Romanian case, the Israeli ambassador came to his meeting with AUR leadership accompanied by Yossi Dagan, a settler leader who has spent years forging relations with Europe’s far right.
Dayan, as noted, is also a settler and opposes the two-state solution. But as chairman of Yad Vashem, he has given full backing to the historians and experts working for the institution, and has faithfully represented their position against legitimizing far-right European parties unless they unequivocally rid themselves of all forms of Holocaust denial. This has made him a thorn in the side of the Netanyahu government’s diplomatic agenda.
A chilling message
Last week, Israel’s Channel 12 reported another, pettier reason behind the efforts to replace Dayan. According to the report, Netanyahu and his wife Sara were offended by the fact that Keren Peles – a popular Israeli singer who has taken part in protests against the judicial overhaul – was invited to sing at a public Yad Vashem event that they both attended. As a result, they began to pressure Education Minister Yoav Kisch to oust Dayan.
None of the alleged reasons for seeking to replace Dayan are reassuring: the purely political motivation to install a loyalist at a nonpartisan, national consensus institution like Yad Vashem; the blatant attempt to remove a “troublemaker” who opposes ties with Holocaust deniers; or the alleged “insult” caused by Yad Vashem’s invitation of a popular singer who also happens to be a critic of the government.
One thing is clear: replacing Dayan under these circumstances would send a chilling message that Yad Vashem is not an independent institution, loyal to no one but the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. It would taint the institution as political and loyal to the desires and needs of a temporary government. And it would weaken Yad Vashem and provide ammunition for Holocaust deniers worldwide.