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Yad Vashem memorial chairman flags surge in antisemitism

January 18, 2023

Speaking to DW, Dani Dayan, chairman of the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, warns leaders to act immediately against rising antisemitism. He urges people to remember the Holocaust and take action before it's too late

Dani Dayan
Dani Dayan is the head of the Holocaust Memorial Yad VashemImage: Alex Kolomoisky/Yad Vashem

"Antisemitism, unfortunately, is thriving again in the world," says Dani Dayan. For the past year and a half, the 67-year-old has been chairman of Yad Vashem, the world's most important Holocaust memorial, located on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem.

The growing hatred of Jews worldwide, Dayan told DW's Rebecca Ritters, is what prompts him to warn every world leader who visits Yad Vashem, "When you see antisemitism, act immediately, don't wait. If you wait, antisemitism will metastasize into monstrous dimensions and it will be impossible to stop it."

On January 22, Dayan will visit Germany for the first time in his life. It's been a long journey, and not just because Dayan was born in Argentina in 1955 and lived there until his family moved to Israel in 1971. In Israel, he rose to become one of the political leaders of the Israeli settler movement in the occupied West Bank. Dayan insists that his political past no longer matters. Since his appointment as head of Yad Vashem, Dayan says he has erected "a firewall" between himself and politics. His current mission, he says, is "sacred" to him.

When he was young, Dayan vowed never to travel to Germany, the country of the Holocaust perpetrators. "But it has nothing to do with hate or something like that. On the contrary, it's everything about memory," he says. "It's to give my respect to the six million Jews who were murdered."

'Antisemitism is thriving again in the world'

Beware the beginnings

Though the world has seen a rise in public antisemitism, Dayan underlines the differences between the world today and the 1930s, when the National Socialist movement around Adolf Hitler was gaining strength in Germany and resulted in the mass murder of European Jews.

The situation today is not like it was then, "we are far from it," Dayan says. But unlike people 80 years ago, he says, people today know what can develop from dangerous beginnings.

"Probably they had the privilege to believe, the naivete to believe, that they can burn books and can burn synagogues, but will never burn human beings," he says in reference to the time before the Holocaust. "We don't have that privilege." That is why, he concludes, we have such a big responsibility today to fight antisemitism, racism, and xenophobia.

Facade of Kiel synagogue with shattered windows and stained by fire
During the pogrom in November 1938 synagogues across Germany were destroyedImage: dpa/picture-alliance

First meeting at Yad Vashem

Dayan's upcoming visit follows an invitation from the president of the German federal parliament, the Bundestag, Bärbel Bas, who visited Israel in April 2022. She became the first high-ranking German official to take part in the annual Holocaust commemoration ceremony at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, where the names of victims are read out. Bas also visited Yad Vashem, where Dayan presented her with a research paper on Irma Nathan, a Jewish woman from Bas' hometown of Duisburg, whom the Nazis murdered in 1942.

In turn, Bas invited Dayan to open an exhibition at the Bundestag in Berlin ahead of this year's International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. Both were at the opening of the exhibition, entitled "Sixteen Objects — Seventy Years of Yad Vashem," on Tuesday, at Paul Löbe House, one of the Bundestag buildings next to the Reichstag.

'Sixteen Objects' exhibition marks 70 years of Yad Vashem

The exhibition includes 16 objects from the Yad Vashem collection, along with testimonies of the everyday lives of Jews who had to leave Germany or were murdered by the Nazis: including children's toys, a Hanukkah menorah, a diary, and a piano. Sixteen objects from the 16 German states that recall both history and lost life stories.

Yad Vashem, established almost 70 years ago in August 1953, also uses such objects to keep memories alive. The Hebrew name "Yad Vashem" is borrowed from the book of the prophet Isaiah in the Bible and means "a memorial and a name."

"Some of the artifacts that we have here — if you are a human being they will bring you to tears immediately the moment you see them," Dayan says.

Pages of Testimony on the wall of the Hall of Names
Pages of testimony of more than 4,000,000 Jewish Holocaust victims are preserved in the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem History MuseumImage: Nir Alon/ ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

'Race against time'

Today,the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling. Only a few elderly people can still offer younger generations a first-hand account, and Dayan looks ahead to the time when the survivors have gone: "It's clear that our work will be much more difficult, but it also will be much more important," he says. "Because when that happens, I am convinced that will be the happy hour of the denialists and the distortionists that exist also today. But then they will thrive. And that's one of the reasons we are in a race against the clock, against the calendar."

Dayan sees the commemoration of the Shoah as a very powerful tool in the fight against antisemitism. "We do not try to educate the antisemites," he said. "We try to educate the decent people of the world — who I believe are the vast majority — to stand against antisemitism."

The Yad Vashem chief explains this with two examples: Two US celebrities who have attracted attention with controversial statements in recent months. One is Rapper Ye, better known as Kanye West, who has made several vehemently anti-Jewish statements, drawing on common stereotypes. "He is clearly an antisemite," says Dayan. "I wouldn't bring Kanye West to Yad Vashem because it's a waste of time."

By contrast, he would invite actress Whoopi Goldberg, who once described the Shoah as a conflict between two white groups that had nothing to do with racial hatred. "That's nonsense," Dayan says. "That's not antisemitic. That's ignorance. She simply doesn't know the facts that the Nazis saw the Jewish people — right or wrong — as a race. And there was no conflict between Jews and the Nazis. There was an onslaught of the Nazis against the Jews."

Bärbel Bas laying a wreath near the eternal flame at the Hall of Remembrance
The president of the German Bundestag, Bärbel Bas, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in April 2022Image: Menahem Kahana/AFP

High-level meetings planned in Berlin

On his first trip to Germany, Dayan will spend two days in Berlin. In addititon to Bundestag President Bärbel Bas, he is scheduled to meet German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Olaf Scholz, among other leading politicians, including German Finance Minister Christian Lindner, leading Green Party members and the opposition leader from Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Friedrich Merz. Dayan will also visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the center of Berlin and the Jewish Museum, as well as members of the Jewish community of Berlin.

In the evening after the opening of the exhibition, he will travel to New York. His work is about keeping "the flame of Holocaust remembrance alight," Dayan says. "How do we keep the Shoah unique? We educate and we legislate and we enforce the law in order to make sure that that terrible event of the 20th century never happens again. Not to the Jewish people, not to any other people."

This article was originally written in German.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C