Yad Vashem chair says he underestimated antisemitism in America

The Holocaust showed us that antisemitism can rise to monstrous proportions, and we must be vigilant, Dani Dayan said. 

By Donna Rachel Edmunds, World Israel News

The Holocaust taught the world that, left unchecked, antisemitism can rise to monstrous proportions – and we should be vigilant when we see signs of antisemitism rising in our own time, the chairman of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center has said.

In America to attend a virtual gala hosted by the American Society for Yad Vashem, held on Sunday – the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht – Dani Dayan told JNS “We know today what the generation of the 1930s didn’t understand. They didn’t believe that it can grow to monstrous dimensions. We know that today.”

Dayan is back in the States for the first time since leaving his former position as the Israeli Consul General in New York, a position he held between 2016 and 2020. He admitted that when he first arrived in the States he was unprepared for the levels of antisemitism he found there, believing it to mostly be an “overblown phenomenon.”

“But then, during my term, 15 Jews were murdered in anti-Semitic attacks,” he said. “11 in Pittsburgh; one in Poway, California; two in Jersey City, New Jersey; and one in Monsey, New York. So after 15 murders, it’s very difficult to claim that it is a bogus phenomenon.”

Not only was that antisemitism to be found on the right, it also manifested as anti-Zionism on the left, and was prevalent in the ideologies of some groups and their leaders, such as Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, and also the Black Hebrew Israelites, who influenced the people who carried out the attack in a kosher supermarket in New Jersey.

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“We have to combat all its manifestations,” Dayan told JNS. “When you not only see a society in which there are signs of antisemitism and bigotry, but regimes that are fanatic, fundamentalist and call for the annihilation of the Jewish state, you have to react immediately and forcibly because otherwise, it could come to a magnitude that will be impossible to deal with. I think that’s probably the most important historical lesson from the Shoah.”

However, some progress has been made. Dayan pointed out that, whereas even toward the end of the 20th Century holocaust denial was rife, now it has been mostly pushed to the far fringes of opinion.

“It may surprise you, Holocaust denial is not a real issue today,” he said. “There is no serious Holocaust denier except for the fringe elements on social media; no respectable leader or politician or figure will deny that the Holocaust happened. That was not the case 30 years ago, when there was a movement of denial even [among] intellectuals.”

On the other hand, Dayan believes some European nations and political parties could do more to acknowledge the part they played in the Holocaust, instead of downplaying or even attempting to erase their culpability.

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“Unfortunately, in European countries, the Nazis had collaborators—without them, it would have been impossible to carry out the malicious design, and those countries should acknowledge that,” he said. “It’s not enough to acknowledge that the Germans killed 6 million Jews; each country should also acknowledge what their own people did.”

A recent survey in the UK found that more than half of Britons were not aware that six million people were murdered in the Holocaust. The study by Schoen Cooperman Research, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) found that nine percent believe two million Jews were killed, while 13 percent put that number at one million or less. And while 89 percent of respondents knew about the Holocaust, though only 75 percent understood that it refers to the genocide of European Jews.

Speaking more broadly on the role of Yad Vashem, Dayan commented: “One of the interesting things that I value in [the] Holocaust remembrance that Yad Vashem leads, is that it’s one of the things that unites Jews across the ocean. There are many issues that divide us: political issues, religious issues and others, while the remembrance of the Holocaust is one that unites us in our pain, in our grief, and to some extent, also in the lessons we learn from the Shoah.”

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Not only does Holocaust remembrance have the power to unite Jews worldwide, Dayan believes the role of Yad Vashem is to teach the universal truths that bind all humans to one another.

“One of the quotes that is most moving for me is that the Holocaust [was not] the assassination of 6 million Jews, but is 6 million assassinations of one Jew each. In the Holocaust, 6 million individuals were murdered, and we have an obligation both towards them and towards future generations to know everything about it,” said Dayan. “They expected us when they went to the gas chambers that we will not forget them, and we will strive to know exactly what happened to them.”

Meanwhile, the US’s ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is due to visit Yad Vashem on Monday. Departing CEO Dorit Novak and incoming CEO Tzvika Feireizen will both accompany her, as will and Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan.