Dani Dayan: Using diplomacy, lobbying to advance Holocaust remembrance

No. 36 on The Jerusalem Post's Top 50 Most Influential Jews of 2022: Dani Dayan, chairman of Yad Vashem.

 Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Dani Dayan has served as the influential chairman of Yad Vashem since August 2021, hosting heads of state and other dignitaries – including US President Joe Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen – and visiting other important figures abroad, such as Pope Francis and, most recently, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer. Before moving to Yad Vashem, he served as Israel’s consul-general in New York (2016 to 2021), as chairman of the Yesha Council (2007 to 2013) and as an entrepreneur. 

Born in Buenos Aires 66 years ago, Dayan and his family made aliyah in 1971. Despite his past refusal to ever visit Germany and Austria due to their role in the Shoah, he says it was his job as chairman of Yad Vashem that prompted him to travel to Vienna recently and plan a trip to Berlin in January. Dayan says it is precisely his work at the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, as Yad Vashem is officially called, through which he came to appreciate that “Austria and Germany take responsibility for their crimes, and they look at their past with sincere remorse and regret.” 

In some ways, the record of Dayan’s activities during his first year in office reflects his background as a former lobbyist and diplomat. He travels, meets decision-makers and uses his political contacts to advance Holocaust remembrance and the fight against antisemitism. In an interview, Dayan explains how he has been promoting these goals in his recent meetings with world leaders.

You recently visited Austria for the first time in your life. So far, you had avoided traveling to the countries that perpetrated the Holocaust, which is also the reason that you have never been to Germany. What changed your mind?

It was not an easy decision for me. But my new work at Yad Vashem made me aware that since we can’t change the past, today’s crucial question is how nations relate to their history. I believe that both Austria and Germany take responsibility for their crimes and look at their past with sincere remorse and regret. That is why I decided to accept my invitation to Vienna and why I will also visit Germany next January.

 Pope Francis receives Yad Vashem Director Dani Dayan at the Vatican, June 9, 2022.  (credit: YAD VASHEM) Pope Francis receives Yad Vashem Director Dani Dayan at the Vatican, June 9, 2022. (credit: YAD VASHEM)
What did you achieve for Yad Vashem during your trip to Austria?

I signed a memorandum of understanding with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, based on which Yad Vashem will receive €1.5 million. This multi-year agreement will promote cooperation in the fields of research and education, allowing us to scrutinize under-researched aspects of the Holocaust in Austria, and instruct Austrian leaders, teachers and law-enforcement officials at Yad Vashem. 

In addition, I signed three more agreements. One with Austria’s education minister, Martin Polaschek, to continue existing joint educational projects; and two with the president of the Austrian Parliament, Wolfgang Sobotka, advancing cooperations with actors from the country’s entire political spectrum, excluding those that have some affinity to the Nazi party.

You expressed your appreciation for the way Austria came to deal with its Nazi past. Are there nevertheless challenges that the country still needs to meet in this regard? 

Throughout the last decade or two, Austria underwent an almost revolutionary process, as it broke with the assumption that it was the first victim of Nazi Germany. Gradually, it began to accept its responsibility [all the way] until today, admitting wholeheartedly that it was a perpetrator-country together with Germany. The challenge for the future is to make sure that this acknowledgment trickles down to all of Austria’s civil society, including the newly naturalized descendants of immigrants, who, two or three generations ago, fled to Austria as refugees. They, too, must understand that Austrian citizenship comes with historical responsibility.

Besides meeting the chancellor, various government ministers and the president of the Parliament, you also met with Austria’s president of state, Alexander Van der Bellen, and you addressed the Austrian Parliament. Such a high-profile itinerary is usually reserved for official visits by heads of the most powerful states…

I was indeed amazed by the high profile that was granted to my visit. Before my trip, I asked Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog if they wanted to send any messages. Both of them said that the Israeli-Austrian relationship is so good that their only request is that it remains as it is. 

I also would like to add that these excellent ties are neither confined to Austria’s current government nor to a particular political party but have a much broader basis. I also met with the head of the opposition in the Austrian Parliament, Social Democratic Party leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner, who, I learned, used to be a professor at Tel Aviv University and has a daughter who was born in Israel.

You will be traveling to Berlin in January. Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz faced strong criticism for his delayed response to remarks that Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas made during a joint press conference with him there in August. Abbas accused Israel of having committed ‘fifty Holocausts.’ You condemned these remarks as ‘repulsive.’

As Abbas made these comments, he was standing right next to Scholz, who first said nothing. It was only in the aftermath of the event that the German chancellor issued a repudiation of the PA leader’s comments. Has this affected your view of Germany as a country that appropriately deals with its history?

No, it did not. Obviously, it would have been better if Chancellor Scholz would have responded immediately. But ultimately his response was adequate. I referred to much deeper processes than a press conference.

From Berlin you will travel straight to New York. What is the occasion for that trip?

I am going to the United Nations headquarters, where, together with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, I will inaugurate a new exhibit: an updated version of the Book of Names on display at Yad Vashem’s exhibition at Block 27 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland. The new instillation will display 4.8 million names of Holocaust victims.