What Happens When a Holocaust Memorial Plays Host to Autocrats (New York Times, Dec. 8, 2018)

Yad Vashem is both a memorial of a genocide, and a tool of Israeli realpolitik.

By Matti Friedman, New York Times  Op-Ed Section

JERUSALEM — The quiet campus of Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial and museum, sits atop a wooded hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem, removed from the rush of the city. It can feel like a secluded shrine, a place not quite of this time. But the famous institution now finds itself at the center of a very 21st-century storm, a barometer of a political climate changing in the world outside its walls.

Yad Vashem, and the state that houses it, were founded by Jews forced from their homes by chauvinistic nationalism and survivors of the European genocide that was the logical conclusion of those ideas. The museum and Israel flourished in years when those ideas were assumed to have been conclusively discredited.

Today, however, some of those beliefs are rising once again across Europe and in the United States, and Israel finds itself courted by some of their practitioners: right-wing politicians who might stoke animosity to Jews and other minorities at home but who also admire the state of Israel.

The Israel they see is not a liberal or cosmopolitan enclave created by socialists, but the nation-state of a coherent ethnic group suspicious of super-national fantasies, a tough military power and a bulwark against the Islamic world. And these leaders have sought and found good ties with the right-wing coalition currently in power here.

For a sense of this political shift, one need only look at the guest book at Yad Vashem. The memorial is an important stop on the tour for visiting dignitaries, and in the past half-year they have included the nationalist Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, one of the most prominent faces of the new political wave, which Mr. Orban calls “illiberal democracy.” Another was President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who once compared himself to Hitler and meant it as a compliment to Hitler and to himself. Brazil’s new populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, has said one of his first foreign trips will be to Israel, which means that Yad Vashem can expect him soon. Matteo Salvini, the nationalist deputy prime minister of Italy, is expected in Jerusalem this month.

Employees at Yad Vashem aren’t allowed to speak to the media without permission, and permission to discuss these sensitive matters hasn’t been forthcoming. One senior researcher cut off our conversation as soon as I explained what interested me. The institution’s chairman was not made available for an interview and a spokeswoman simply emailed: “Yad Vashem is not party to the formulation or implementation of Israeli’s foreign policy.”

But inside the offices and archives at Yad Vashem, the argument is getting louder.

“There is distress here, and even anger,” a staff member told me, “because many of us see a collision between what we believe are the lessons of the Holocaust and what we see as our job, and between the way Yad Vashem is being abused for political purposes.”

(Read the rest here.)