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Dani Dayan’s new paradigm for Yad Vashem: Fighting today’s antisemitism

After visiting Ivy League colleges in the U.S., the Yad Vashem chairman raises concerns about the ‘academization of antisemitism’

Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, was established in 1953 by the Israeli government with the aim of documenting, researching, educating and commemorating a singular mass event: the Holocaust.

Following Hamas’ massacre in southern Israel on Oct. 7 and the subsequent war in Gaza, however, the world-renowned institution’s chairman, Dani Dayan, believes it is time to “change the paradigm.” He sees a new role for Yad Vashem tackling the rampant rise in antisemitism and anti-Zionism, believing that the core of the issue lies in the administrative offices of Ivy League – and other – college campuses.   

“Until now, we thought this is not our problem, we are experts on pre-Holocaust antisemitism through to the Shoah and not necessarily modern antisemitism because it is not retroactively relevant to the Shoah,” Dayan, using the Hebrew word for Holocaust, told Jewish Insider in an interview. 

“But now, with the current situation and the magnitude of rampant antisemitism, I think that forces us to put our weight and our prestige on this issue too,” he said.

Dayan, Israel’s former consul general in New York, returned last week from a trip to the U.S., where he met with presidents, provosts and deans from Ivy League and other colleges on the East Coast, including Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University and Queens College – campuses that over the past two months have seen a sharp rise in antisemitic incidents, including physical harassment, of Jewish students.

Last month, two weeks after Hamas’ mass terror attack on southern Israel, Jewish students at Cornell University received death threats online from a fellow student. At Cooper Union College in New York, Jewish students were forced to shelter in a campus library during a pro-Palestinian demonstration. There have also been cases of faculty and staff at multiple universities celebrating Hamas’ atrocities, which saw more than 1,200 people murdered in Israel and a further 240 people taken captive, as well as forcibly condemning Israel’s military response in Gaza, where the death toll is said to have surpassed 15,000, as disproportionate and even genocide.   

According to data collected by the Anti-Defamation League, in the month following Hamas’ attack, antisemitic incidents in the U.S. increased by 316% compared to the same time period last year. Many of those incidents took place on college campuses.

Dayan also met with New York State Attorney General Letitia James while he was in the U.S., “because I am not naïve enough to think that education alone will do the job.” 

If there was any bright spot in his trip, Dayan said it was that he “found an amazing, amazing group of young Jewish students and young Jewish leaders in all the campuses I visited.”

Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan meets with Jewish students at Queens College Hillel Students

“If this is the next generation of American Jewish leadership, then we have a reason to be optimistic,” he told JI. “But that is where I conclude the good news.”

“Based on what they [Jewish students] described to me and the feelings I detected, I can sum it up with one word: ostracized,” said Dayan. “I sensed a deep feeling of ostracization from the rest of the student community.”

Dayan, who served as consul general from 2016-2020, said that he is very familiar with Ivy League institutions not only through his work as an Israeli diplomat but also as a father of a student at Columbia University.  

“I know about campus life intimately and without any intermediaries,” he said. “Back in 2018, 2019, 2020, we already thought the antisemitism situation on campus was really bad, but it is nothing compared to what is going on today.”

“What is happening today is much more violent, more aggressive and more extreme,” described Dayan, saying that he compared the rise in antisemitism on college campuses to a cancer. 

“I told the administrators that we had begged them to confront antisemitism and anti-Zionism on their campuses when it was in stage one, but they didn’t listen,” he said.

Now, continued Dayan, “we’ve reached stage two, which requires much more aggressive and sharper action to confront it and defeat it.”

“If they don’t deal with it now, in a few years, they will find themselves in stage three,” he said. “Then I have no doubt that it will include the physical attacks against Jewish students and other things that today we believe are unthinkable.”

“But they will happen,” Dayan warned. “It’s inevitable, that’s the nature of antisemitism – if it’s not stopped, it metastasizes into larger and larger dimensions.”

Then, he added, “we will reach stage four, and stage four is terminal, it has no cure.”

Dayan, who has headed Yad Vashem for the past two years, said that while it is Jews who ultimately suffer under rampant antisemitism, it will also have an impact on higher education in America, particularly on elite institutions.  

“They will pay an enormous price because while, of course, it hurts the Jews, it hurts the hosting societies and the hosting institutions no less,” he said, giving examples of German educational institutions that suffered before, during and after the Holocaust. “If they don’t start dealing with this for the Jews, then at least they need to do this for themselves.”

Asked if he thought the heads of the various institutions that met with him understood the urgency of the threat he was describing this time around, Dayan said that he did not think “one meeting, as loaded and as explicit as it was,” would do the job.

“I am determined to continue doing this,” he said, describing how his recent trip was planned at the last minute and that he intended to begin visiting more universities in the U.S., Europe and South America, where he was born and raised.

“I think that my task as chairman is to deal with the presidents and with the provosts and with the deans, and I intend to do it frequently and constantly,” said Dayan. “This is a change in Yad Vashem’s paradigm – we don’t deal with modern antisemitism, because modern antisemitism doesn’t retroactively influence the Shoah but under the current situation, we have to reconsider this paradigm.”

“I think we can really play a role in combating what they call the academization of antisemitism and the academization of the anti-Israel ideology, which is probably the source of all other manifestations of antisemitism on campus,” he concluded.

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