In early February 2020, Yad Vashem issued a media release from the undersigned—head of the International Institute of Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem—containing a clarification about factual inaccuracies and deficiencies in the illustrative videos shown at an event at Yad Vashem on 23 January 2020, concerning remembering of the Holocaust and fighting the new antisemitism. The clarification, and the regret and apology that it expressed about the mishap that had occurred, set in motion a wave of chain reactions that had nothing whatsoever to do with what had actually happened. The remarks below are meant to clarify systematically what did happen, explain the image that the public took away from it, refute this image, and articulate the final stance of Yad Vashem.
The event. The initiative to hold the forum in Jerusalem was taken by the World Holocaust Forum Foundation, established by Dr. Moshe Kantor in 2005. It was the Forum’s fifth gathering. (The four previous Forums were held in Poland [two gatheirngs], in Ukraine, and in the Czech Republic.) The event in Israel was held in association with the President’s Residence and Yad Vashem; it took place on the Yad Vashem campus. It was non-academic; its purpose was to promote remembrance of the Holocaust and the fight against contemporary antisemitism by bringing together leading members of the world’s political elite. The participation of nearly fifty kings and princes, presidents and vice-presidents, prime ministers and senior statespersons—an unexpectedly large turnout—attested at least to the recognition in principle of the importance of these goals. As part of the program, the event was accompanied by musical interludes and short illustrative videos. The clips were produced by a company that specializes in this field. Neither the World Holocaust Forum Foundation nor any other outside player was involved in the historical contents of the films. A historian from the staff of Yad Vashem stewarded the production company.
The contexts. The event did not take place in a vacuum. The centrality of the Holocaust in the public mind has grown immensely—since the 1970s in Western Europe and the Anglophone world, and with even greater intensity since the 1990s in Eastern Europe and the rest of the globe. This is the outcome of several processes that need not be elaborated here. However, as the importance of the Holocaust has grown in the consciousness, so is the Holocaust increasingly manipulated and distorted by various elements, including governments, particularly in Eastern Europe. In various countries, attempts have been made to promote certain narratives by passing threatening legislation, establishing highly questionable kinds of monuments, deliberately funding studies on “desired” topics and withholding funding from others, and restricting access to materials, among other tactics. Several cross-national elements recur in these narratives: understating the extent of local collaboration, accusing “others” of collaborating in the fate of the Jews (and sometimes even blaming the Jews themselves), inflating the extent of assistance to Jews and declaring it truly reflective of the “national character,” and emphasizing the victimhood of one’s own nationals (which undoubtedly existed) as equal to, if not more grievous than, that of the Jews. This tendency crested in recent months with mutual charges between the leaders of Russia and Poland.
For many of those who pursue these courses of action, Yad Vashem, whose reputation as an institution of Holocaust remembrance and research is unblemished, constitutes a problem. Its publications, its projects, its ways of teaching the topic to participants in its in-service activities, and its responses on various occasions do not square with the distorted narratives. Therefore, it is no wonder that in Poland, where tempers were already flaring in the public media discourse and elsewhere ahead of the forum, this event and its contents commanded special attention. (It was stated, inter alia, that the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, had not been invited to speak at the event. Contrary to vague reports published on the topic, the President of Poland was invited to speak but not on the day of the event itself, the schedule of which had been predetermined in accordance with the tradition of WHF conferences; instead, he was to be the sole foreign speaker the preceding evening at the Residence of the President of Israel. President Duda turned this invitation down.) Knowledgeable sources in Poland have informed us that people had been specially placed to follow every minute detail in the conduct of the event with a magnifying glass, with emphasis on the foreseen speech by the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. After Putin’s speech passed without providing any real pretext for criticism, the magnifying glass was re-trained on other elements of the event.
The clarification and the media. In the course of the forum, some of our people noticed historical inaccuracies in the accompanying videos (chiefly in regard to the second video, which concerned the demarches of Nazi Germany’s expansion and World War II), even though they flashed past quickly. At this time, a Polish journalist approached our people at the media center and noted a specific error in the video, pertaining to inaccurate maps that it presented. Our experts immediately sat down and reviewed the video painstakingly, confirmed that an error had occurred in this respect, and explained this to the journalist. Later, our clarification was published in the Polish media but was presented as a personal clarification made by the person who had been asked. Meticulous checks by our people revealed additional inaccuracies and deficiencies in the video in question—errors on which outside elements addressed no remarks to us. Among them were failure to mention the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact (August 23, 1939), which preceded the German offensive against Poland—an operation that touched off World War II and divided Poland into two occupation zones—lack of emphasis on collaboration by considerable parts of the populations of occupied Europe in persecuting and murdering Jews; and failure to distinguish between concentration camps and death camps.
During the week after the event, we began to look into the reasons for the ineffectiveness of our accepted level of quality control in the case at hand. Indeed, mishaps were found. One of the researchers at our Institute—the one who had been approached during the event itself—even published in the Times of Israel, per our decision, an article about the circumstances and reasons for World War II. Concurrently, the debate in Poland about the event became increasingly acrid and the question of the video became one of its topics. The film was interpreted as representing a “pro-Russian narrative” and was mobilized as an argument that justified the Polish Government’s attitude toward the forum generally. It was also referenced in criticism of Yad Vashem for ostensibly accepting this narrative—an allegation in which very harsh remarks were made. This interpretation, which related only to matters involving Poland and Russia and paid no attention to the topic at large, undoubtedly originated in the aforementioned war of narratives and in the coverage that the Israeli, Polish, and Russian media lavished on the visit of the President of Russia. Thus, the video (a marginal thing in itself) took on an importance that it did not merit. This biased interpretation was also liable to harm important researchers in Poland and elsewhere who do not march to the drum of the narrative that official Poland wishes to advance.
Under ordinary circumstances, it might have sufficed to delete the video from Yad Vashem’s YouTube channel—as indeed was done. When we weighed the need to issue a public clarification in this case, our first concern was our credibility as an institution that includes a research institute, followed by our integrity in view of the misinterpretation that the matter and its implications had acquired. In the clarification as published, the word “apology” appeared as well. It was addressed to the general public that is interested in a complex and balanced picture of the Holocaust. Importantly, it was not an apology to Poland, as some of the media depicted it.
When the clarification, expressed in the form of a letter to the editors of Ha’aretz, was released on Monday, February 3, the story took a new turn. The clarification was treated with high-priority importance; it went online at the paper’s site at once and appeared in the print edition in Hebrew the next day, in huge letters on the middle of the front page, under the headline, “Yad Vashem Issues an Exceptional Apology for Presenting False Pro-Russian Content at the Holocaust Forum.” Without asking the person who signed the clarification and, apparently, basing itself on the impression created by the aforementioned media context—in Israel and in Poland—the paper hurriedly, nay, immediately, construed the matter as though Yad Vashem had taken a stance on the Polish-Russian conflict of narratives. This interpretation was expressed acidly by the use of the word mesulaf (false) in the headline (and of the word silufim, falsifications, in the article proper), insinuating conscious evil intent. In the article itself and in a separate column, the groundless argument of outside intervention that deliberately guided the contents of the film, and the baseless idea that Yad Vashem had succumbed to a political dictate, were in effect adopted. Since Ha’aretz is thought to be an esteemed and reliable newspaper, this coverage unleashed an unstoppable deluge of articles and responses in the press and on social media in Israel and abroad, accepting this description as gospel. Furthermore, true to the manner of attention-seeking media, the headlines outdid themselves. Even when the matter was explained to some of the inquirers, the explanation was not accepted. Mishap? No way! The conspiratorial explanation was much more alluring.
Proportionality. Thus, a major commotion erupted over a minute matter—partly because of the high visibility of the event but mainly due to tussles over political memory in which we have no part. One of the headlines screamed “Fiasco.” Another (in Hebrew) employed a slick pun, “They lent a hand [yad] and lost their reputation [(va)shem].” The author of one of the articles defined the matter as a historical “tanking.” Each of these examples is an exercise in disproportional hyperbole. There was no political statement, no official authoritative academic publication, no study material to be taught for years to come—but rather a lone accompanying video clip that flashed past viewers’ eyes, very few of whom, including experts, noticed the errors that it contained. Such a video is not a tool that anyone would use to teach World War II and the Holocaust in any way. And needless to say, Yad Vashem does not accept those Russian narratives which do not square with the findings of research. That this is so, however, does not absolve us of the need to make repairs. Indeed, mishaps occurred in our institution’s accepted control procedures—and here lies the problem, because we are committed to our good name, integrity, and credibility, and to the correctness of the information that carries our imprint, on the basis of the latest available research knowledge. However, the matter was blown out of all proportion, leading to unchecked and even ridiculous commentary. The research reputation of Yad Vashem should—and can—be verified on the basis of the hundreds of books that we have published, the quality of our scientific journal, the research projects that we have carried out (such as our comprehensive mapping of transports and murder sites), the many conferences, workshops, and day events that we have held; and the level of scientific consultation that we have provided for individuals, organizations, and governments; to name only a few.
Going forward. Yad Vashem has conducted an internal review of its control processes and has prepared a revised procedure that will keep such mistakes from recurring. We reiterate what we stated in our initial clarification: As a public institution in Israel devoted to Holocaust remembrance and research, we are—and will remain—committed to the historical truth as best as it can be ascertained, and to research that defies those obfuscating and distorting attempts by the political discourse, that are underway in various countries.