Ever since its foundation in 1953 by an act of the Knesset, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has served admirably as Israel’s national memorial to the Holocaust. Millions of visitors have passed through its doors, along with scores of scholars and journalists who have benefited from its first-class library and other resources for research.
Yet not everything at Yad Vashem is rosy. Like any Israeli institution, it cannot really avoid the day-to-day pressures of competing political agendas. It also wrestles with the extent of its willingness to be co-opted in the service of Israeli foreign policy, especially when that policy demands making nice with countries with a record of Holocaust denial, such as Egypt, or Holocaust distortion, as is the case with much of Eastern Europe these days.
That challenge has become more complicated over the last decade as populist parties and politicians that sometimes sound right-wing and other times sound like they’re on the left have registered major electoral gains in Europe and the United States. Among those is the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right anti-immigrant party with an unhealthy nostalgia for Germany’s past that currently occupies 81 of the 736 seats in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, having won more than 10% of the national vote in the federal elections of 2017 and 2021.
Most of the AfD’s venom is reserved for immigrants, in keeping with its alignment with the “Great Replacement Theory.” Rooted in the last century, it posits that white, Christian civilization is being undermined and displaced by the arrival of large numbers of mainly Muslim immigrants of color. As with all conspiracy theories, its power lies in the ability to provide a simple, action-oriented interpretive framework for followers, encouraging them to dismiss rival views as black-ops propaganda at the same time. And while the theory is not explicitly antisemitic, it has been endorsed by avowed antisemites who regard mass immigration as merely one more arm of a vast global Jewish conspiracy. Among them is Robert Bowers, the neo-Nazi gunman who murdered 11 Jewish worshippers, most of them elderly, at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in October 2018. “HIAS [a Jewish humanitarian organization that resettles refugees] likes to bring invaders that kill our people,” Bowers posted on the fringe social-media platform Gab just before he carried out his atrocity. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”
Of course, there are degrees of extremism, and most of the AfD’s parliamentarians would doubtless abhor violence and disavow a callous killer like Bowers. Even so, they do share similar core ideas about nationality and identity, which means that the AfD is forced to cultivate its brand of aggressive German nationalism while circumventing accusations of neo-Nazism—not an easy feat.
Successive Israeli governments have refused to engage in any kind of dialogue with AfD, despite the party’s pro-Israel orientation, correctly understanding that its position has far more to do with its loathing of Muslims than its appreciation of the Jewish state that emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust. As a state-funded institution, Yad Vashem is obliged to follow this policy, but quite what that involves can be unclear on occasion.
Earlier this month, three representatives of the AfD—two members of parliament and a political aide— visited Yad Vashem, setting off a volley of criticism on Twitter that took the Holocaust memorial to task for permitting their presence. “This is a party that proudly features figures who call for legalizing Holocaust denial, whitewashing the record of the accursed Hitler and the removal of the Berlin Holocaust monument,” tweeted Yoav Lewy, a Germany-based Israeli journalist, at Yad Vashem’s chair Dani Dayan. “I find [the visit] a very sad event.”
Lewy invoked some of the occasions when AfD leaders, letting down their guard a little more than might be advisable, made offensive remarks regarding Jewish concerns. In a 2017 speech, the AfD’s leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, Björn Höcke, denounced the Holocaust memorial in Berlin by saying that “Germans are the only people in the world who have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital.” AfD members, meanwhile, rejected a proposal to expel Hoecke from the party’s ranks in May 2018.
In a similar vein, the former leader of the AfD’s parliamentary grouping, Alexander Gauland, wrote off the Nazi dictatorship as “bird sh*t on over 1,000 years of successful German history” in a speech in June 2018. Then, two years later, Gauland pushed back against a proposal to create a national holiday on May 8, the date of the Allied victory over the Nazis, arguing that “[Y]ou can’t make May 8 a happy day for Germany. For the concentration camp inmates it was a day of liberation. But it was also a day of absolute defeat, a day of the loss of large parts of Germany and the loss of national autonomy.”
Lewy is not alone in expressing disquiet at the thought of the followers of such people wandering the halls of Yad Vashem, where the full horror of the Holocaust is laid bare. But by the same token, Dayan’s response to him should be given its due—and not only because the Yad Vashem chair shares the same bleak view of the AfD and its program.
After clarifying that no Yad Vashem officials had met with the AfD delegation and that their request to lay a commemorative wreath relayed via the German embassy had been rejected, Dayan made a critical point. “Yad Vashem is open to all, especially to those in need of intensive Holocaust education,” he stated, making clear that this group would also include those identified as “antisemites.”
This was a basic but welcome restatement of Yad Vashem’s mission: to educate as many people as possible about the truth of the Holocaust and its lessons for today. In an age of epistemic quackery, when truth for many people is more about feeling than an unarguable set of facts, the opportunity to educate our adversaries should not be casually dismissed, even if that means holding our noses when they walk through the door.
Yes, we should have few illusions about the AfD and, indeed, its co-thinkers and sister parties elsewhere in Europe, but we should not disdain them automatically, particularly when our interests as a community are served by engaging them.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.