TEL AVIV — Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial and museum, is embroiled in controversy after attempting to intervene in planned sanctions against Israeli Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, owner of the Chelsea Premier League soccer team and a longtime supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In a letter to U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides, Yad Vashem, together with the country’s chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau and Sheba Medical Center Director Yitshak Kreiss, asked that the United States not sanction Abramovich, a major donor to the memorial and other Jewish causes. They said that sanctioning him would cause harm to Jewish institutions that rely on him for donations, said Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan, who said that Abramovich was the museum’s second largest private donor, after Miri and Sheldon Adelson.
“Mr. Abramovich has contributed to worthy causes for more than a decade,” said Dayan. “As far as I know, Mr. Abramovich doesn’t have any links to Mr. Putin.”
Israel has walked a diplomatic tightrope in its response to the war in Ukraine. Israeli officials have said that they support Ukraine, a country with the only other Jewish head of state in the world and what they call a liberal democratic ally. But they are wary of provoking Russia, which backs the Syrian regime on Israel’s northern border and has unofficially allowed Israel to carry out strikes against efforts to transfer weapons to Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite group, in Lebanon.
Jerusalem has refused several requests from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, including the transfer of military equipment.
Israel’s ambiguity about the Ukraine invasion was on display Wednesday, when Israeli and German leaders gathered at the Yad Vashem memorial vowing to prevent the loss of life in Ukraine — without publicly mentioning Russia.
“Our responsibility is to do everything we can to prevent bloodshed. It’s not too late,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a joint statement with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. “Our policy is measured and responsible.”
Bennett also did not mention the Russian missile that smashed into Ukraine’s own Holocaust memorial in Kyiv the night before. The strike killed at least five people.
Yad Vashem itself did issue a “vehement condemnation” of the missile strike on Tuesday night.
Scholz’s visit comes a week after Yad Vashem and Roman Abramovich announced a new partnership to fund research and contribute to new projects, including two new versions of the Book of Names, according to a statement on the museum’s website.
The donation was in the “eight figures,” according to Yad Vashem spokesperson Simmy Allen.
On Sunday, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid warned ministers against offering assistance to Russian Jewish oligarchs who were being targeted by international sanctions or were liable to be sanctioned in the future, according to a person present at the meeting.
Lapid told the ministers that the United States and European countries were planning to apply sanctions to Russian oligarchs believed to be part of Putin’s inner circle, including a number who are Jewish and have interests in Israel. He said that ministers who promised favors for them could cause diplomatic damage to Israel, added the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
On Saturday, Abramovich announced that he decided to give control of Chelsea to trustees of the club’s charitable foundation. The team is not for sale.
On Monday, the European Union slapped sanctions on the Ukrainian-born Russian billionaire banker Mikhail Fridman, who lives in London and holds Israeli citizenship.
Over the weekend, Fridman described the war as a “tragedy” and said that war “can never be the answer.” But in a news conference with journalists in London, he said that he would not directly criticize Putin’s invasion of Ukraine so as to avoid reprisals against his employees.
Following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, a community of wealthy dual Israeli Russian citizens immigrated to Israel in part to avoid the resulting American sanctions.
Sophie Shulman, an Israeli Russian journalist focusing on the oligarch community in Israel, said that Jewish Russian oligarchs have taken on Israeli citizenship, purchased homes and invested in Israeli tech companies but usually do not live permanently in Israel. Many come to celebrate Passover in the Negev desert, Shulman said.
“They see Israel as the place to be in case their world collapses around them,” she said.