The Israel Defense Forces has been "stunned" by the findings of a new study which says an officers' visitation program to Nazi death camps, meant to reinforce Jewish and national values, has had the opposite effect on up to 20 percent of the soldiers.
The program, called Witnesses in Uniform, was founded in the 1990s and involves IDF officers visiting death camps in Poland. It was greatly expanded in the mid-2000s, under former Chief of Staff (and current Vice Prime Minister ) Moshe Ya'alon. Today, some 3,000 career officers a year make the trip, which is preceded by a mandatory seminar at either the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem or the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum in the Western Galilee. Altogether, some 25,000 officers have participated in the program over the last decade.
With the army's consent, researchers from the Ariel University Center spent the last 18 months doing in-depth interviews with 600 participants to examine the trip's influence on them. Army sources said they were "stunned" by the findings, which seem to indicate that the trips are achieving the opposite of their declared purpose.
The study found that before going on the trip, officers expressed a very high level of commitment to the Jewish people and to preserving their Jewish heritage, and high levels of solidarity with the fate of other Jews.
In contrast, they expressed a lower - though still high - level of commitment to more universalist ideas, such as understanding the universal context of the Holocaust.
After they returned from the trips, however, the researchers found a drop in commitment to all values related to Jewish identity, including the importance of the Land of Israel for the Jewish people, the importance of the IDF's existence, feelings of national pride in being Israeli, and a sense of a shared Jewish fate.
The study found a particularly dramatic decline in the importance the officers attached to Jewish and Israeli symbols, and to Diaspora Jewry.
The trips also produced a decline in IDF-related values, including commitment to the state and the army, feelings of leadership, and love of heroism.
In contrast, the trips produced no change in the officers' commitment to universal democratic values such as human dignity, the sanctity of life and tolerance.
These findings are the exact opposite of a large-scale study that the same researchers did on how death-camp visits affected high-school students. That study, conducted for the Education Ministry in 2009 and published in 2011, also found that the trips left commitment to universal values unchanged, but found that they strengthened Jewish and national values.
After the trips, students expressed greater levels of identification, with statements such as: "I understand the importance of the Israel Defense Forces' existence"; "I understand the importance of the Land of Israel for the Jewish people"; and "I feel more national pride in being Israeli."
The IDF study also examined the participants' sources of knowledge about the Holocaust. It found that 88 percent cited visits to museums, 67 percent cited films and plays, and 64 percent cited television, radio and newspapers. However, only 50 percent said they had read books about the Holocaust.
The new study was conducted by Dr. Nitza Davidovich and Prof. Dan Soan, together with Brig. Gen. (res. ) Amir Heskel. It was recently published in a book edited by Davidovich and Soan called "Remembering the Holocaust - Issues and Challenges." The findings were also presented to the IDF's chief education officer.
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