If Israel Wants to Avoid Nude Incidents at Death Camps, It Should Better Vet the Kids Traveling to Poland

The latest example of misbehavior at a concentration camp site suggests that maybe it would be better to postpone such trips until the youngsters reach the army or university

Ofer Aderet
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Young people marching between Auschwitz and Birkenau, April 12, 2018.
Young people marching between Auschwitz and Birkenau, April 12, 2018. Credit: Czarek Sokolowsk / AP
Ofer Aderet

Every year, some 40,000 Israeli teenagers go to Poland to visit the former Nazi concentration camps. Most of them don’t make the news and nobody hears about them. A successful trip, which ends as it’s expected to, doesn’t interest the news pages – not even when the teenagers returning from Poland hail from the Bedouin city of Rahat, full of impressions and insights.

The two students who exposed their buttocks Friday at the memorial site at Majdanek are an exception, whether or not it proves the rule. The students taking part in these trips are a representative sample of Israeli society. This is a society far from being a society of angels. It’s one where people fight over chocolate on an airliner or beat each other up in a hotel in Romania. It’s not Poland or a visit to the camps that brings out the bad in people.

In this sense, the bare bottoms revealed in Majdanek could also be seen at a party in the Greek isle of Santorini. It’s true that the trauma of encountering the horrors of the death camps can lead to extreme behavior – but here too we’re talking about negligible numbers, not a sweeping phenomenon.

And remember that it’s teenagers who go on the Poland trips, at an age when the hormones are rampant and the head is filled with wild ideas. Some of the students embark on this journey not only to learn a life lesson, but mainly for the fun of hanging out with friends on a subsidized trip abroad. There’s nothing wrong with that if educators know how to set boundaries for the students before and during the journey.

Sadly, some students take advantage of the trip to Poland to visit prostitutes, smoke drugs or visit casinos. Out of 40,000 students a year, there will always be such exceptions.

The question is how to reduce the number of these incidents while the trip is being prepared, so that “problematic” students can be identified and kept home. This is the main dilemma facing schools: the need to please both the parents and the Education Ministry.

The parents pressure the teachers and principals with questions like “by what right would my son not go on a trip?” And the Education Ministry pressures the teachers and principals to fill buses to make the trips economical and conform with the terms agreed on with the contractors. If students could be prescreened regarding the potential to interfere with a trip, the number of exceptional incidents could be minimized.

In this context, credit should go to the Education Ministry; it was good that it ordered the immediate return of the problematic students to Israel last week. This isn’t always the case. Sometimes school principals block the kids’ return home for fear of receiving negative headlines.

These types of unusual incidents don’t merit calls to “cancel the trips to Poland.” The discussion on the values such trips teach and their potential problems should happen regardless of the misbehavior every few months. Maybe it would be better to postpone Poland trips until the youngsters reach the army or university.