Citing Social Climate, Israeli High School Stops Annual Poland Trips

The trips serve to deligitimize the 'other' in the current ultranationalist atmosphere, says high school principal.

A girl with an Israeli flag walks through the former Nazi death camp of Birkenau in southern Poland, April 21, 2009.
Reuters

A Tel Aviv high school will no longer be sending annual delegations to visit extermination camps in Poland. Zeev Dagani, the principal of the Gymnasia Herzliya High School in Tel Aviv, announced his decision last week after consulting with members of the school board and the parents’ committee.

Presently, most Israeli high schools organize trips to Poland, but not all the students participate, mainly due to the high cost of the trip — several thousand shekels. The trip is usually five days long and includes visits to the sites of the extermination and concentration camps Auschwitz Birkenau, Majdanek and Treblinka, and to the cities of Warsaw and Krakow.

At Gymnasia Herzliya, about half the students in each class participate in the trip. Instead of the Poland visits, the high schoolers will conduct five-day trips throughout Israel, during which the students will meet with various population groups and people with special needs.

Dagani cites several reasons for the decision. First, the trip to Poland has become very expensive over the years. “The number of students participating steadily declined on its own,” he says. “It’s starting to be a trip for the rich. I see that fewer and fewer children from homes that are less well off financially are going. Parents make efforts to send children, and in the end the children come back and say that the most significant thing was social solidarity. It seems to me somewhat absurd to travel to Poland in order to strengthen social bonds.”

Dagani also adds that the emotional burden on the teens is another reason for stopping the trips. “It’s a trip that, if you take it seriously, is too emotionally fraught for 16- and 17-year-olds, and there are children for whom it’s very difficult,” he adds.

The main reason, and perhaps the most controversial, according to Dagani, is the ultranationalist influences on the teenagers, who are approaching military age. “Some of the children who go on the trip return from it more chauvinistic, and I definitely think that that’s not how the trip should be,” he explains. “If there is a humane and universalist atmosphere in society or in the country, the trip can strengthen these messages, but when the atmosphere in the nation today is delegitimization of the other and when the atmosphere in society is ultranationaist, then this trip serves those trends."

“The trip in recent years is a trip with tendencies that are more belligerent and more suited to the atmosphere and the regime in Israel, which includes hatred of the other and fear of the other,” says Dagani. He also notes that “this subject is too important for only 50 percent to go on the trip and learn it and another 50 percent to miss out. We want to intensify the study of the subject, and we want all the students to undergo learning experiences.”

As part of the alternative study program, Gymnasia Herzliya will dedicate 30 percent of the history curriculum to teaching about the Holocaust and genocide. Students will learn not only about atrocities committed against the Jews but also about mass extermination of Armenians and Roma and the genocide in Rwanda. In addition, says Dagani, “instead of the trip to Poland, we will all go together on a five-day trip throughout the country and learn about Israeli phenomena, some of which resulted from the Holocaust. I think that all these things taken together create a justification for the alternative we are suggesting. It will be an experiential study trip.”

There are now a small number of Israeli high schools that have cancelled their trips to Poland in favor of other activities. Dagani consulted with one of the most prominent such schools, the Israel Arts and Science Academy in Jerusalem.

Dr. Shula Gelerstein, the chair of the Gymnasia Herzliya parents’ committee and the mother of a 12th grader at the school, believes that this is a right step and confirms that most of the parents agreed with the decision to cancel the trips. “I participated in the committee for the trip to Poland, and we noticed that in recent years no more than 50 to 55 percent of the students in the grade went,” she says. “We realized that there’s a problem with the costs. Before making the decision, Dagani met with the parents of the 11th graders and the parents’ committee. Each member of the committee expressed his opinion and there was almost unanimous agreement to cancel the trips to Poland and to think of an alternative trip."

"What also bothered me at the time is that the trip was not always seen as a study trip, but as a more enjoyable experience. And that was a missed opportunity," says Gelerstein. “We decided that the children would visit centers for Holocaust survivors that are adjacent to psychiatric hospitals, and see that there are Holocaust survivors there who have no other alternative, and who are mentally frail. One of the recommendations is to include visits there, to help, to volunteer and to hear from the survivors about what they experienced."

The Education Ministry stated that it “encourages Israeli students to visit the vestiges of the Jewish communities in Poland and the extermination camps sites. This trip is meant to strengthen the students’ affiliation with the Jewish people and their link to its heritage and its generations. It should be emphasized that this is a privilege and not an obligation, and the decision as to whether or not to visit Poland remains in the hands of the school principals.”

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