More than 20 years ago, a senior Israeli cabinet member came under fire for questioning the efficacy of state-sponsored high school trips to Auschwitz.
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The project was barely in its infancy when Shulamit Aloni, then the education minister, expressed her repugnance for young Israelis who “march with unfurled flags, as if they’ve come to conquer Poland.” The death-camp pilgrimages, warned the former leader of the Israeli left, were creating a generation of xenophobes obsessed with the notion of Jewish might, but largely blind to the Holocaust’s universal lessons.
By now, the trips to Poland have become a rite of passage for young Israelis – as much a part of their initiation into adulthood as their service in the military and their post-army treks through Nepal. And current Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the most right-wing party in the governing coalition, is a big fan.
To be sure, the trips have long been shrouded in controversy. Questions persist about the high costs, the message, and the ability of teenagers to handle the wrenching experience. But until recently, nobody dared be a party pooper.
In 2010, the Israel Arts and Science Academy, an elite boarding school in Jerusalem, became the first high school in the country to stop sending students to Poland. Few paid heed, however, because the academy was a relatively new, small private school – hardly a well-known institution.
But last month, when Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya, the oldest Hebrew high school in the country, became the first large public school to buck the trend, the nation took note. Citing the dangerous rise of nationalism in Israel, principal Zeev Degani announced that as of next year, Gymnasia Herzliya would no longer be sending delegations to Poland. Instead, it would find ways to educate its students at home about the Holocaust.
Ironi Alef High School of the Arts, another long-established Tel Aviv institution, is set to vote later this month on whether to follow suit. Indicating a possible domino effect, the head of the national association of high school principals has let it be known, through private channels, that he too supports scrapping the trips.
But Yair Auron, a historian and expert on Holocaust and genocide studies, says it would be premature to speak of a trend. “I would be happy to be proven wrong, but I can’t see it happening as long as we have someone running the Ministry of Education who sees these trips as a way of promoting his nationalist agenda,” says Auron, a professor at the Open University of Israel.
From the moment he stepped into his job seven years ago, Degani, the outspoken and charismatic principal of Gymasia Herzliya, said he had reservations about the trips. But only now did he feel the time was ripe to act.
“As I see it, this is our antidote – and pardon the expression – to the process of fascisization that is taking over politics in this country,” he told Haaretz.
A child of Holocaust survivors, Degani has never traveled himself to Poland “as a matter of principle,” he says, but has always been curious about how his students experienced the trips.
“Year after year, I would ask them what was the most meaningful part of the trip for them, and time and again I’d get the same answer – that the experience had made them more socially cohesive as a group,” he says.
“Well, if the whole point was to make them more socially cohesive, why not just send them all on a trip in Israel to the Negev? It’s a lot cheaper.”
The Israel Arts and Science Academy reached its decision for different reasons. “Because we’re a boarding school, we’re able to interact a lot more with our students and see what’s happening with them on a 24/7 basis,” says the principal, Etay Benovich. “Some of the students went through very difficult emotional experiences when they returned from Poland, which made us realize it wasn’t the right thing for every 17-year-old.”
And not only for that reason are the trips not age-appropriate, says Auron, the historian. “If they could visit Poland at age 30, that would obviously be much better,” he says.
“But to take young people there, just before they enlist in the army, and try to create an emotional experience for them – not an intellectual experience, but an emotional experience – and to tell them afterward, both directly and by means of suggestion, that now you understand why we need a strong army and why we can’t rely on others – to me, that’s just not right.”
Price-rigging and profiteering
At about 6,000 shekels per student ($1,600), the high costs of these often-dubbed “trips for the rich” are a common complaint. (Even though limited government funding is available for needy students, many still can’t afford to participate in the weeklong pilgrimages, which could partly explain why on average less than half of eligible students in a given class end up going.)
No doubt another contributing factor to the recent backlash has been an exposé on price-rigging and profiteering among trip operators. Earlier this year, officials at six leading tour companies, subcontracted by the Education Ministry, were investigated by the police after they had allegedly conspired to eliminate price competition in their niche market.
“If you go on your own – and we checked this out – it costs less than half the price that these companies charge,” says Degani. “The fact that lots of people are making money, and lots of money, off of Holocaust commemoration – that to my mind makes the whole thing illegitimate.”
40,000 participants a year
The government, through the Education Ministry, began sponsoring organized trips to Poland for high school students in 1988. The trips are voluntary, and schools are given considerable leeway in deciding their content, the only requirement being that students visit Auschwitz.
In earlier years, the trips consisted almost exclusively of visits to the sites of the death camps and Jewish ghettos. More recently, lighter elements have been added, including explorations of Jewish life in prewar Poland, folklore evenings and shopping trips.
According to Dani Rozner, the official responsible at the Education Ministry, the number of student participants has been growing constantly, approaching 40,000 annually in recent years, with delegations from 400 high schools around the country.
“As we see it, our main challenge is making sure that all those students participating are emotionally prepared,” he says.
Although the high school history curriculum includes a basic section on the Holocaust, students taking part in the Poland trips benefit from additional enrichment classes and activities, both before setting out and after their return. Degani, the principal of Gymnasia Herzliya, says this was another reason for his objections.
“Next year, all of the students, not just half of them, will learn about the Shoah because we will take a five-day journey around Israel to study about it, and for once, we will do it altogether,” he says.
Not all are as down on the trips as Degani. Eilon Nave, principal of another large high school in central Israel, Ahad Ha’am in Petah Tikva, believes they meld well with his institution’s mission of engaging with marginalized and disadvantaged communities (noting, for example, its collaboration with a nearby Arab school). Like other advocates of the program, Nave says nothing beats the experience of being there to gain an understanding of what happened.
“As a history teacher, I’m a big believer in visiting the sites where major events took place,” he says. “That holds true not only for the Holocaust, but also for the history of the State of Israel.”
And if students return from Poland, as most do, with a greater appreciation for Israel, Nave has no problem with that whatsoever. “I certainly don’t play down that aspect of the trip,” he says.
As for the high costs, he says, well, that’s life. “I’m a kibbutznik, and I can tell you that even on the kibbutz there’s not full equality,” he says. “Some kids at our school can afford electric bikes, and others can’t. The same is true for these trips, but that’s not a reason to scrap them.”
Dr. Eyal Kaminka, director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, says he supports the continuation of the trips – but on condition.
“There is certainly added value in being there physically, and there is certainly a place for these trips in Israel – but just as long as they are done well,” he says. “You need to make sure that the kids who are going have the right motivation and that they’re emotionally prepared because these trips are not a good fit for everyone.”
From his experience in Holocaust education, Kaminka concedes that the trips are not necessarily the best tool for teaching the subject. “What we’ve learned is that nothing compares with meeting survivors and hearing their stories,” he says.
A report commissioned by the Education Ministry, published five years ago, found that the overwhelming majority of students who participated in the Poland trips returned with a deeper appreciation of their Jewish heritage and the need for an independent Jewish state. A smaller share – though still a majority – said they came back with a better understanding of the universal dangers of intolerance and racism.
But those who would conclude, based on these findings, that the trips are nurturing dangerous nationalist tendencies among young Israelis are being hasty, according to Kaminka. “Assessing the long-term effects of these trips is a major challenge,” he says. “Are the participants really more right-wing three years later when they go out and vote? I can’t say that, and I don’t know if anyone can.”
Feeling no ‘wow’
Many students talk about a life-changing experience. Raz Strugano, a student at Ben-Gurion University, calls the trips “an absolute must.”
“Until I went with my school, I stayed away from the subject of the Holocaust because it really scared me, to the point where I couldn’t even watch films about it,” says the Be’er Sheva native who visited Poland with her high school class five years ago. “After being there, I still can’t really fathom what happened, but at least I have a much better idea.”
By contrast, an officer in Military Intelligence says he has many reservations looking back. “I was in 11th grade at the time, and while it was a very powerful experience then, I don’t think I took much away from it, and I honestly don’t think about it that often,” says the officer, whose name cannot be used because he is not allowed to speak with reporters without permission.
“My main problem with the trip was that there was lots of emphasis on the past but hardly any on the future, like how do we apply what we’ve learned to making Israel a better place. The main message I got from the trip was that it’s important to serve in the army and defend the country, and I just didn’t connect to that. I thought it was propaganda.”
Another soldier who asked that his full name not be published also found the trip disappointing. “Sure, there were some very powerful moments, but most of the time I felt like I was walking around a museum with my classes,” he says. “There wasn’t that ‘wow’ feeling I had expected.”
Many Israeli teenagers take the trip not with their high school, but with the youth movement they belong to. Participants in the youth-movement delegations tend to report a more meaningful experience. As Idan, a 21-year-old army commander who went with his socialist Hashomer Hatzair group observes: “Kids who go with the youth movements have a better idea of what they want to get out of these trips. It’s less about being abroad and hanging out with friends for them.”
When the Israel Arts and Science Academy first canceled its trips, many students and parents protested. “It was considered almost a subversive thing to do at the time,” recalls Benovich, the principal. “But they seem to have come around. Last year we had a meeting with 20 parents to discuss whether to reinstate the trips, and only two voted in favor.”
Since the trips were scrapped, the school has designed its own alternative project: a five-day pilgrimage around the country focused on the Holocaust’s effects on different facets of Israeli society. “The kids are involved in choosing the specific content each year, and they also teach part of it,” Benovich says. “They meet with survivors, they study other genocides, they learn about other non-Jewish victims of the Nazi regime. Every year it’s something different.”
Among Benovich’s biggest supporters are Holocaust survivors, one of whom recently wrote him: “It’s enough that I experienced these atrocities. Why should Israeli students have to go there?”
Ruth Bondy, a prominent Czech-born journalist and translator who survived both Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, couldn’t agree more. “Israeli teenagers can learn the same material by spending three days at Yad Vashem at 1 percent of the cost,” the 92-year-old says.
“We’ve reached a situation where the success of these trips is measured by how many children end up crying. My suggestion is that instead of sending our children to mass graveyards, the one organized trip abroad they take through the school system, we send them somewhere beautiful. How about Florence for a start?”
Degani is encouraged by such responses but says he’s still skeptical about whether many will follow his lead. “There’s lots of pressure to toe the line,” he says. “On the other hand, we’ve managed to start a conversation, and that’s important, too.”
The Education Ministry added the following response: “We encourage Israeli students to visit the remnants of Jewish communities in Poland and the sites of the death camps. These pilgrimages are meant to strengthen their connection to the Jewish people and their heritage through the generations. It should be emphasized that these are voluntary, and not required, trips, and every school principal is at liberty to decide whether or not to go.”
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