What Really Happens on Israeli Students’ Holocaust Trips to Poland?

An anthropologist who’s been on five Shoah tours explains why he believes they’re failing the students and benefiting the IDF.

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Visitors to the former Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp in Poland drape themselves in the Israeli flag, May 5, 2016.
Visitors to the former Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp in Poland drape themselves in the Israeli flag, May 5, 2016.Credit: Wojtek Radwanski, AFP

Dr. Idan Yaron, an anthropologist and senior lecturer in sociology at Ashkelon Academic College, has been on five trips to Poland with Israeli high school students. With Israeli parents reportedly increasingly reluctant to send their kids on the tours, Yaron outlines what he sees as the trip’s main issues.

“The main problem is the values promoted on them,” he tells Haaretz. “In their present format, the trips are driven by an agenda and miss the educational goals. The story is, ‘We have overcome the Holocaust, and we are here to stay. And we – my words – showed them.’ It’s the narrative on a national and systematic level. And when we harness the trip to Poland in order to advance an agenda of strengthening nationalism, that’s a problem. We’re missing the other goals, and the overall, human message of the Holocaust is blurred.”

Does the system send the students a message that everything is just Judaism and Zionism, and there are no other messages?

“Yes. The trips are usually built around the Jewish-Zionist and Jewish-nationalist story, and much less on a universal message and the significance of the Holocaust. This is so targeted, timed and managed in a manipulative fashion by a very well-oiled educational system, until there is almost no space for the students to say ‘Let’s look at the suffering of other peoples, too.’ If someone tries to say something like that, there’s a feeling that it is grating, it is almost taboo.

Dr. Idan Yaron.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“For example, I came with a delegation from a yeshiva and asked the person who headed the trip if he was concerned, as critics claim, that the trip would increase the nationalism of the students. He told me, ‘Of course [it will], that’s what we want to achieve here.’ In addition, to a certain extent this is a trip in a bubble. Poland doesn’t exist. The students only see it through the window of a moving bus. Even when we go to the death camps, the signs and instruction around are in Hebrew and there’s a feeling that you’re in an Israeli enclave.”

And these messages are really getting through? The students become nationalistic?

“No, I can reassure everyone who worries about this and state that the trip’s influence on the students’ views is relatively insignificant. It doesn’t contribute in a significant way over time to strengthening Jewish awareness or nationalistic feelings. And to my regret, it also doesn’t increase human or general empathy. True, they’re trying to inculcate nationalist values in the students, which can be strengthened among those who have already come to the trip with definite nationalist views. But I haven’t seen transitions from one side of the map to the other, or from one position to another.”

How do you explain it?

“Schools have a marginal influence on students. The trip has an influence in the short-term, but it passes later. But it’s important to implement a proper, consistent educational line.”

Empathy for the living

So what are we missing?

“We’re missing out on the opportunity to pass on true educational values. The memory of the Holocaust is a milestone in the life of humanity, not necessarily just in the life of the Jewish people. We don’t really need a monopoly on the Holocaust. The obvious outcome of the story of the Holocaust as a Jewish story is often paranoia, and it is even dangerous. Israel is not dealing with preserving and cultivating the memory of the Holocaust properly. What’s missing is empathy for the living, not the dead. Instead they are creating fear.”

How can you measure the achievements of the trips?

“No one can properly evaluate the results of the trip in the long-term, but one of the measures used is the improvement in the students’ motivation to play a significant role in the Israel Defense Forces. Youngsters told me explicitly that the trip to Poland strengthened their decision to enlist in an elite unit.”

It sounds as if the IDF is the main winner from the trips to Poland.

“There’s no doubt that the IDF is the beneficiary of the trips to Poland. The result of the messages of fearmongering and the victims passed onto the students is that something like that will not happen today because we’re strong, and have an independent nation and army.”

In other words, the solution to the Shoah is strength.

“Yes, and that’s not enough in my opinion. The students need to get a different message, too, because when we have strength, we also need to talk about its use and base it on a moral viewpoint that will prevent it from corrupting. The message the students receive must be honest: We are strong now, but it also obligates us. As part of another research project, I spent a lot of time in schools in recent years and saw how prominent racism is in the lives of the young people. We need to fight it. And if students come home from Poland and say ‘We need to kill all the Arabs,’ then we’ve accomplished nothing.”

They say that?

“They say it with no problem, and it’s become more legitimate in recent years.”

And how are the Arabs connected to the Nazis?

“What they learn in Poland is only what was done to the Jews in a certain period, and they conclude from this that we must be strong and rout our enemies. I conducted many observations in schools, and they have a deep problem with racism. For example, the trip to Poland doesn’t deal with racism at all – which is a profound problem in Israel. The moment the trip leads to a feeling of strengthening nationalism and ‘It’s us against the world,’ we achieve the opposite results of those we wanted. When you travel to understand yourself and then look in the mirror and see a racist and violent face, then somehow you missed out. There are major lessons the students need to learn in Poland, but many times they don’t get them.”

Can you explain the significance of the Israeli flag? In the pictures the students upload to Facebook, they are always wrapped in the Israeli flag.

“Yes, the Israeli flag is an essential item on the trip. They use the flag as a tool of expression, and some of them also wrap themselves in it. Every delegation comes to Poland with dozens of flags. Recently, the Poles asked to limit the movement with flags in certain areas of the camps, and it’s a source of frustration for the kids. The flags also play a key role in the ceremonies, alongside singing [the Israeli national anthem] ‘Hatikva,’ which is sung in Poland at least twice a day.”

Haaretz recently tried to get permission from the Education Ministry to follow one of the high school trips to Poland, but they wouldn’t allow it. Are they trying to hide something?

“Maybe they’re worried that you’ll report about the violence and vandalism you see in the newspapers sometimes, but these are marginal events. They are exaggerated too much, and it’s also less important in the context of the trips to Poland. In any case, it’s a shame that the Education Ministry doesn’t demonstrate transparency on such matters. I think it’s a mistake you weren’t allowed to participate – there’s nothing to hide.”

Yaron adds that none of the trips he accompanied featured partying or nightclubbing. “The children have a completely full schedule. They are difficult days, packed and exhausting, and there’s no room or time for that. Every once in a while there are some who come with a bottle of alcohol. There was an instance on one of the trips where the children didn’t get up in the morning because they drank at night, and when the security guards opened the door we found them passed out in bed and it was a huge embarrassment. But these are rare occurrences.

“The children aren’t even allowed to enter the duty-free stores before the flight and if someone is caught with alcohol, it’s also a reason to be immediately thrown off the trip. It’s hard to smoke in the rooms because the smoke detector goes off and the security guards immediately come and report it to the teachers. In addition, today, as opposed to the past, the drinking culture among youngsters is so developed that they’ll find other opportunities. They’re actually not so desperate on those days in Poland to unwind through drinking.”

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