Israeli Teens Heading to Poland in Record Numbers Despite Controversial Holocaust Law

Some 40,000 Israeli high school students are expected to visit the country this year

Lior Dattel
Lior Dattel
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March of Life
Credit: AFP
Lior Dattel
Lior Dattel

In the wake of Poland’s approval of the so-called “Holocaust law,” there have been increasing calls in Israel to cancel high school trips to Poland, in which students visit the sites of former concentration camps. The passage of the controversial law – which imposes jail terms for suggesting that the Polish nation was complicit in the Holocaust – is only the latest reason cited by critics of the trips.

Over the last few years there has been increasing criticism of the content taught during the trips, the cost, and the inappropriate behavior of students during their stay. On top of that, police have recommended indicting some of the tour agencies that organize the trips, on suspicion of price fixing.

In fact, this year will see a record number of 40,000 students participating in these trips, according to Education Ministry estimates. When the first trip to Poland was organized, 30 years ago, only 200 students participated. By 2012, that number had increased to about 25,000 students annually. According to the ministry’s figures, from 2013 to 2016 there were 31,000-32,000 participants each year. In 2017 the number jumped to 39,000 and in 2018, according to ministry estimates, the number will reach 40,000.

This is an increase of about 30 percent in the past five years, which is also due to the fact that the ministry has subsidized the trips in the past two years. Indeed, Education Minister Naftali Bennett recently announced that the trips would continue as usual — despite the calls to cancel them in response to Poland’s passage of the law.

Why only Poland?

One of the main questions posed about these excursions is why they focus only on Poland – to the exclusion of other European countries, in particular, Germany, which built the extermination camps and was in charge of the systematic killing of Jews.

In fact, the Education Ministry, which organizes the trips, limits them to Poland. In 2009 the State Comptroller discussed the subject in a special report that noted that the ministry does not allow visits to other countries and wondered “why they take place only in Poland, and not in Germany or other countries on whose soil the Holocaust took place too.”

“It would be right to examine the possibility of organizing trips to other destinations,” says Dr. Idan Yaron, a lecturer at the Ashkelon Academic College, who in recent years has participated in five such trips to Poland, as part of an anthropological study that is slated to be published in his upcoming book (in Hebrew). “If the recent uproar in the wake of the Polish law promotes alternative trips to additional destinations .... it will have had a positive effect.

“Whatever the case, the trip to Poland is not really a trip to Poland — it’s a trip that’s designed mainly to strengthen certain values, mainly nationalist values, and modern Poland isn’t part of the trip at all,” notes Yaron. “In most cases, during the course of the trip – when the students are traveling by bus from one site to another – they even close the curtains in the buses and show films. I think that it’s right to go on the trips and it’s right for every teenager to visit Poland and undergo this experience first hand, but the question is how. I suggest conducting the trip but integrating into it universal aspects and emphasizing the subject of human rights.”

Increasing budget

In addition, we are learning new details about the high cost of the trips, which is borne mainly by the parents. Education Ministry figures obtained by TheMarker indicate that parents are expected to spend a total of 175-200 million shekels to pay for trips to Poland in 2018. The Education Ministry itself spends an additional tens of millions of shekels – a budget that has almost doubled in recent years. It’s estimated that about half the parents of Israeli 12th graders will pay for a Poland trip this year — that, in addition to all the other fees parents of high schoolers pay.

A large part of the budget goes to Polish tourist agencies, for payments for hotels, food suppliers, tour guides, folklore evenings, entry fees to sites and transportation. The ministry’s figures indicate that despite a reduction in the prices of the trips in recent years, about half the students who participate are from metropolitan Tel Aviv and the center of the country, considered more affluent areas.

In 2016, for example, most of the 32,700 12th graders who went on the trip were from Tel Aviv and the central region. A quarter were from the Tel Aviv area itself and about 28 percent from the center of the country.. In contrast, only 3,746 students – about 11 percent of the total – were from the south of the country, while the number from the north was even lower – just 3,406 students or 10.5 percent of the total.

One of the reasons for the increase in the numbers is the fact that the Education Ministry lowered prices in 2015, partly by subsidizing the trip for all the participants, and setting a maximum cost for participation. The cost declined from 5,000 –7,000 shekels (about $1,560 – $1,990) to 4,365– 4,800 shekels (about $1,240 – $1,365) per student.

The ministry’s decision to subsidize the trips led to an increase in the budget earmarked for them. In 2013–2014 the ministry’s budget for the trips totaled 18.5 million shekels, which was used only for scholarships. In 2016 the budget increased to 24 million shekels due to the ministry’s decision to subsidize the trip by about 500 shekels for every student. In 2017 the budget for scholarships and ministry participation increased to 30 million shekels – about 17 million shekels for subsidizing the trip, and the rest for scholarships for students lacking financial means.

“In recent years we are seeing a clear increase in the number of students going on the trip to Poland,” noted Education Ministry director general Shmuel Abuhav.

“This stems from a reduction in costs along with an increase in our subsidy by 500 shekels to every student, and from granting personal scholarships for students in need of them.

“A student with financial difficulties, who met the criteria and requested a scholarship, received assistance. The scholarship fund hasn’t changed, and totals about 50 million shekels,” said Abuhav.

However, TheMarker has learned that the ministry does not use the entire fund and in fact only a small part of it was used it in recent years, apparently due to rigid criteria for distributing the scholarships or to a small number of requests for financial assistance.

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