Israeli Students Told by Poland Trip Leaders: Don't Wear Flag

Wrapping one's self in Israeli flag while visiting concentration camps 'reminiscent of football' fans, say guides.

Leaders of youth delegations to Poland this week called on schools to stop students from wrapping themselves in the Israeli flag during the visit.

This is disrespectful toward the flag, and against the 1949 Flag and Symbol Law, which outlaws dishonoring the national flag, they said.

"The students' use of the flag is more reminiscent of behavior in football stadiums than memorial services," said Gideon Goldstein, who has been leading student delegations to Poland for 15 years.

A teacher who has accompanied such delegations said students wearing flags convey "defiance against the Poles and a sort of revenge. It is entirely unnecessary."

Another teacher explained that 'wearing' the flag "helps students cope with the intense feelings aroused during the visit."

Every year, 25,000 students participate in delegations to Poland, organized either by the Education Ministry or independently by schools.

In the past, the Education Ministry has forbidden students from wearing flags, but this has not been enforced.

Goldstein and Yossi Cohen, two veteran leaders of state-organized delegations, issued a pamphlet explaining, "In many recent cases, instead of carrying the national flag on a pole, students have been wrapping the flag around themselves, tying it around their waist or wearing it like a cape."

"What's worse is something we recently saw at the ruins of the Treblinka [extermination camp], where students wrote on the flag, 'the people of Israel live - Poland 2009,'" they wrote.

"We're trying to clarify the difference between stadium culture, which includes moving while singing the national anthem or applauding at the end, and commemoration, which must honor state symbols," Goldstein said.

"Wearing flags conveys disrespect. In the winter the flag gets mud stains, and in summer, dust marks. This conduct does not lead the Poles to respect us," he says.

About two years ago, an Education Ministry committee examined the trips to Poland and issued behavioral guidelines for students. One was that "the flag will be displayed in only two forms: raised on a pole or folded. Any other form is improper. The flag must not be turned into a garment - neither skirt nor scarf, cape nor headscarf. All these uses and others are unacceptable."

Delegation leaders, teachers and students who took part in the trips say that these instructions have never been enforced, and many youths wrap themselves up in flags while visiting concentration camp sites.

"Wearing the flag is part of a ceremony prepared in advance, intended to enable a catharsis. The purpose of visiting the extermination camps should not be to make the students cry - that's no achievement," a teacher says.

Another teacher says the flag is the "secular tallit, and the kids use it to address their feelings during the visit. The flag enables the students to express their feelings, and that's fine. It's not provocation, but an authentic expression of feelings. After their return from Poland many students hang the flag in their room. It is highly significant to them."

Idan Morse, an 11th grader from Givatayim, returned from Poland a month ago. "I can see why students wearing the flag dishonors it," he says. "On the other hand, when you're in Poland, you want to identify with the state and feel proud walking around in it."