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Teach About the Holocaust in Israel, Not Poland

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
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Youth participanting of the March of the Living walk along rail tracks in the former Nazi Death Camp Auschwitz Birkenau in Poland, Monday, in 2013.
Youth participanting of the March of the Living walk along rail tracks in the former Nazi Death Camp Auschwitz Birkenau in Poland, Monday, in 2013.Credit: Alik Keplicz / AP
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

A few weeks ago, Jerusalem’s Leyada high school held an open debate about class trips to the concentration camps in Poland, discussing the principles that guide them and whether they are justified. Prof. Hanna Yablonka of Ben-Gurion University and Uri Meiselman, a guide to Poland, took opposing positions. The former advocated canceling this ritual, while the latter suggested maintaining it but trying to update its ethnocentric messages.

In a system that has sanctified trips to the death camps for more than three decades, the very fact that the subject came up for discussion was refreshing. Even more exceptional was the decision Leyada, formally known as Hebrew University Secondary School, made to stop the trips. I spoke with several well-known, respected principals who agreed with this decision, but were afraid to take a stance.

During the previous two years, the trips to Poland were canceled due to the coronavirus. But anyone who thought the pandemic would lead to a rethinking or educational modernization of this issue was proved wrong. This past March, the visits resumed.

According to Education Ministry data, 127 delegations comprising 14,000 students are expected to go to Poland in July and August. The ministry’s estimate is that the latter figure will reach around 40,000 over the course of the school year, just like in the pre-pandemic years. Business as usual.

Yablonka argues that it’s more important to learn about how democracies collapse than to visit the death camps. She sees no reason or justification for the weeping engineered by the tour guides, who ask students to “experience” the trip in the cattle cars, or for the self-doubts of some students, who are troubled by the fact that their tears don’t flow fast enough.

“These trips have no educational added value,” she said. “You could do them in Israel, too.”

In a letter sent to the schools before the trips resumed, the Education Ministry wrote that they enable students “to learn the story of the atrocities that occurred during that dark era in the Jewish people’s history.” The absence of any mention of the story’s universal aspects is no accident. The visits to the death camps play an important role in nurturing Israelis’ existential fears.

Meiselman agrees with some of the criticism, but proposes that the schools demand trips that go beyond the traditional line of victimization and nationalism. But that won’t happen. Neither the internal logic nor the timetable that dictates the race from Auschwitz to Treblinka would allow it. To obscure the truth, the Education Ministry spouts clichés about the “process” students undergo. Yet over the course of roughly 30 years of trips, the meaning of this “process” has almost never been seriously investigated.

An internal study by Leyada questioned some of the students, parents and teachers, and in a letter explaining his decision to cancel the trips, principal Erez Hacker wrote that “the desire to open students’ eyes to the Jews’ long and flourishing culture in Poland before the Holocaust, or to focus on other issues, disintegrates time after time in the face of the obligatory visits to the death camps. Their emotional intensity drowns any other message. We have learned that even painstaking, in-depth preparation can’t overcome it.”

Hacker thinks the trip to Poland makes it impossible to promote a worldview “that rests on a future vision for a better society.” Consequently, his 12th-graders will now go instead on a one-week trip through Israel that will focus on the Holocaust and its memory, but also on “other basics mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.”

With this decision, Leyada has joined a small group of other schools that had canceled the trips even before the pandemic began. These include Gymnasia Herzliya in Tel Aviv and the Israel Arts and Science Academy in Jerusalem. What all these schools have in common is a degree of managerial and pedagogic independence. Now it’s time for the regular high schools to spread these tidings.

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