The suspension of Israeli high school students’ trips to Poland due to disputes between the two countries over security and programming, offers an opportunity for a re-examination of the format, character and necessity of these trips, at the end of about 30 years of visits by Israelis to the death camps that Nazi Germany established in Poland.
On one hand, Israel must not allow the Polish government to interfere in the content of these trips or to influence how they are carried out, as the Poles seek to do. Given that Poland is ruled by a nationalist, right-wing government with a declared agenda of defending Poland’s “good name,” allowing it such a foothold could prove a slippery slope that would end with Israeli children being exposed to distorted information about the Holocaust during their visits there.
On the other hand, Israel’s national honor won’t suffer if students are exposed during their visits, on their own initiative and of their own free will, to other events of World War II in addition to the genocide of the Jews. This would neither minimize Jewish suffering during the Holocaust nor obscure the Poles’ part in the Germans’ crimes. Israeli students would benefit from an important lesson on universal questions of morality and human nature if they also learned in depth about the suffering endured by other peoples during World War II.
This could lead the students to ask questions that go beyond the narrow narrative of “the chosen people” being persecuted generation after generation by non-Jews who sought to annihilate it. For instance, how is it that even though the Poles also suffered from the German occupation, many chose to help the Germans to persecute their own Jewish neighbors? And on the flip side, what kind of moral courage was required for a Pole to risk, and sometimes sacrifice, his life and those of his family to save Jews?
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Questions like this could also spur Israeli students to delve into current events in other parts of the world and wonder whether, in light of the Holocaust, Israel has a duty not only to protect the Jewish people, but also to be sensitive to the suffering of other peoples and the catastrophes suffered by other countries. The Israeli education system should have nothing to fear if the discussion also includes questions about Israel’s treatment of refugees – Africans or Ukrainians, for instance – or even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It must not run away from complex discussions.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.