Government mulls revising youth trips to camps in Poland

By Amiram Barkat, Haaretz Correspondent 04/05/05

The Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Education are considering far-reaching changes to the youth pilgrimages to Poland.

The Foreign Ministry says that the programs' current format harms Israel-Poland relations and fosters alienation and hostility between Israelis and Poles. The Ministry of Education proposes an increase in encounters between young Israelis and Poles, but says the proposal has not yet received a satisfactory response from the Polish side.

A sense of the Polish attitude toward Israeli youth pilgrimages can be gleaned from the statement of Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem two months ago, when he met with Minister of Education Limor Livnat. Livnat announced at the meeting that during the current school year, a record 22,000 Israeli students will visit Poland. President Kwasniewski responded: "What is important is what the youth see when they visit Poland. We think it is not enough to show what happened during the Holocaust - they need to know something about 800 years of Jewish life in Poland that preceded the tragedy."

The youth pilgrimages come up frequently at meetings between Polish and Israeli officials. The Poles say the trips present their country one-dimensionally, as a place that was and is still hostile to Jews. Others complain of the tours' logistics, and say it is insulting that the Israeli groups travel around Poland in isolation, avoiding contact with local youth and leaders. The heavy security that surrounds the groups only worsens this impression.

Foreign Ministry officials say that most of the complaints are justified. As a result, the trips' current format has been increasingly questioned recently. One Israeli diplomat told Haaretz that he objects to continuing the trips to Poland, despite their importance in strengthening Jewish and Israeli identity.

"The Poles complain that we minimize the Germans' role in the Holocaust, as though the concentration camps were Polish," the diplomat said. "It is true that the Holocaust took place mostly in Poland, but often the Poles are presented as having as much responsibility for the Holocaust as the Germans," he said.

After several low-level contacts failed to produce results, Foreign Ministry director general Ron Prosor recently broached his ministry's concerns about the trips with Education Ministry director general Ronit Tirosh. In subsequent discussions, both ministries agreed that encounters between Israeli and Polish youth should be encouraged. Polish Education Minister Miroslaw Sawicki, who visited Israel in March, expressed willingness to cooperate on the issue. However Israeli sources say the Polish education authorities have not yet taken action.

Academics criticize the trips

Over the past few years, the Poland trips have received criticism from various quarters. Researchers say the trips fail to transmit universal values such as tolerance for the other and education against harming minorities. Most studies agree that the principal lesson learned on the trips is that without a strong Israel and a strong army, there can be no guarantee for a future Jewish existence.

Israel Prize winner Prof. Yehuda Gutman of Yad Vashem says the content of the trips should be recast. "The emphasis should be on past Jewish life in Poland and the catastrophe that took place, and schools should be encouraged to have more encounters with Polish youth and create human connections," he says. The trips also provoke criticism from Poland's small Jewish community. Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich says the trips' organizers ignore the fact that the Jewish community in Poland has come back to life.

More than 350,000 youths have visited

The Poland youth tours are unique in the world, because of the project's size and the extent of government intervention. Launched in 1988 by then-Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein, 350,000 young Israelis have participated in the tours. The number of participants has grown from several thousand to more than 20,000 each year.

Some 4,500 youths, many from Israel's socio-economic periphery, attend the tour organized by the Ministry of Education itself. Other schools travel with commercial tour operators who are supervised by the ministry. Security arrangements are coordinated with state authorities. The cost per students is around $1,000, with financial aid of $400 provided to those in need.

Students undergo several weeks of preparation, including lectures, meetings with survivors, workshops and readings on the holocaust. The basic itinerary includes death camps, Jewish sites in Warsaw and Cracow, and meetings with survivors and "righteous gentiles" who risked their lives to try to save Jews. @CROSS:Religious students also visit famous yeshivas and synagogues

The declared educational objectives of the program, according to the Education Ministry, are to expose students to the "spiritual and cultural richness of Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust, to positive and negatives aspects of Polish-Jewish relations and to the depth of devastation wrought by the Holocaust." Values participants are expected to learn: "The need for a strong sovereign Jewish state and the universal lesson of the duty to protect and defend democracy and combat all forms of racism."

Youth pilgrimages to Poland have been the subject of several studies which have included interviews of participants, mostly by sociologists. The studies point to the gaps between the declared goals and reality. Researchers have found that the trips tend to foster national and Zionist values for the most part, and to a much lesser degree - universal pan-human values.

A study conducted by Hava Schechter found that the trips radicalize the youth who participate. Adi Ophir says that the nature of the trips are determined by the organizers' profit motives to a great degree, and by a quasi-religious belief in the need for a strong Israel. He says both interfer with using the trips to encourage serious discussion of the moral issues evoked by the tour.

Dr. Jackie Feldman of Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva is one of the tours most trenchant critics. Feldman, who participated in several tours in the 1990's, describes them as pilgrimages of "Zionist civil religion," where students are inculcated with the message that Israel is the only safe place for Jews, in a world steeped in anti-Semitism.

Feldman says that the lack of encounters with Poles and the strict security arrangements foster a sense of threat and hatred toward Poles which engenders statements such as, "Nothing changes. Poles are the same anti-Semites as before." The lack of encounters with local Jews reinforces the message that the only natural place for Jews to live is Israel, he says.

The Ministry of Education's response: "Following Minister Limor Livnat's meeting with the Polish Minister of Education, a study examining the Holocaust education curricula was produced a joint Israeli and Polish committee. The report is currently under review by the ministry's director general, prior to implementation. In addition, it was agreed to build direct ties between Poland and Israel with the assistance of contact people from both countries, to promote youth exchange programs.

"Also, a team from the Education Ministry's youth and society department is meeting with a team from the Foreign Ministry to identify additional avenues of cooperation.

"It should be noted that the youth delegations currently have encounters with Polish youth in community centers and schools, for joint discussion of topics related to the past era," the Education Ministry concluded.