As happens every year, old wounds are reopened on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, yet as years go by the pain becomes duller and the memories must withstand the test of time. The Holocaust survivors who experienced the horrors are becoming fewer, and we face the question of how to realize the decree of “never forget.”
A nation needs memories and people need symbols. For that reason, I understand the importance of sending military delegations to Poland, particularly on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. I am even proud to see our soldiers there wearing their uniforms and holding up our flag, while marching in Auschwitz, and as then-Chief of Staff Ehud Barak once declared I think to myself: We arrived here 50 years too late.
Despite this, I am questioning the need to send youth delegations to Poland. The issue is raised in the media on occasion and prompts debates related both to the high financial cost and to the wild behavior of our high school students.
The basic premise of those who came up with the idea of traveling to Poland was that there was no better way to provide those born in Israel with a sense of the horrors of that period. Yet by doing so they chose to forge the national identity of our youth on the basis of victimization. However, I wonder whether it is appropriate to present the Holocaust as the constitutive ethos of the Israeli existence. To me it appears that it would be better to create a more complex sense of awareness.
The discussion of the Holocaust should be careful, sensitive, and complex. Yet it appears that we miss out on it in the heat of the trip to Poland. The journey’s results and messages are one dimensional, and its extreme expression is the March of the Living. This attitude, and in fact the main motive for sending our teenagers to Poland, is the direct continuation of the simplistic argument that “the State of Israel was established because of the Holocaust.” However, it is relatively easy to prove that the State of Israel in fact was established despite the Holocaust, not because of it.
Emotional manipulationMany students return from Poland and recount with excitement that only there they learned to be proud Jews. Often we hear that “these trips helped forge their Zionistic and national awareness.” And so, a few discussions at school, a trip to a museum, and eight days in Poland (with some shopping during the trip) becomes the way we address the question of Israeli identity and Jewish existence. As Historian Motti Golani wrote, one need not be a post-Zionist to disagree with the pace, way, and substance of this approach.
As a proud Zionist myself, I disagree not only with the emotional manipulation inherent in those trips, but mostly with the tendency that seeks to reinforce the connection between victimization to Zionism and Israeliness. I believe that the Israeli ethos is made up of many symbols, with the Holocaust being just one of them. However, the trips to Poland distort the proportions.
The Holocaust should be taught carefully. Students should be learning about the history of Jews wherever they lived, while connecting this to world history and to the story of those who lived and created the Jewish home in the Diaspora. We should not only be telling the story of those who died.
I agree that studying about the Holocaust invites thoughts about the fate of a stateless people, but also about the animal that can emerge out of man. It can also lead to discussion about the people who gave civilization geniuses in the areas of science, philosophy, and music, but also gave rise to monsters like Hitler and his bunch. The banality of evil. Could it happen to anyone? This and other questions are complex and still unanswered.
Gili Haskin is a tour guide in Israel and abroad