For decades, tens of thousands of Israeli teens have been taking part in a school trip deemed a ‘rite of passage’ marking the end of their high school years – a visit to Nazi concentration camps in Poland.
Since the 1980s, the week-long trip to sites of mass murder, tours of the Jewish ghettos and museums in eastern Europe was part of the schools’ ‘heritage studies’ curriculum, aiming to provide an in-depth understanding of the atrocities of the Second World War.
But this week, a prestigious and historic Israeli school, the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium – the first modern Hebrew-language school, founded in 1905, before the creation of the city of Tel Aviv and the state of Israel, announced it is breaking with the tradition.
Instead of trips to Poland, the school will institute a Holocaust-awareness program in Israel, meeting survivors and visiting local museums, learning about the persecution of Jews and other communities.
The school’s principal Zeev Dagani says he has stopped the trips because of their cost and a concern that it exacerbates nationalistic sentiments in youths, months before the students embark on compulsory service in the Israeli military.
“In recent years, the journey has increasingly overlapped with the current regime and atmosphere in Israel, which revolves around fear and hatred for the other,” Dagani told Israeli daily Haaretz. He warned that “the popular atmosphere here today is all about the delegitimization of the other and nationalistic sentiments” – and that such trips can then “serve these trends.”
His concerns are reflected in Israel’s education ministry study conducted in 2011, which concluded that the school trips to Poland cause participants to have a more positive opinion of the Israel military. When asked how much the Poland trip helped “to better understand the existence of the Israeli Defence Force,” 83% of trip participants assigned a high grade to the statement. Before the trip, only 74% of the students agreed with the statement. “The army was less important to me before I saw the soldiers at Majdanek. Now I have more motivation,” one respondent told Haaretz.
“This linkage is very dangerous, in my opinion,” says Dagani in his Tel Aviv office. “And then the trip to Poland prepares [the students] to be the fighting soldiers, against the Arabs, against the neighbors.” Sending young people to Poland on a trip that strengthens nationalist beliefs is something he considers a mistake. “I think that my job is to stop this process, not to send them there in this climate in order to come back more nationalist, [with a sentiment of] that ‘there is no others, only us’. ”
Some of the trips coincide with the March of the Living, a walk between Auschwitz and Birkenau, which takes place on Israel’s Holocaust Day, which this year is on May 5.
A series of studies has found that Israeli public opinion has become more rightwing in recent years. In a March 2016 survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, 48% of Israeli Jews said they agreed with the statement that Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel, where they make up 20% of the population. In March 2015, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the general election, after he called voters to the ballots by threatening that “the Arabs […] are flocking to the polling booths in droves.”
Israel’s teens are also increasingly rightwing, numerous polls show. A 2015 survey by the Rafi Smith Institute found that around 52% of Jewish youth defined themselves as rightwing, compared to only nine percent who saw themselves as leftwing.
Dagani is not the first principal to cancel the trip to Poland. The Israel Arts and Science Academy in Jerusalem cancelled its trips in 2008, because it wanted to find a new way for Israeli students to engage with the Holocaust. Etay Benovich, the school’s principal say: “We felt we need to challenge the central dogma of the fact that every Israeli has to go to Poland in order to get an understanding of the Holocaust,” says Benovich. The academy devised a program dealing with the effects of the Holocaust on Israeli society.
The cost of trips—around $1,300—have also become a factor. Dagani says that only half his students went to Poland in 2015. In Feb. 2016, Israel’s parliamentary education committee urged schools to suspend their annual trips to Poland until subsidies for the trips became available “to ensure that no student is left behind.”
The decision to stop the trips has triggered a wider discussion in Israeli society about the visits, says Dagani. “Till now, it’s been very very silent. […] It was [ considered] a ‘holy trip’, ” he says, showing a thick wad of emails from principals, pupils, parents and grandparents, including some Holocaust survivors who wrote in support of the school’s new policy.
Dagani himself is no stranger to controversy. In 2010, he received death threats and was summoned to an Israeli parliamentary committee when he banned Israeli military officers from training teachers to encourage pupils to sign up for combat units.
Referring to the school policy, Gabi Ashkenazi—a former graduate of the school who went on to become the Israeli military’s chief of staff, said “I am ashamed of the school where I studied.”
Dagani say he is supported by his students and parents. “I get the support from the parents and the students, of course. Not all of them agree with me, but they support me in putting my ideas on the table,” he says, “I love this country, I want to continue to live here. But can you see the political situation? […] You can see the fascism that is inside our community.”
“In the schools, we’re not allowed to teach some books because they’re afraid that we’ll encourage Jews and Arabs to marry together,” he says, referring to Borderlands, a novel by Dorit Rabinyan about a romantic relationship between a Jewish woman and a Palestinian man in New York City which was taken off the national school curriculum earlier this year for fear that it promoted mixed relationships.
“Our school is full of Jews and Arabs, and I’m proud, really proud of this. They continue to study with us, and they are part of all the discussions about the peace process and the trip to Poland—they are part of our life, we are studying together, we are working together and it’s OK,” says Dagani. “I think that in Israel, the only solution is to live together.”