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The Poland trip: How Israel commercialised and distorted school Holocaust visits

In the Holocaust-commemoration industrial complex, every non-Ashkenazi narrative is subsumed by Ashkenazi Zionist nationalism

As the school year gets underway, many Israeli high schools have begun planning the seminal experience of their K-12 education: the Holocaust trip, colloquially referred to as “the Poland trip”.

Since the 1980s, Israeli public schools send their junior students on a 10-day trip to Poland where they visit ghettos, Jewish museums and concentration camps to commemorate the Holocaust. According to the Israel Ministry of Education, around 28,000 teenagers partake every year.

Though the trip generates mixed feelings from parents, students and administrators, it remains a staple of Israeli Jewish public education. Temporarily relocating thousands of young students, who have often never left the country, for the sole purpose of commemoration is an unquestionable part of their high school years.

But while there’s no doubt that the Holocaust needs to be commemorated, is the trip to Poland the best way to do so?

A rite of passage

Many supporters claim that the trip is not specifically about Jewish history, but rather about the Holocaust’s universal significance. Yet it ends up morphing into an experience that fuels nationalist ideology. 

“The trips are usually built around the Jewish-Zionist and Jewish-nationalist story, and much less on a universal message and the significance of the Holocaust,” Idan Yaron, an anthropologist who has been on five of these journeys, told Haaretz in May,

“This is so targeted, timed and managed in a manipulative fashion by a very well-oiled educational system, until there is almost no space for the students to say ‘Let’s look at the suffering of other peoples, too.’”

A rite of passage, it’s tradition for these high schoolers to take pictures of themselves with Israeli flags and sing the national anthem in front of the concentration camp sites. Their strengthened sense of nationalist fervour comes at a convenient time as, a short year later, they will be drafted into Israel’s military, more convinced than ever that their livelihood is existentially under threat, and instilled with a heightened desire to “protect their country”.

There's also the question of price. Temporarily transporting almost 30,000 students to Europe for 10 days is not cheap. Families end up paying between $1,300 and $1,500, equivalent to the monthly salary of a full-time social worker in Israel. Yet because this voyage is tied so closely to supporting a nationalist ideology, many are willing to make the financial sacrifice. 

The exorbitant cost socially splits students who can afford to go and students who can’t. But even more so, it commercialises nationalism, turning commemoration into a commodity that one must be privileged to buy.

In January, Al-Monitor reported that suspicions had grown “that travel agencies won contracts from the Education Ministry and operated a cartel to control and inflate prices,” which sparked a public debate about the “commercialisation of the Holocaust”.

The news was shocking to the Israeli public at the time - how could something so horrific be commodified? - yet the scandal was framed as the cause of commercialisation, rather than an effect of an already functioning industrial complex. The travel agencies themselves were not commercialising the Holocaust, they were merely capitalising on an already established industry that had been functioning for decades.

A single narrative of Jewish history

Imagine the first time you ever step out of the country you grew up in is to witness the worst genocide committed against your people. From there, it isn’t hard to imagine the rest of this limited narrative: We survived. (We won!) Now we must do whatever we can to protect ourselves. 

I can’t think of a better way for Israel to uphold the narrative it wants to tell itself. This story points to a larger question about how we narrate Jewish history. In the Holocaust-commemoration industrial complex, every non-Ashkenazi narrative is, understandably, irrelevant. 

As a result, those Israeli Jews with origins outside Europe often grow up without a clear understanding of their heritage, often unable to locate their grandparent’s or parent’s home country on the map — an eerie silence that is only one of the by-products of the Jewish-Zionist’s systematic erasure.

Eleventh graders with family origins in Morocco, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and other countries fly to Poland to learn about Jewish history, yet remain unaware of their own.

Paradoxically, 11th graders with family origins in Morocco, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and other countries fly to Poland to learn about Jewish history, yet remain unaware of their own. 

For them, their heritage will be limited to their grandparents’ cooking and little else. They will very likely, and unfortunately, confuse their lineage with Ashkenazi history, not delineating a conscious distinction between the two. Despite many attempts to include other narratives of Jewish history into history books, they remain largely marginalised within education.

Yet, to speak about any other narrative besides Ashkenazi history in Israel, in an institutional, legitimised way, necessitates addressing the discrimination and oppression inflicted upon them by Ashkenazim, breaking the very illusion of unity that the Zionist narrative depends on.

This is one of the reasons the Yemenite Baby Affair - in which hundreds of Yemeni children born in Israel to new immigrants in the 1940s and 1950s are thought to have been kidnapped - is so contested, controversial and silenced. Stories like these are precarious and transgressive because they destabilise the unified narrative Israel attempts to tell itself and negate the very core of its existential nationalism which is predicated on Ashkenazi history, and commemorating the Holocaust respectively.

Moving forward

Confronting these histories would mean dismantling the careful narrative Israel relies on in order to justify itself. Thus, the Holocaust trip is a symptom of a larger issue: Israel’s framing of history for nationalist justification.

When you consider the extreme measures the Ministry of Education goes to maintain and execute the Holocaust Commemoration trip, the high costs, the overseas travel (often the first for many Israelis), it’s difficult not to see this voyage as another strategic way to frame Jewish history as one under existential threat.  

Some schools have already stopped the yearly voyage to Poland. For example, Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium ended theirs this year and replaced it with a Holocaust-awareness programme within Israel. The school’s principal Zeev Dagani told Time in April: “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’.”

Without the proper context of world history, rather than specifically Jewish history, “the Poland trip” serves Israel as a state and its military more than it does the students who participate in it.

- Leeron Hoory is a freelance journalist currently based in New York City. Her work has been published in Slate, Quartz, Salon and others. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israelis school children look at a model of Warsaw Ghetto displayed at the "From Holocaust to Revival" Museum in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai in southern Israel on 4 May 2016 on the eve of the Holocaust Remembrance Day (AFP)

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