Okay, I’ll begin with a confession. My wife was in Berlin for a week last year, but I’ll get back to that later.
Almost a decade ago, at the end of his tenth grade, the subject first arose when my son’s class was planning the “Poland” trip. As you may know, in recent years this trip has become part of the Israeli rite of passage, together with the bar mitzvah, post high-school trip, post army trip to the East etc.
I was appalled at the idea, but was assured immediately by almost everybody that these trips are absolutely marvelous in strengthening young people’s Jewish identity and Zionism. While apparently no empirical proof existed to substantiate this conclusion there appeared to be a wealth of anecdotal evidence. Everyone had a child who bore witness to the value of the trip.
My suspicion was then, and is today, that studies have been carried out regarding this question and when they failed to produce the desired results, they were forgotten. With so many educators involved, it’s inconceivable that nobody has checked the question, so where are the results?
As a teacher, who has worked with this age-group for three decades, my gut feeling is that these trips have no long-term “positive” effect. I say this for several reasons:
- I see no long-term difference in the behavior of those who made the trip.
- I see no difference between the levels Zionism and Jewish identity between those who make these trip and their friends who don’t.
- I see no difference in levels of Zionism and Jewish identity between my children’s generation, who made the trip, and mine who didn’t.
I know that none of this is very scientific and is all based on gut feeling, but I’m not the one who has to prove anything. In the Talmud we learn the principle that “He who wants to take something from another person, he should bring the proof.” It is up to all those who are involved in these Poland trips to show us what good they’ve done.
Let them show us three similar groups of young people; one that made the trip, one that studied the Holocaust in Israel and one that did nothing. Then measure how many later volunteered for elite army units, stayed in Israel, maintained a quantifiable interest in the subject. These tests all seem superficial, but they are usually the way Jewish identity and Zionism are measured here.
Back to my son I didn’t feel like fighting against windmills or being accused of being mean, so I agreed. I was, however, able to inadvertently throw a spanner in the works by suggesting that the boys might choose the adult who would accompany them. At this point their lazy and unpopular form teacher (rabbi), who realized there was no longer a free (or subsidized) trip in it for him, dropped the idea. I was gratified to discover that I was not the only parent with such radical views too.
A year later Amichai was offered the trip with a 90% subsidy. Now I could finally put my foot down. The whole thing would have cost $150 so nobody could question my motives anymore.
Since then we’ve established a principle that our family does not “visit” Germany, Austria or Poland. The only exception being if there is something important they must do in one of these countries that can be done nowhere else. We compensate our children with trips to other countries. When they are adults they decide for themselves.
I am aware that my reasons are not wholly rational, but again I’m not the one who has to explain why not. Germany, Austria and Poland may have beautiful forests and fields but they are drenched with too much blood. There may be other peoples no less anti-Semitic, but they were the murderers. I had a distant relative who had left Germany before the Holocaust and I once heard someone trying to persuade him to make a trip there, “Wild horses couldn’t drag me back there!” he replied. He was an old man, weakened by his advancing years, but at that moment I saw him and I saw the horses too – I knew that the beasts would be no match for him.
Because my thought process here is perhaps more emotive than rational I pass no judgment on those who feel differently. To some people the trip is important, to me it is not. I have no roots in Germany, Austria or Poland. I don’t wish to look into the eyes of old men and guess who they were. I don’t wish to visit empty synagogues and say kaddish. I do not wish to wear a baseball hat to cover my kippah, just in case there are a few Nazis left. I want to feel strong not weak. I do not wish to learn about being a Jew in Berlin or Auschwitz; I will learn that on my beloved Judean Hills. I do not wish my children to hate the wicked gentiles; I’d prefer them to love the good ones.
Last year my wife had to take a course of studies for her work, and by inconceivable irony the only place she could do so without desecrating the Sabbath was in Germany. What could I say? That was the precise situation that we had agreed would justify the trip. Roxana asked me to accompany her, my mind was divided, but as I tried to be rational I heard G-d’s admonition of Cain:
“What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
I stayed in Israel. I told Roxana to go where she had to go, do what she had to do, but no more. I didn’t want to see holiday snaps and there would be no souvenirs of Berlin to defile our home.
Her trip was extremely successful and Roxana has only good things to say about Germany and the German people that she met.
That is my confession.