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Do Israeli Students Need to Visit Auschwitz?

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This visit, almost a rite of passage in today’s Israel, is a powerful tool — “first-class education” as Mr. Bennett put it — for instilling in students the need to remember what happened to the Jews of Europe. Nonetheless, it is time to end these trips. And it may likewise be time to end Israel’s participation in the March of the Living, an annual program in which Jews from around the world converge at Auschwitz and then walk to its companion death camp, Birkenau. Israel shouldn’t end its participation in these programs to save its relationship with Poland — but rather to save Israelis.

There’s no doubt that these trips have merit. They certainly make Israeli students appreciate the scope and severity of the horrors of the Holocaust. These trips also force young Israelis see with their own eyes what can happen to a people when they are hated and defenseless — a lesson that is as important today as it ever was.

So why end these trips? First, because they contribute to a misperception by many Jews that remembering the Holocaust is the main feature of Judaism. Second, because they perpetuate the myth that Israel itself is born only of the ashes of Europe.

That the memory of the Holocaust has in some ways become the main manifestation of commitment to Judaism is well documented. The Pew Research Center found that 73 percent of American Jews believe “remembering the Holocaust” is essential to being Jewish — a higher percentage than believe following Jewish law or caring about Israel is essential to their Jewish identity.

Among Israeli Jews, 65 percent say remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of their Jewish identity, more than living in Israel or working for justice and equality. That Israeli teenagers spend a hefty part of their schooling preparing for a trip to death camps in Poland suggests that the next generation will feel similarly.

A healthy society cannot be defined by the memory of a tragedy. A healthy culture does not make a trip to where it was almost eliminated its main point for pilgrimage. Jewish youngsters would do better to focus their energies on the site that all generations of Jews have wanted to make pilgrimages to: Jerusalem. Auschwitz should not be elevated to sacredness.

Altering Israel’s historical education will also help to change the perception in the country that the Jewish state is here only because of the horrors of Nazism. Israel’s existence should not be seen as compensation for the butchery of Jews in Europe. But pilgrimages that connect Poland and Israel, or those using Poland as a tool with which to bolster the commitment of young Israelis to their own country, send exactly this message. There is a tragedy, and then rebirth.

But there is no resurrection. The dead are still dead. The Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland and across Europe will never re-emerge. Israel is not a compensation for Auschwitz, and its marching teenagers, with their flags and their songs, with their we-are-still-here spirit, spite only the ghosts.

When I was growing up, in the 1970s, there were no trips to Poland. My high school Holocaust education did not include a gut-wrenching visit to Auschwitz. Nonetheless, I remember the murder of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis. I think about it, like many Israelis, almost daily. When I say that we should end the teenage Holocaust tourism to Poland, I am not calling for forgetting. I do not want to trivialize or marginalize that history or tell Jews that they need to “get over it.”

What I believe we Israelis need is a realignment. We need to remember the dead without forgetting them or forgiving their butchers. We need to draw the proper lessons from the Holocaust — one of which is that there is no merit in dying and Jews must be proactive in our quest to keep living. So let’s not confuse ourselves by making Auschwitz the axis of our culture and the culmination of our civic religion. Let’s keep our March of the Living where it belongs: here, in Israel.

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