Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Israel Says Yes, Poland Says No: On the Resumption of Israeli Youth Trips to Poland (Judean Rose) (update)


One day after the Netanyahu government issued a statement claiming that Israel and Poland had reached an agreement over the resumption of Israeli youth trips to Poland, Poland denied that any such agreement had been reached. The trips were suspended a year ago due to a dispute over security arrangements. Israeli students are accompanied on these trips by armed security guards from the Shin Bet. Poland, however, says that Israel’s insistence on providing its own Israeli security for the students is a slap in the face to Poland, making it look like a hateful, antisemitic country.

Here is the Israeli press release on the supposed agreement between Israel and Poland:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Comments on Resumption of Youth Trips to Poland

After a prolonged stalemate in Israeli-Polish relations, and pursuant to contacts and a round of talks led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, together with Minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen and Education Minister Yoav Kisch, a solution was found today (Tuesday, 7 March 2023), to the crisis that prevented the arrival of youth trips to Poland.

Prime Minister Netanyahu:

"After a wasted year, we are returning the youth trips to Poland. There are many ways to study the lessons of the Holocaust but the best is with one's own eyes. I welcome our success in the resumption of our pupils' trips to Poland in order to study the horrors of the Holocaust from up close.

I thank Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Education Minister Yoav Kisch for their contributions to the effort. 'Know from whence you came and where you are going.’"

Three years after the halt to the arrival of youth trips to Poland, and pursuant to the contacts led by Prime Minister Netanyahu with the Polish government, the almost to-year stalemate in bilateral relations has ended; the sides have agreed on the resumption of Israeli youth trips.

Pursuant to the round of talks between the two countries led by Prime Minister Netanyahu with his Polish counterpart, and to the talks held by Minister of Foreign Affairs Cohen with the Polish Foreign Minister approximately one month ago, in the framework of which he sought to move forward on a solution for the resumption of the trips to Poland, a representative of the Polish Foreign Ministry announced today that Poland views positively the resumption in the arrival of youth trips to Poland and recognizes their importance to continued progress in bilateral ties.

This morning, however, Tovah Lazaroff, who is no fan of the Netanyahu government wrote:

“Poland denied that Israeli high school trips to visit the concentration camps in Poland are set to resume after a one-year suspension, one day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Office announced the return of the trips.”

Lazaroff offers no source for her assertion of Polish denial. What is the truth of the matter? Did Israel and Poland reach an agreement regarding the Israeli student trips? And what is the real reason for what still looks like a stalemate? Is it really about security? Or something else.

Łukasz Jasina, spokesperson for the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted a link to the MFA statement on the affair, an embarrassing slap in the face to Israel/Netanyahu, and likely the source for Lazaroff’s claim.

From the statement: 

Although a final agreement has not been reached yet, during talks held in recent days through diplomatic channels we have been observing a convergence of positions, giving hope that a comprehensive agreement on the visits of organized groups of Israeli youth to Poland can be signed between Poland and Israel in the near future.

Poland is sensitive to accusations of antisemitism, hence the passing of a 2018 Polish law penalizing public speech attributing responsibility for the Holocaust to Poland or the Polish nation. The passing of the law appears however to only underscore the idea that Poland is antisemitic, but doesn’t want to be seen as such. Why else shut down free speech on the subject of where blame for the Holocaust rightly lies? To paraphrase Hamlet, Poland “doth protest too much, methinks.”

Back when the Polish law denying complicity in the Holocaust was passed, I argued that parents of Israeli teens should not be sending their children to that country to visit. Not because of the security issue, though I agree that Israel should be allowed to use its own people for this purpose, but because I don’t believe in supporting the economy of a country I see as absolutely antisemitic, law or no law:

This year, when it came time for my son, the youngest of 12 children, to register for the class trip for Poland, I was ready. I sat Asher down for a talk and explained that he wasn’t going, that even if we had the money for such a trip, even if the school were to give him a full scholarship, he wasn’t going. I wasn’t going to allow my son to become a source of income for a country of antisemites . . . why, of all countries, should the Jewish State be propping up Poland’s economy with these trips that have become a rite of passage for Israeli high school students? We’re talking some 30,000 children, spending at the very least, a few thousand shekels each for this “privilege.”

At the same time, I acknowledged the fact that many see the trip as a valuable tool for teaching the Holocaust:

What of the people who say the experience of visiting Poland is moving, and a good way to teach the Holocaust?

I say hogwash. I never traveled there and I have an acute understanding of the Holocaust and so do my children. In fact, I’d say that boycotting the place is every bit as powerful a teacher as going there.

I still believe today that we don’t need to send kids to Poland to make them “feel” the horrors of the Holocaust. And I still believe that Poland is antisemitic to the bone. In fact, the very day that Netanyahu claimed an agreement with Poland had been reached, the Algemeiner reported that the National Bank of Poland will be issuing a special commemorative coin honoring a Polish antisemite:

Poland’s National Bank has announced that it will issue a special silver coin commemorating a leading figure in the post-war anti-communist underground who was accused of murdering Jews in the country’s Podhale region . . .

. . . Several historians have charged that Kuraś was responsible for the murder of dozens of Jews in the Podhale region during his struggle against the communists. In his book “Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz,” Prof. Jan Gross of Princeton University described Kuraś as as “legendary outlaw in the mountainous region of Podhale, where he battled the regime by killing Jews who were fleeing Poland by one of the Brikha exit routes.”

Gross specified that Kuraś had recorded the murder of Jews in his diary, citing the killing of twelve Jews near the village of Kroscienko on May 6, 1944.

A separate article by Karolina Panz — a Polish historian based in the town of Nowy Targ, where Kuraś was active — concluded that during 1945-47, “the number of Jewish victims exceeded thirty, including children from Jewish orphanages. Among the perpetrators of those acts of terror were partisans from the group commanded by Józef Kuraś ‘Ogień’ – one of the most important symbols of anti-communist resistance.”

Poland’s leading anti-racist organization condemned the coin’s issuance as another example of the Polish state lionizing wartime figures with established records of antisemitism.

The Algemeiner quotes a response from Rafal Pankowski, executive director of the “Never Again” Association:

“Since the publication of Jan Gross’s groundbreaking books in the 2000s, Poland made a lot of progress as a democratic nation in dealing with the legacy of antisemitism – but over the last years much of that progress has been reversed and a far-right nationalist outlook on Polish history has prevailed in many institutions . . . This is one more instance of a glorification of a notorious antisemitic figure by an important state institution.”

It is obvious that Polish antisemitism is alive and well. Why then does Israel seem so desperate to reach an agreement to prop up the Polish economy with high school trips? Why does Israel want its children to think of Poland as a hospitable country that has learned its lesson, when quite clearly, it has not.

One might argue that Netanyahu has failed to see the true meaning of the quote he used in his statement to the press: “Know from whence you came and where you are going.”

That quote, from Ethics of the Fathers, was used by Netanyahu to suggest that high school trips to Poland are a form of experiential learning: that only by traveling to the land of Auschwitz can one come to understand what happened there. But one could just as easily interpret that quote as a cautionary tale or warning: Know when you go there that Poland was and still is an antisemitic country, even as it makes it illegal to discuss that fact. Know that Poland is a place where the soil is soaked with Jewish blood. Know that Poland, even now, issues commemorative coins honoring as heroes those who murdered Jews. Know that if you go and spend your hard-earned shekels to support Poland and the Polish people, you betray the memory of the millions of Jews who were sent there, not by choice for a learning experience, but to be gassed and burned, their generations to come, ended forever.

UPDATE: After I contacted her on Twitter, Tovah Lazaroff commendably updated her piece to reflect that her source is the Polish Foreign Ministry.

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