Sunday 6 September 2009

The March of the Wealthy?

My 17 year-old son recently returned from a trip to Poland together with more than 100 of his classmates. This is a trip made available each year to all 12th grade students to allow them to visit the sites of the greatest and cruellest tragedy on earth - the holocaust. It is a pilgrimage that tens of thousands of Israeli schoolchildren make each year, and one which many thousands of Jews from around the world make under the banner of the "March of the Living".

Despite the obvious difficulties associated with a 17 year-old visiting the sites which saw such horrific tortures and killings of innocent people, I am happy that my son went to Poland. I am happy that he saw first-hand the sites of Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz and Birkenau as well as the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto. In my view, the youth of today who are now 3 and 4 generations removed from the victims and survivors of the holocaust need to see this with their own eyes so that they will never forget. After his visit, I am convinced that my son will never forget. He took with him the names of the members of our family - my grandfather's brothers and their families - who perished. He lit candles in their memory at Auschwitz and said the mourner's prayer. This will surely remain with him for ever.

There can be no doubt that Jewish youth who grow up without strong Jewish education can easily forget that the holocaust took place. There are so many holocaust-deniers around these days, some of whom seem very convincing in their arguments. There are less and less survivors to convince us with their eye-witness accounts of events. All of this surely leads to a dilution in the awareness of the holocaust and the threat that it presented to the Jewish people and to the free world.

And yet there are those, even in Israel, who object to the trip made to Poland by the high school students. The main reason is because of the cost. The trip to Poland is sponsored almost entirely by the parents. The cost to our family was NIS 6,000 excluding spending money, equivalent to almost US$2,000. This covers a well organised and intensive 8 day trip including comfortable hotels, most meals, guides, security and transport and entrance to all sites of interest. Despite the fact that attractive payment options are offered, this amount is not something that all Israeli families can afford and immediately excludes those children whose parents are unable to finance this sum. It can also create some embarrassment amongst school mates between those who are able to travel and those who are not. The school did make an effort to raise funds for those students in need of financial assistance. Even this, however, does not seem to fully solve the problem.

An ideal situation would be that the Ministry of Education would budget sufficient money to finance all students who qualify to travel and wish to participate. There are some children opt out of the trip due to the fact they simply cannot cope with facing such horrors. With the current budget cuts, however, there is not sufficient money to cover the basic education requirements. So the prospect of having budget for the trip to Poland is as remote as ever. Under the circumstances, what is the correct action? The trip can either be cancelled completely, or continue to operate under the current circumstances? If this is the stark choice, I choose the second option such that at least some of our youth have the chance to "never forget".

Another issue that has been raised in reference to the Poland trip is whether it is even appropriate for our youth to be exposed to such horrors. There is a view that the holocaust is "stuffed down the throats" of our children at school from the age of 7. Every year sees the sirens wailing on Holocaust Day with the associated educational programs implemented in all schools. Holocaust study is a compulsory subject for all Israeli students to gain a matriculation (Bagrut). There is a view that this is simply too much, especially for children of this age. This view seems to be more pronounced in the community of Jews originating from Middle Eastern countries than the community of Jews originating from Europe. This may be due to the fact that the Middle Eastern community was spared the horrors of the holocaust while their European brethren suffered unimaginable horrors in Europe. I believe that too much is not good, but it is better than too little.

So, with all the arguments and politics which surround this trip, I remain convinced that it is a practice that should continue. My son, who together with his friends will be recruited to the IDF within the next 2 years, now has a much better understanding of the value and importance of the State of Israel to the Jewish community and to each Jew individually. Although he has always been a proud citizen of Israel and Zionist, his understanding of the need for a Jewish army is clearer than before. His commitment to the defence of the State of Israel and the Jewish people is absolute, and exactly what is needed prior to his period of service.

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