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Failure of death camp tours for IDF officers - a success?

For the past two decades or so, Israel has been on a feverish mission to send young people – all of them, if possible – to visit the death camps of Poland, to cement the notion that the Holocaust is the primary basis for Israel’s existence. I find this inherently problematic. It is even more disturbing to learn that some concentration-camp programs are designed with the intention of strengthening “Jewish” and “national” values; ironically, one such program may have backfired.

A study reported in Haaretz on January 20 explained that one program had the opposite effect among IDF officers, setting off distress signals from the army. Haaretz reported that IDF figures were “stunned” to find that among officers sent on the “Witnesses in Uniform” program – 25,000 over the last decade – 20% showed lower commitment to national and Jewish values than before the trips. The “national values” included: “the centrality of the IDF, Jewish symbols, and Israeli pride or sense of mission” as well as symbols of Israel and Diaspora Jewry. In addition,

The trips also produced a decline in IDF-related values, including commitment to the state and the army, feelings of leadership, and love of heroism.

“Social and democratic values,” which refers to “human dignity, the sanctity of life and tolerance,” remained stable before and after the trips. Prior to visiting the camps, universal aspects of the Holocaust, such as “understanding the universal context of the Holocaust, the desire to learn about the tragedy the Nazis wrought upon Europe and the understanding that the Holocaust is part of world history,” were relatively low priority compared to national values (the English edition of Haaretz inserted an apocryphal “though still high,” which is not present in the Hebrew, giving no numbers). The article reports a “reversal” of the findings from the pre-trip study (though there is almost no methodological description of the study, which raises questions about how the conclusions were drawn).

A 2009 study of high school students by the same academic researchers found the opposite – for teens, the study showed that trips “left commitment to universal values unchanged, but found that they strengthened Jewish and national values.”

I imagine that the hand-wringing tone of the article probably reflects the IDF’s response, or assumptions about Haaretz’s readers’ response. To me, it highlights many things that have gone wrong.

First, the obvious: it’s good that the universalist and “general” values such as the sanctity of human life and the universal lessons of the Holocaust have survived unharmed (from what the article implies) – I wish they had risen. People are human beings before they are nations, and they must be taught to respect the sanctity of life – all life – before they are molded into war heroes.

The fact that high school kids came back with higher levels of “understanding the uniqueness of the phenomenon of the Holocaust whose intention was to destroy the Jewish people” saddens me.

I am seriously troubled by over-emphasis on the Jewish uniqueness of the Holocaust, which I fear means that the children of genocide stand to forget that other people face similar horrors. I fully support Holocaust education, for all people and especially for Israelis. The historical mission and the special responsibility of Jews is indeed “never again!” – not for Jews, Rwandans, Sudanese, Bosnians, Armenians, nor anyone else.

Second, it’s good if the officers begin to critique and question the IDF, deconstruct the “heroism” that spawns machoism and aggression or programs them to be occupiers. We desperately need to question our current “national” values, which are fueling internal political decay, racism and violence, and justifying the unjustifiable Israeli rule over Palestinians. Reinforcing Israel’s perennial victimization is reinforcing what’s wrong.

Third, what in the world do they mean by Jewish values? My Jewish values involved doing unto others as you would do unto yourself, humility and critical thinking, tikkun olam, for a start. Testing “identification with symbols” devoid of their content turns culture into a hollow farce.

Fourth, the article did not report on the authors’ explanation for reverse effects of the trips on high school kids. The findings reminded me that in the large youth survey I co-authored in 2010 (commissioned by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and conducted by the Macro Institute), we found major gaps between the Jewish youth (15-18) and the young adults (21-25), confirmed by regression analysis. The older respondents in this case were more nationalist, but also showed much deeper distrust of state institutions. Because the gap was new compared to two previous studies, we ruled out IDF service as a cause and proposed that it reflected the older group’s coming-of-age during the despairing years of Second Intifada, two further wars, and zero peace momentum.

Could it be that for officers serving in a hopeless war that Israel cannot win, charged with carrying out a non-tenable policy, and then marshaled into the death camps to prove why they must continue with this charade is a flawed endeavor?

More than anything, the officers’ program looks to me like institutional exploitation of the Holocaust, meant to inject the officers’ hearts with the adrenaline of historical nightmares. That makes the self-righteous lamentations over Haredi gimmick-ization of the Holocaust look like a convenient (if disgusting) distraction. If our leaders truly believed in the country’s policies, they wouldn’t need such justifications to help our officers fend off the demon of “delegitimization.” I wonder if the officers would agree.

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    1. Maybe next time they could stay home and watch A Dry White Season.
      Less expensive, and with a guaranteed more universalist educational value.

      Reply to Comment
    2. aristeides

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who read about that study and said, “Huh? What do they mean by ‘Jewish values’?”

      Your analysis makes sense. IDF officers who’ve personally experienced the evils of the occupation are more likely to recognized similarities to what they see of the practices shown in the museums.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Aaron

      I can’t stand that Holokitsch. I just hope those crying-trips to Poland go out of fashion before my kids get to be that age.
      Question: When did that universal interpretation of “Never again” arise? Reportedly, the slogan “Never again” appeared already at the time the camps were liberated; some speculate that the Communists came up with it, so maybe it had a universal meaning from the start, or maybe not. When the JDL used it in the 1960s, it obviously meant, “Never again will this happen to us.” Now it’s, “Never again to anybody.” When did the meaning change from particular to universal or vice versa?
      Personally, I think the people Israel should be primarily concerned that it’s never again for us. The Armenians, Tutsi, et al. should be concerned that it’s never again for them. It’s a wonderful dream for genocide to disappear completely, but well-intentioned humanitarian attempts often make things worse. Some people here have read Carl Schmitt; he described that dynamic as well as anyone.

      Reply to Comment
    4. aristeides

      The problem, Aaron, is when demogogues stoke the flames of paranoia in susceptible minds to convince them that a new Holocaust is imminent, and only the demogogue in question can avert it. That’s what we see in Israel today, and its mouthpieces in the US.

      Reply to Comment
    5. AYLA

      Thanks, Dahlia. Especially for this ” I fully support Holocaust education, for all people and especially for Israelis. The historical mission and the special responsibility of Jews is indeed “never again!” – not for Jews, Rwandans, Sudanese, Bosnians, Armenians, nor anyone else.” And for raising the question about what Israel, and/or the IDF, means by “Jewish Values”. How the same country can have the concerns and agenda you address here, and at the same time build a detention camp for African refugees, I do not know. And in Yad Vashem tours I’ve been told there’s an emphasis on how people still want to destroy us today (I’ve been but not on a guided tour), thus using Yad Vashem to fuel the I/P conflict. This is so upsetting. It would seem that we’re learning the wrong lessons from the Holocaust, from “never forget”, and that is exactly how history repeats itself, one way or another.

      Reply to Comment
    6. delia ruhe

      “Never again” was the idea that fueled the Nuremberg trials — in other words, Aaron, it began as a universal imperative. However, history teaches no lessons. Indeed, as Dan Stone reports: ‘‘Since the
      days when ‘never again!’ was uttered at the end of the Second World War there have been, according to one estimate, some fifty genocides across the world. . . .’’.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Aaron

      Thanks for the reply, Delia. Are you saying that the exact phrase “Never again” was used in connection with the Nuremberg Tribunals, or just the idea? If there’s an online reference to Dan Stone on this? (I didn’t find any through Google.) If there have been fifty genocides since the Shoah, then that just seems to confirm what I said before, that the universal interpretation of “Never again” is kind of like “No more war.”

      Reply to Comment
    8. Ah, Aaron, I think I remember you from South Jerusalem, where you induced me to buy some writing of and about Carl Schmitt.
      I would say that the trips are working and should be encouraged. The camps are a product, partly, of believing an aggregate called “people” is responsible for the acts of some people. That the Nazi chain of causation was wrong is beside the point. The consequences of enforcing mass punishment (I almost wrote atonement, oops, I just did) is one lesson of those camps.
      More and more I come to see Israeli State policy as a kind of hysterical response to suicide bombing and the like, a scream of a rape that won’t go away. Your present polity seems bent on grafting this scream onto all political discourse. Forgiveness would be a release of your children from that fate–with real risk, though. Peace is about risk. Easy for me to say.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Elisabeth

      In Europe ‘never again’ was and still is used with a universalist meaning. I did not know that nowadays the common meaning in Israel is ‘never again to Jews’.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Elisabeth

      “The Armenians, Tutsi, et al. should be concerned that it’s never again for them.”

      Sure, we should let all minorities fend for themselves, and let them create armed-to-the-teeth ethno-states. To hell with well-intentioned humanitarian attempts. I should have told my grandmother when she was still alive that hiding a Jewish girl probably only made things worse.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Iwona

      There were no death camps “of Poland”! These killing fields were established and operated by Nazi Germany, and the first victims were Polish Christians, including my own relatives.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Iwona

      There were no death camps “of Poland”. These killing fields were established and operated by Nazi Germany on territory they invaded, occupied, and incorporated into the Reich. The first victims of the camps were Polish Christians. Interesting that there is no mention of Germany in the article.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Krakowianka

      Huge historical and geographical faux pas !!!
      Concentration camps were never Polish.
      Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939-1945 , they were the ones who built all of their concentration camps on occupied Polish soil.
      Russians attacked Poland from the east on September 17, 1939.
      Poland as a country did not even exist between 1939-1945 .
      Please change your erroneous information to concur with historical facts

      Reply to Comment
    14. Jim Przedzienkowski

      The term ‘death camps of Poland’ is incorrect. The Nazi Germans established the ‘death camps’ on occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Sue Knight

      Presumably they are learning that the Axis Powers were Poland, Poland and Poland, given the expression “the death camps of Poland” – and from the fact that there is no mention of any other country being involved.

      When I was at school, Poland was on the Allied Side… but its hard to keep up with the Official Media Version of WW2.

      The God of Abraham, the true God, has taught us that love “does not keep account of the injury”.

      We always always benefit ourselves when we listen to Him.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Barbara Kossowska-Szyszko

      Please correct an obvious error in your article.
      I am referring to the first paragraph:…”to visit the death camps of Poland…”. There have never been any Polish death camps. Unfortunately, in 1939 Poland was invaded, robbed, then ruined, and Poles had no say on anything, including how the Polish soil was to be utilized. All labour and death camps were projected and built solely on Nazis’ demand and used for what only they pleased for. Consequently, those were German Nazis camps. It is a historical fact, indeed.
      P.S. Also, I would like to point out, that Auschwitz, for instance, originally was built to hold and exterminate Polish scientists and political prisoners. In 1942 it became the largest site for the murder of Jews. More than 1,100,000 men, women, and children lost their lives in Auschwitz. Rest In Peace for every single one of them.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Bruce Sanders

      In the interest of accuracy, concentration camps and death camps were located in Nazi-occupied Poland–not Poland.

      Reply to Comment

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