In general, I prefer not to write pieces in the form “see the difference between my son and the son of my father-in-law.” For one thing, what is sometimes known as Orthodox triumphalism seldom serves any purpose. A stance of superiority is rarely conducive to influencing the one whose behavior is being criticized or drawing him or her to our point of view. In addition, self-congratulation too often distracts us from the self-criticism that is necessary for our own spiritual growth.
Sometimes, however, the contrast provides important insight.
The egregious behavior of secular Israeli high schools students in Poland – long a source of embarrassment – has now reached such a crescendo as to threaten Polish-Israeli relations. The May 25 Jerusalem Post quoted the Polish ambassador to Israel, “[H]igh level relations are not in danger, but the image of Israel in Poland is.” And the Israeli ambassador to Poland went even further saying, “the relationship between Israel and Poland is in danger.”
The latest in a long-line of scandals involving the behavior of Israeli teenagers on visits to Poland was triggered by a report in the Polish paper Prezekroj accusing Israeli teens of tearing apart their hotel rooms, playing soccer in the hallways of their hotels in the middle of the night, engaging in the lowest imaginable behaviors, and of humiliating the flight attendants on Lot Airlines, the Polish national carrier. The Prezekroj article was, unfortunately, not the first such report to surface in recent years.
The most charitable explanation for the behavior of the Israeli teens is that they were undergoing some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder after the jarring experience of visiting so many mass graves and concentration camps. Indeed that was the take offered by Polish ambassador to Israel Agniezka Madziak-Miszewska: “For some of the kids, the pressure is too high going from one death camp to another . . . . Some express their anger and sorrow in the way we saw in the article.”
That explanation, however, is too charitable by a considerable margin. At the very least, it would suggest that something is dramatically wrong with Holocaust education in Israel if what the Israeli high school students witnessed in Poland so shocked them that they lost all sense of boundaries.
If there were anything to the generous explanation offered by Polish ambassador to Israel, one wonders why there have never been such reports concerning any of the religious Jewish student groups that visit Poland every year, both from the United States and from Israel. Every year, more than a thousand American yeshiva and seminary students studying in Israel make the trip to Poland, and many more travel to Poland from America.
Just before Pesach, my wife spent a week in Poland with a group of fifty post-high school religious girls studying in seminary this year in Israel. If there was any group that should have been traumatized by the experience, it was this one. Nearly a third of the girls had a grandparent or grandparents who had gone through the Holocaust. And indeed there were many tears shed on the trip. But that was it — tears and Tehillim.
These girls had been thoroughly prepared for the trip with an intensive study unit of what they would be seeing. More importantly, they had been learning about the Holocaust and Jewish life in Poland all their lives. No doubt they had all read at least one first-hand account by a survivor of the camps.
(To be sure, not all Israeli students embarrass themselves in Poland. Many are deeply moved by the experience. A group of secular Israeli high school students was at Treblinka at the same time as the group of seminary girls whom my wife was accompanying. They approached the rabbi with the seminary group and asked him to lead them in reciting Kaddish.)
The simplest explanation for the behavior of the secular high school students who go wild in Poland is that they are doing no more than emulating their adult models. One letter writer to the Jerusalem Post pointed out, in response to the May 25 article, that hoteliers around the world are wary of accepting Israeli reservations. Israelis’ loudness and tendency to view every item not nailed down in their hotel room as there for the taking has not endeared them to hotel keepers.
But even the emulation explanation is too facile. For there are some things that even the rowdiest of people will not do after just having visited the grave of a close relative. If too many Israeli high school students behave like animals after visiting Auschwitz and Treblinka and the many kivrei achim that dot the Polish countryside, the problem is not that they identify too intensely with those buried there, and those who were incinerated in ovens, but rather that they identify too little.
In recent years, accusations have been heard from the likes of Efraim Zuroff accusing the chareidi community of being unwilling to confront the Holocaust. But, in fact, it is secular Israeli society that long shied away from the confrontation.
For many of the early state-builders, those who perished in the Holocaust constituted an embarrassment, the antithesis of everything they imagined themselves to be – strong, fearless, willing to fight to defend themselves from any threat. I recently heard Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, who survived World War II in the forests of Roumania, describe the shock with which publishers greeted his first work, which dealt with the Holocaust. “Why are you bringing such nightmares into our healthy society?” they wanted to know. He was asked, “Are you going to write about old Jews, survivors? You are going to bring old Jews to Israel?”
A few years back, Appelfeld accused Zionism of having followed the path of modern ideological movements in its negation of the past – in this case, the history of the Jewish Diaspora. The result, he said, is that many modern Israelis have “amputated their past” and left a “black hole of identity” in its place.
Appelfeld went so far as to accuse modern Israelis of having internalized the anti-Semites’ critique of the Diaspora Jew to the point that everything “that obliges them to remember that they are Jews makes them flinch [and] aroused disgust in them.”
Beyond the rowdiness, the vulgarity, the heedlessness of the image of Israel and Jews that they would leave behind, it is that rejection and alienation from their own past that arouses the most pity and disgust with the behavior of Israeli teens in Poland.
Appeared in Hamodia, June 7.