Israeli Youth Trips to Poland


On March 22, Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau announced an agreement to resume Israeli youth trips to Holocaust sites in Poland, pending approval of the deal in the Knesset and Poland’s Parliament.

The announcement was designed to end the suspension of the trips announced last year during a series of diplomatic clashes between the countries arising primarily from Poland’s effort to highlight German crimes against Poles during World War II rather than focus solely on Poland’s atrocities during the Holocaust.

Under the proposed deal, new sites will be added to the students’ itineraries, including some that document Nazi crimes against non-Jewish Poles. And each delegation of students would get a Polish guide (in addition to their Israeli leaders) at the sites their tour visits.

The deal – which reportedly will require every trip to visit one of 32 sites recommended by the Polish government — has been criticized by a wide range of Israeli educators and politicians, and by Yad Vashem, Israel’s main Holocaust memorial and museum. According to Yad Vashem, the Polish government’s list contains “problematic sites inappropriate for visiting on educational trips.”

There is also concern over the deal’s terms and its wording — particularly the explanatory language inserted by Poland that can be construed as equating the Holocaust with other atrocities. Critics argue that the trips should remain focused solely on the Holocaust — a degradation of humanity without parallel. Others express concern that some of the sites on the Polish list ignore documented aspects of direct Polish involvement in the Nazi effort to wipe out the Jews and commemorate victims of Communist persecution that include Polish militia fighters and others who murdered Jews.

Supporters of the proposed deal say the sites recommended by the Polish government include sufficient choices for organizers to avoid controversial places, and that the deal represents an acceptable compromise.

And then there is the political angle. Israel’s government wants to normalize relations with
Poland which, until several years ago, was one of the most pro-Israel countries in the European Union. That relationship started to unravel in 2018 after an increasingly nationalistic Poland passed legislation that outlawed blaming the Polish nation for any role in Nazi crimes. Israel’s then-foreign minister, Yair Lapid, called the law antisemitic. When Poland would not back down, Israel suspended the youth trips. In Israel, political opposition to rapprochement continues, with now-opposition leader Lapid calling the deal “a national disgrace.”

Both sides in Israel appear to agree that the high school trips are an important tool to teach young Israelis about the Holocaust. With that objective in mind, if acceptable sites are included in the list of 32 designated by Poland, Israeli tours can insist on visiting one of them. And if the Polish guides say anything unacceptable to the Israelis, those guides can be replaced.

As long as Israeli personnel retain control over tour agendas, programs and trip administration, some accommodation should be able to be reached to enable resumption of the trips and normalization of an important political relationship.


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