Israel cancels annual high schoolers’ trips to Poland

Tens of thousands of Israeli teenagers have been going on heritage trips to Poland every year. But this year the Polish government said it will no longer allow for the trips to be accompanied by armed security, citing that they are not necessary and their presence does more damage than good.

The Israeli Ministry of Education announced on Tuesday, June 15, that it will cancel all high school trips to Poland, following the Polish refusal to continue allowing the trips to be accompanied by armed officers of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service.

“It has been decided at this time that the activities of the youth delegations to Poland will be frozen,” was the message sent to approximately 7,000 students who were meant to go on the trips this summer.

On Wednesday, Łukasz Jasina, the spokesman for the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred to the Israeli Ministry of Education's decision to cancel the trips, stating that “the situation in which the security services of another country are carrying weapons on the territory of our country is no longer tolerable.” He said the Polish side “cannot afford situations in which Poland may appear as a dangerous state, against whose citizens it is necessary to protect Israeli youth.”

Later the same day, the matter was later also addressed by the Polish Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paweł Jabłoński. According to him, Poland has reached out to Israel in December 2021 informing the Israeli side that the formula of the trips will need to change, but there was no reaction initially. Poland reached out to Israel again in March when the new Israeli ambassador to Poland arrived in Warsaw, and the process of negotiations began.

Mr Jabłoński said that the way the trips are organised does damage to Polish-Israeli relations, as the Israeli youths only get to see Poland and Polish people “through the perspective of Nazi German concentration camps. They are not taught about the entirety of Polish-Jewish relations which lasted for over a thousand years.” He also complained that young Israelis are deliberately isolated from their Polish peers. In effect, the trips imbue their impressionable young minds with negative stereotypes.

Specifically addressing the question of armed security, he said that Shin Bet agents often act arrogantly towards other people visiting memorial sites, and their presence alone “creates a false impression in the trips’ participants that Poland is a dangerous place.”

He stressed that it is not Poland’s intention to prevent Israeli youths from coming to Poland, but to make sure that the trips are organised in such a formula, that they foster friendly relations between Israelis and Poles instead of damaging them.

Debate over the trips in Israel

The Polish side has frequently complained about the message that young Israelis bring back home with them from these trips. But the matter also began to be discussed in Israel.

A few weeks ago, Jerusalem’s Leyada high school held an open debate about the trips. Uri Meiselman, a guide to Poland, believes that the trips should continue, but he conceded that perhaps their ethnocentric messages could use an update and go beyond the traditional line of victimisation and nationalism. Prof Hanna Yablonka of Ben-Gurion University advocated for cancelling the trips altogether. She said that it is more important to learn about how democracies collapse than to visit the death camps. “These trips have no educational added value. You could do them in Israel, too,” said Prof Yablonka.

The high school went so far as to conduct an internal study and questioned some of the students, parents, and teachers. In the end, the school decided to cancel the trips, and in a letter explaining the decision, principal Erez Hacker wrote that “the desire to open students’ eyes to the Jews’ long and flourishing culture in Poland before the Holocaust, or to focus on other issues, disintegrates time after time in the face of the obligatory visits to the death camps. Their emotional intensity drowns any other message. We have learned that even painstaking, in-depth preparation can’t overcome it.”

In an article on Leyada’s decision to cancel the trips published by the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz on June 12, Or Kashti wrote that he reached out to “several well-known, respected principals”. According to the journalist, many of them agreed with the decision but were previously afraid to take a stance.

The trips of Israeli youths to Poland were halted during the COVID pandemic and were supposed to resume this year. The number of Israeli teenagers participating in them would reach as many as 40,000 annually. Organising the trips is also a huge business venture: parents would pay from their own pocket to private enterprises organising them, and would later be refunded by the Ministry of Education.