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.