Friday, December 24, 2010

Israeli Education and Poland: What Does Israel Teach Its Schoolchildren about Poland?

Recently, in the comments section of the blog, the question arose: How does Israel educate its schoolchildren about Poland?

I sent the letter, below, to the Israeli Consulate in New York, to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and to Gideon Sa'ar, the Minister of Education.

I also wrote to four scholars and one friend, all of whom have been to Israel and are familiar, to a greater or lesser extent, with Israel.

Of course, these are all busy people, and they will no doubt have limited time to devote to this question, but I will happily post whatever answers I receive.

Below please find the note I sent to the official bodies mentioned above:

Dear Sir or Madam,

Hello, I write about Polish-Jewish relations and several recent posts on the blog devoted to my book "Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture" caused me to question how Poland is taught in Israeli schools.

Unfortunately, there is some evidence that Israeli schools have presented a skewed and negative image of Poland. For example, in his book "The Seventh Million," Israeli historian Tom Segev depicts Israeli schoolchildren as blaming Poland and Poles for the Holocaust "because someone has to be guilty of the Holocaust. We have to hate someone, and we've already made up with the Germans." Segev also mentions a museum that depicts all Jews in Poland as poor and with bent backs, but fails to mention that some Jews in Poland were successful and happy – because that image, Segev says, does not fit Israel's image of Jews in Poland. Segev quotes a schoolteacher telling children, "Jew hatred is as natural to Poland as blue is to the sky."

Marion Marzynski's film "Shtetl" includes a disturbing scene depicting Israeli schoolchildren at Ramat Aviv high school attacking Zbigniew Romaniuk, a Polish historian who had worked diligently to restore his town's Jewish history, and who was undeserving of the rude and hostile treatment these schoolchildren showed him. The schoolchildren state the following falsehoods as if there were true: that the Poles could have defeated the Nazis if they wanted to, that Poles are responsible for the Holocaust, that anti-Semitism is an essential and inextricable part of Polish identity, that there was no difference between the Polish underground and the Nazis, etc. The full transcript.

That negative depictions of Poles and Poland are not accidental to Israel or Israeli identity is suggested by a provocative and telling 2007 statement by Israeli politician Zevulun Orlev. Orlev argued that teaching Israeli schoolchildren that Poland is a "cursed" land, Poland is "the valley of death," and that Poland is the modern analog to the Egypt of the book of Exodus, is central to building a sense of Jewish and Israeli identity.

As has frequently been pointed out, Poland was the most significant site of Diaspora for Jews for hundreds of years, with estimates of seventy-five or even eighty percent of the world's Jews living in Poland before the twentieth century. Most of American Jews trace their ancestry to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Most of Israel's leaders do, as well. Many of the cultural features one thinks of as Jewish, from potato pancakes to Hasidic dress to a sarcastic sense of humor, are rooted in Poland rather than in the Torah. Tragically, given the location of Nazi death camps like Auschwitz in occupied Poland, the Holocaust took place, largely, in Poland. Given this, it is a matter of some import how Israeli schools educate, or fail to educate, their students about Poland.

I am eager to learn about how Poland is taught in Israeli schools. Are the pictures that Segev, Marzynski, and Orlev paint accurate? Or has Israel improved its teaching of Poland in Israeli schools?

I look forward to receiving as much information from you as you care to share. I would be very, very grateful for any statement that you might allow me to post on my blog. Links to online curriculum materials would be especially welcome.

Thank you.


  1. Thank you for raising such an important question. You didn’t raise this with the Polish Ministry of Foreign affairs or the Polish embassy in Tel-Aviv? It could be worth bringing them into the debate e.g. you/I could post the link to your blog on the Facebook page for Polish embassy in Tel-Aviv.

  2. Hi, no, I didn't, but that's a great idea, and I will plan to do so. Thank you.

  3. Has anybody responded since then?

  4. Israeli veterans visiting the US told us that they are taught as children to hate Poland. Someone Polish (or Polish immigrant) scholar should do a dissertation on this important topic. AND look at "Builetyn Badania Zbrodni Niemieckich w Polsce" (the first 2-3 years - Horror stories of German bruatality) 435 systems of camps, 17.2% of prewar population dead. Location of all major German war crimes.
    There is also historical illiteracy in the US. According to Prof. Norman Finkelstein (1999 pub) Germany paid $60 billion dollars in reparations to Jewish organizations, mostly Jewish American ones. Perhaps this buys silence? Know that due to the Cold War propaganda on both sides of the iron curtain, there is no war in WWII. Only the genocide and four death camps. This is what "holocaust education" presents, as well.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
These themes include the false and damaging stereotype of Poles as brutes who are uniquely hateful and responsible for atrocity, and this stereotype's use in distorting WW II history and all accounts of atrocity.
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