Spain Before Poland

“Best to stay at home, close the cash register of the trips to Poland, and start learning history from the beginning,” writes Avirama Golan (“Enough of the shock treatment,” Haaretz, April 10, 2007). I second almost every word. Auschwitz was not meant for 17-year-old Israelis, certainly not in rowdy groups of school pupils.

Some of them are serious boys and girls with an open mind, some of their escorts are good and devoted educators, and some schools have done excellent preparation work. But not all. Concentration camps are not appropriate for a first trip overseas, at an age when hormones are active, and as part of a class.

The existing arrangement – and this is written with respect and admiration for the initiators and organizers – is good for neither teenagers nor for Auschwitz. Auschwitz must be visited at the age of 30. Quietly. After a great deal of reading. Without mobile phones beeping and the sugar rush derived from the mini-bar at the hotel in Warsaw.

But to “learn history from the beginning” – Jewish and world history that demonstrates, as Golan suggests, how Jewish history is interwoven with the history of mankind and culture – one must not necessarily “stay at home.” Take the money, enlist more supportive foundations, and take select groups of Israeli pupils to Andalusia, in the south of Spain. Because there, in many ways, begins the story that ends in Auschwitz: the story of Jewish Europe, which is both an Ashkenazi and Sephardi tale.

At “Granada of the Jews” they will visit Alhambra and hear about Shmuel Hanagid. In Cordoba they will visit the Great Mosque, the beautiful synagogue and see the statue of Maimonides. In Toledo they will get to know the Jewish Museum of Spain and read a text of Yehudah Halevy, engraved, for a change, on stone. One may even dare to sneak a poem of Lorca’s into the program.

Israeli pupils, both Jewish and Arab, would take this trip together. Only those who studied and prepared for it seriously and with interest would be chosen to go. Their parents will pay only a symbolic fee, a sign of commitment to the values it represents. All the rest would be financed by the Education Ministry, the Spanish government – some of whose officials have displayed considerable interest in this idea – and independent foundations.

The birthright Israel project, which brings young Jewish Americans to Israel free of charge, may be interested in adding its participants to the Israeli groups discovering their joint past in one of the large joint cradles of the three civilizations, in an era in which they exchanged ideas, not only loathing.

Somewhere in Andalusia there was a small paper mill at the end of the Middle Ages. It was at that time that the ancient Chinese technology arrived, after a long journey across Asia and North Africa, and entered Europe via Spain. Without it Gutenberg would not have been able to print. And lo, that mill was operated by two partners, a Jew and a Muslim. Their clients from the north were Christians. This story, symbolic rather than historic, should be told to 17-year-old Jewish and Arab Israelis. You have to be a great pessimist not to tell it. It is a story of life and rejuvenation. It would not overshadow the story of the persecuted and the murdered, but empower it greatly.

Woe to a Jewish-Israeli identity that relies only on the ashes of the crematoria. Our European past also includes a thousand years of life, art and the spreading of knowledge. Would Israeli youngsters continue to line up to obtain European passports if they were exposed to the major Jewish role in the construction of modern Europe? I doubt it.

But instead of wrapping themselves up in the Israeli flag like a deceased person, they could walk the streets of Venice and Krakow and Thessaloniki and search for signs of life, not only traces of death. Our fathers had a place here, they will say. Our fathers helped establish modern literature, art and science. They and our mothers knew how to read better than most Europeans during most of Europe’s history. In their wanderings they transported with them innovations and ideas, not merely holy scriptures and memories of deportation.

And Europe did not always reject and persecute them. Maimonides was taught in Paris, Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin, the Talmud in Amsterdam. As for the justification for establishing modern Israel – that they will have to deduce for themselves. They are intelligent enough.


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