On the Heels of Destruction

04/19/2011 06:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2011

Next week, thousands of parents are sending their teenage kids on a life-changing trip to pay tribute to the victims of the Holocaust. The March of the Living takes Jewish youth on the three-kilometer route of the famed death march between Auschwitz and Birkenau to witness the locus of the destruction of European Jewry. In Poland, participants commemorate an unforgettable Yom Hashoah. Many of them continue on to a second phase of the trip -- to Israel, where they have the opportunity to celebrate a Yom Ha'atzma'ut like no other.

Those who take part in the trip come away with the ability to visualize Jewish collective history in a most powerful way. But in pairing the Holocaust with contemporary Israel, the program potentially sets up a problematic linkage between Israeli policies and Jewish existential security. Parents would do well to discuss with their kids the lessons they are taking away about the Middle East.

It is widely agreed that modern Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel came about through a variety of "push" and "pull" factors. Centuries of anti-Semitism, culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust, pushed Jews to clamor for self-determination on the world stage. But Zionism was as much about the drive to express collective national yearnings as it was about the escape from persecution. Israel's core identity as a Jewish state makes more sense when it is viewed as an extension of national liberation movements worldwide rather than only -- or even primarily -- as a safety net.

There is a potential problem with introducing youth to contemporary Israel on the heels of sending them to witness the remnants of humanity's darkest moments. If the message is that the existence of Israel safeguards the "never again" imperative of Holocaust remembrance, then our generation's youth may conclude that Israel is justified in taking any action in the name of security to protect Jews worldwide. To what ends would you have gone, they may be silently asking themselves, to have dismantled the Nazi machine if you could have?

In today's context, Israel faces a delicate security situation at the same time that it has some tough choices to make. Iran's burgeoning nuclear program and Ahmedinejad's prickly rhetoric make Israelis feel threatened. But the Islamic Republic of Iran is not the Third Reich. Statesmen have often drawn on misleading historical analogies to navigate current policy with disastrous results.

Closer to home, Israel's continued hold over the West Bank is leading Israel closer to having to choose between being a Jewish state and a democratic one, a problem that observers have long pointed to as the occupation has dragged on for decades. How one views the security value of the West Bank for Jewish security will no doubt depend on which analogies are used.

Political psychologists have pointed to perceptual distortions such as the "evoked set" : what is foremost in one's mind affects how one processes incoming information. As I demonstrate to my students through the timed use of visual imagery, a visit to the beach will seem much different the day after watching "Jaws" than it will after watching "The Little Mermaid."

It is a conceptual stretch to say that Israel's recent announcement of 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem, or its continuing blockade over Gaza, or its snaking of the security barrier throughout the West Bank to protect existing settlements while Palestinians experience daily humiliation and collective punishment are necessary to maintaining the health and welfare of Israelis, and by extension, all Jews. But these are the kinds of implicit messages our youth might well take away from the trip, even if it is not the intention of the organizers.

It is an understatement to say that Israeli politics are dynamic, with left-wing and right-wing debates wildly animating the body politic. Many diaspora youth may eventually conclude that a particular set of Israeli policies are necessary or desirable. This is the prerogative of any engaged global citizen. Neither is this to say that Israel is entirely to blame for the current stalemate.

But we shouldn't be stacking the deck for our kids by presenting an uncritical link between the Holocaust and contemporary Israeli approaches to peace and conflict. The volatile mix of emotion, morality and rationality so pronounced during adolescence can create especially binary thinking of "right versus wrong" and "us versus them." While trips like March of the Living provide an enormously powerful learning experience about the dangers of racism and prejudice, we would do well to ensure that our youth take away the most complex lessons they can about the sadly enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

**This article first appeared in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin and the Vancouver Jewish Independent. The piece is to be the recipient of a 2010 Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism, from the American Jewish Press Association.