March of the Living is a well known program that takes Jewish children from North America and Israel to visit Holocaust sites in Israel like Auschwitz. The premise is simple:
THE MARCH OF THE LIVING is an international, educational program that brings Jewish teens from all over the world to Poland on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest concentration camp complex built during World War II, and then to Israel to observe Yom HaZikaron, Israel Memorial Day, and Yom Ha'Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day.
The goal of the March of the Living is for these young people to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and to lead the Jewish people into the future vowing Never Again.
While it sounds very nice, I've always had a problem with the program. Without going into how unspeakable a tragedy the Holocaust it, I've never been comfortable with how central it has become to so many people's Judaism and sense of Jewish identity. For many, it seems, the Holocaust is the basis and rock upon which their sense of Jewish belonging rests. And to me that's wrong.
The many reason I feel that way is because it provides a mainly negative definition to one's Jewish raison d'etre. Why be proud to be Jewish? So as not to give Hitler, y"sh, a posthumour victory. Why marry Jewish? Same reason. Why support Israel? Because the State will protect us from another Holocaust.
Only it seems obvious to anyone who is watching North American Jewry decline that this is not the case. In fact, it seems to be the opposite. The constant focus on the Holocaust provides short term affirmation of Jewish identity but in the long term it turns them off. Judaism becomes about suffering and dying. Identifying with Jews becomes about memorial ceremonies and a sense of loss. All the beauty that is Judaism, all the livliness and happiness that it contains, is lost.
Perhaps this is why more and more rabbinic authorities are starting to openly oppose the program, something that was once taboo because it was considered akin to not respecting the tragedy of the Holocaust enough. For example:
Prominent Zionist-religious figure Rabbi Zalman Melamed this week stated that Poland is an "impure country riddled with anti-Semitism" that Jews should refrain from visiting.
Prominent Zionist rabbi says leaving Land of Israel not for sake of mitzvah banned, as is helping Poles – who collaborated with Nazis – make living out of death camps
Less than two months ago another leading rabbi, Shlomo Aviner, almost sparked a diplomatic incident with the Polish government after saying that Israeli students must not take part in educational trips to the Nazi death camps in the country, so as not to provide livelihood to "murderers" who assisted the Nazi regime.
Now, one must note that the official Polish government position regarding Jews and Israel has improved tremendously since the end of communism. Poland even boycotted the farce of Durban II. I would not recommend not participating in March of the Living because of prior Polish crimes.
Rather, I would say there's a much different reason for not visiting Poland. One can learn about the Holocaust at Yad VaShem in Israel. Certainly many of the exhibits there have been designed to maximize the emotional experience of learning about Churban Europa. However, there is one additional experience that Yad VaShem provides that a walk from Aushwitz to Birkenau cannot: one leaves the darkness of Yad VaShem and enters the bright sunlight of Israel. One leaves the destruction of our parents and grandparents behind and sees what the survivors built. Jews are a people who, through the help of God, have survived attempt after attempt to destroy them and after this last, most horrible encounter with fire and death, built a new country out of sand and rocks, a country that has defied all odds to became one of the most amazing places in the world, all through Jewish perservance, intelligence and determination. The State of Israel is a positive expression of Jewish existence and, in my opinion, a far better place to create a sense of Jewish connection than in a glorified graveyard that is best remembered for posterity from a distance.