Israel scraps Shoah education tours to Poland for schoolchildren over coronavirus fears

Parents say they were given 48 hours' notice of the decision



Israel’s Education Ministry has cancelled all Poland trips due to fears of coronavirus, throwing the country’s Holocaust curriculum into chaos.

Thousands of teenagers were due to go on school trips to Poland over the coming weeks, but Education Minister Rafi Peretz announced on Sunday that “in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s guidelines, we are now forced to stop traveling to Poland.”

Ayelet Yungster, who runs the Poland department at Gesher Tours, one of the biggest operators of school trips to Poland, said: “Trips have been cancelled for all those who were due to go in March.”

Mr Peretz’s decision came as the impact of coronavirus fears was felt in many areas of Israeli life, from electioneering to halachah. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is desperately touring and trying to galvanise voters, is refusing to shake their hands.

And Chief Rabbi Dovid Lau warned people not to violate quarantine to go to shul. He said that, according to religious law, “anyone who is required to remain in isolation is forbidden from praying with the community.”

At some schools, the news that Poland trips were grounded came very soon before planned departure. Brian Klaff, who lives in Zichron Yaakov, said that his daughter heard just 48 hours before her flight was due to leave.

He told the JC: “Although we were given very little information throughout the decision-making process and the final announcement came less than 48 hours prior to takeoff, we support the Ministry of Health’s efforts to protect our daughter.”

But while parents and students are broadly backing the ban, many feel that it is a major setback in educational terms. Mr Klaff said: “Our disappointment stems mostly from the amount of preparation that Daniella put in to this trip, which has been a massive process that includes field trips to Yad Vashem, hearing first hand testimonies, and special classes to assist with mentally steeling herself for the horrors she would see.

“We believe very strongly in sending our kids to Poland to witness our history, and we hope this is only a temporary delay for Daniella and the rest of her group.”

The virus grounded Mr Klaff as well as his daughter. He was due to go to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona as one of about 20 companies that was due to exhibit at the Israel Mobile Association pavilion. But the event was cancelled.

As well as interfering with travel plans, coronavirus has sparked some controversies in Israel. Hebrew University chemistry professor Amiram Goldblum reportedly claimed on Facebook that the coronavirus risk in Israel is found in Strictly Orthodox neighbourhoods.

According to reports, the since-deleted post argued that as tourists from South Korea who had the virus visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which is popular with Strictly Orthodox Israelis, the virus spread from there to “the mezuzot to the synagogues and throughout the religious and ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods.”

Prof Goldblum reportedly insisted that his opinion was based on science not prejudice, and advised people to to stay away from synagogues, Strictly Orthodox community centres and wedding halls”.

He also claimed that Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a Charedi politician, was failing to take this seriously because he does not want to quarantine his voters. 

But Hebrew University rejected the professor’s comments, and the Strictly Orthodox media responded incredulously.

“No, this is not a neo-Nazi website,” declared Kobi Bronstein of the Bharedi Haredim news site, after quoting Dr Goldblum.

Mr Bronstein wrote sarcastically: “What fun to have someone to blame for Corona. The ultra-Orthodox mezuza-kissers are the ones who spread the coronavirus.”

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