March of Living 224.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Amid a push to bolster pro-Israel activism on campus, an Evangelical Christian group has partnered with March of the Living to bring Christian students to Nazi death camps in Poland.
During the first two weeks of August, Christians United for Israel brought 34 students to Poland and Israel to take part in a rite favored by thousands of Jewish students in recent years: to witness and remember the Holocaust firsthand.
"We agreed with their premise," said David Brog, CUFI's executive director, who participated in the inaugural March of Remembrance. "Once you've been to Poland and you've seen the death camps, and you've seen the greatest tragedies in history, then you see the miracle of Israel and the importance of Israel."
In Poland, the group visited Auschwitz, the Warsaw Ghetto and Oscar Schindler's factory in Krakow, among other places. In Israel, stops included Sderot, Masada and the Western Wall, as well as sites important to Christians, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Via Dolorosa.
On top of the solidarity many Evangelicals feel toward Jews, he said, "The fact that this could happen to any group of people on the basis of their faith is something that all people of faith need to take very, very seriously."
Such a trip was not the first by non-Jewish students. Over the years, organizations including March of the Living and March of Remembrance and Hope have facilitated trips for more than 10,000 non-Jewish participants, compared to some 150,000 March of the Living alumni.
"The Holocaust is not just a Jewish issue, it is a universal issue," said Dr. David Machlis, vice chairman of the International March of the Living. The group served as a tour operator for CUFI's trip. "We must learn from the past so that a more tolerant and just society evolves for humankind."
Irving Roth, a survivor who has accompanied several trips of Jewish and non-Jewish students to the camps, said he agreed to accompany the CUFI group "after about 20 seconds" of deliberation. "It's very important for them to understand and feel what this thing called the Shoah or the Holocaust is all about," said Roth, who is director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea in Long Island, New York.
Still, he noted a poignant difference between Jewish and non-Jewish groups. "The Jewish students who come, this is their history, this is their pain and their joy as they come to Israel," he said.
He observed that the Christian students "shared in my pain," adding that the trip offered an opportunity to highlight the evil nature of demonizing Jews.
"I want people to know what I call the signposts along the way to Auschwitz - Auschwitz did not happen in a vacuum," he said. "So when they see evil taking place, even in very small ways, even in a joke sometimes, they will see the significance of it."
Further, they will be able to contradict anti-Israel activists on campus who suggest Israel is perpetrating genocide. "They will say, 'No, no, no. You don't understand what genocide is. Israel is just trying to survive,'" Roth said. "To me, that's very critical."
Roth's message resonated for Scott Mason, a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, who described how, as an Evangelical Christian, he believes in a biblical mandate to support the Jewish people and the state of Israel. "I'm not Jewish but I tried to place my family in those positions, and you can't adequately describe it," he said.
Mason, who traveled to Israel two years ago, described his visit to the camps in bleak terms, recalling feelings of darkness and "the smell of death" at Majdanek. "You felt like you saw evil firsthand, even though going today doesn't compare at all with what happened so many years before."
Seeing the camps reaffirmed his commitment to supporting Israel and preventing future genocides, he said. "From a personal aspect, I had emotions of sickness and sadness and anger."
He described his arrival in Israel in few words: "Israel lives," he said. "While the Jewish people and the state of Israel may not be threatened with a concentration camp today, they are very much threatened by other things.
"This is our wake-up call to never allow this to happen again."
During the trip, CUFI'S Brog said organizers stressed that Israel exists not because of the Holocaust, but despite the Holocaust. "Israel's right to exist is based on thousands of years of history and a Jewish connection with the land that goes back millennia," he said.
Brog called the trip a great success from the perspective of trying to encourage a broad base of support for Israel in the Christian community. "The [participants] made connections that made it clear to me that they were going to be full, enthusiastic partners in Jewish survival through the state of Israel," he said.