Israeli-Polish youth exchange programs to be expanded

A new Polish governmental department which will oversee the broadening of youth exchanges between Israel and Poland will circumvent the far-right Polish education minister whom Israel is boycotting due to his party's youth wing anti-Semitic ideology, Poland's ambassador to Israel said Monday. The soon to be established unit, which will specifically deal with Israeli-Polish youth exchanges, will likely fall under the jurisdiction of the Polish Prime Minister's Office and will not be based in the Education Ministry, Ambassador Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska said in an interview in her Tel Aviv office. The plans to broaden the youth exchange programs between the two countries have been in the works for several years now - amid concern that Israeli students were getting a limited view of present-day Poland - and were concluded in a draft memorandum of understanding this spring, just months before Giertych was appointed to his position. About 30,000 Israeli high school students are expected to visit Poland this year as part of Holocaust education and other youth exchange programs. At the same time, the number of Polish youths coming to Israel each year is in the hundreds or low thousands, in large part due to the high-cost of travel between the two countries, Magdziak-Miszewska said. She noted that the fact that a flight between Warsaw and Tel Aviv costs about as much as a flight between Warsaw and New York - about $650 for a round-trip during the high season - was a severe impediment to the growth of tourism between the two countries in general, and to Polish youth exchanges in Israel and in particular. The problem stems from the fact that EL Al and LOT (Polish National Airline) have a code-sharing agreement on the Tel Aviv-Warsaw line with no competition on the mostly packed flights. "As long as we do not create a rival to this monopoly, all we will do is talk and talk and talk about it," she said. The ambassador said that she was heartened that Israel raised the issue when she presented her credentials to Israeli President Moshe Katsav last month, and noted that the problem is now slated to be taken up by the Polish president during his planned visit to Israel in September. Earlier this year, Israel expressed its concern to the Polish government over the inclusion in the Polish government coalition of a far-right political party whose youth wing holds an anti-Semitic ideology. Roman Giertych, the leader of the staunchly Catholic party, has been appointed education minister and deputy prime minister. Magdziak-Miszewska, who took up her new posting two weeks ago, conceded that there were some "problems and concerns" over the appointment of the Polish ultra-nationalist as education minister, but stressed that she was convinced that Poland's relations with Israel would not be harmed by the controversial appointment since he has to conform to the government guidelines. "I am deeply convinced that Israel has many supporters in the new Polish government," the ambassador said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. The new ambassador previously served as Poland's consul-general in New York, followed by a stint as an advisor to the prime minister on Polish-Jewish affairs. She noted that Israeli-Polish relations were on such a firm footing that they wouldn't be hurt by the inclusion of the fringe far-right party in the government. Israeli and Jewish officials were concerned over the appointment of Giertych, the 35-year-old extremist party leader whose party won only 8 percent of the vote in last year's Polish election, to such a prestigious government position. Giertych's grandfather was a staunch advocate of anti-Jewish boycotts, with his party rooted in a nationalist movement which, between the two world wars, succeeded in both segregating and limiting the number of Jews at Polish universities. The concern is compounded by the fact that the Polish Education Ministry has until now been charged with joint youth programs between Israelis and Poles, interactions which are considered to be a cornerstone of future relations between the two countries. But the ambassador noted that concerns over any changes in school textbooks were unnecessary since it was "almost impossible" for the minister to change the textbooks, while budgetary allocations, which include the amount for Israel-related exchanges, were also "not easy" to change. The discord over the appointment of the Polish education minister follows a decade of burgeoning Israeli-Polish relations, with governmental relations between the two countries during this period considered to be among the best in Europe. "Obviously we want a peace process, but we understand that the main problem is connected with the lack of a [peace] partner," she said. "We should ask ourselves who among the Arab countries really wants the Palestinian state to come into existence," she concluded.