Whenever there is a profound social or financial crisis, covert anti-Semitism will make its way to the surface.
That was the message Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, delivered regarding the recent vocal surge of anti-Semitic sentiments in Greece, mainly through the Golden Dawn Party, which now hold seats in the Greek Parliament.
But Rabbi Cooper painted a picture that is both strikingly concerning and also improving, one in which there is much anti-Semitic talk (though not much action yet) on the one hand and blossoming Greek-Israel relations on the other. It seems inexplicable, but according to other experts in the field, Rabbi Cooper is painting an accurate picture.
Rabbi Cooper’s colleague, Dr. Shimon Samuels, director of internal relations at the center, has been focused on researching and halting anti-Semitism for the last 40 years, especially in Greece. He told the JT that much of the anti-Semitism (usually covert) in Greece stems from the Greek Orthodox Church.
“The Greek Orthodox Church still has a great deal of anti-Semitic tropes in its language,” said Samuels. “The Greek Church has not gone through a reformation like the Catholic Church.”
In Greece today, he said, there are roughly 4,000 Jews, but at one time, before the Holocaust, there was a vibrant, Greek-Jewish community. The Jews lived mostly in Thessaloniki on the Island of Crete. The Jews were wiped out when Nazi Germany invaded Greece during World War II.
While the first recorded instance of Greek anti-Semitism happened during the Hellenistic period with the story of Chanukah, since then, over the years, there have been highs and lows in terms of how overt versus covert Greek anti-Semitism has been, Samuels said. He talks about how during the 1982 Lebanon War, the Greeks used the language of the Holocaust to describe the conflict in the Middle East and blame the Jews. He noted this was likely because of feelings of guilt among the Greek population, which had been accused of not speaking up on behalf of its Jewish population when the Germans arrived.
“If they can dress the Israelis in the stereotypes of the Nazis, then they can feel, ‘I was not so bad, the Jews are doing the same,’” he said.
Over the years, there have been instances of anti-Semitic acts or hate crimes. For example, in October 2012, vandals spray-painted the Rhode’s Holocaust monument, which was dedicated to the 1,600 victims of the city who had perished at the hands of the Nazis. The public prosecutor, however, took care of the case.
In Samuels’ estimation — and according to Christos G. Failadis, press and communication counselor of the Embassy of Greece in Washington — it is likely that the Golden Dawn Party, which has a swastika-like image as its logo, is getting the acceptance it has because of the current dismal economic situation in Greece and the rise in crime by illegal immigrants. The immigrants are not Jewish, but there is general xenophobia in Greece, Samuels said, and anti-Semitism is coupled with that.
“Golden Dawn [members] will escort elderly Greeks to do their shopping, will help them to take out their money,” said Samuels, explaining that by offering social services, people begin to feel loyal. Likewise, he said, they have taken many of the young adults who are out of work and created a powerful youth movement. His fear: The party is not marginalized, but it is growing. While the anti-Semitism espoused by the party is now nonviolent, Samuels said, “It can and it possibly will [turn violent].”
At that time, the only solution would be for the small number of Greek Jews who still live there to leave.
But Failadis strongly opposes Samuels’ sentiments. He said, “You cannot characterize Greek society as anti-Semitic. That’s absurd and unreal.”
He echoed Samuels’ sentiments in noting that “recently, because of the economic crisis, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party had the chance to collect more votes than expected.” But he said, “Personally, I believe that the neo-Nazi elements assailing democracy and the rule of law will be marginalized by Greek society, which, in its vast majority, deplores intolerance and nonviolence.”
Failadis cited that Jewish and non-Jewish Greeks have lived side-by-side since the 15th century. (Samuels said a recent survey showed that 24 percent of Greeks would refuse to live as the next-door neighbor of a Jew.)
Failadis said he is very proud of Greek-Israeli relations, which have taken leaps forward in the last three years, partly due to the weakening of ties between Israel and Turkey. He told the JT that the deepening of Greek-Israeli relations is based on “the major potential for mutually beneficial cooperation in a number of sectors, including economy, trade, tourism, investments, agricultural development, defense, technology, energy, the environment, shipping and education. The multifaceted cooperation between the two countries is aimed at promoting development and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. This cooperation does not exclude, and is not directed against, any third party, and it is dictated by the multiple security challenges in the region.”
“They have cartoons of Israelis devouring Palestinian children but will welcome the Israelis into their hotels because they bring business,” said Samuels. “This is a mixed relationship.”
Failadis noted the importance of seeing the positive and said, “Look to the future!”