I have visited Greece on countless occasions, drawn by professional and personal reasons. But the most recent visit this month left a particularly deep impression on me.
It is clear, even from a brief stay, that the country is hurting badly. With unemployment skyrocketing, the economy contracting, more austerity demanded by the troika, extremists in the wings, and many storefronts and office for rent, even the bright sunshine could not lift the collective mood.
Yet I remain bullish on Greece.
Perhaps it is my American-style optimism. We Americans, influenced by Hollywood, like to believe in happy endings.
Perhaps it is my belief that the new Government of National Salvation, knowing it has its back to the wall, has an unique opportunity to begin the long process of turning things around, transforming a crisis, yes, into an opportunity.
Or perhaps it is because I draw inspiration from the history of Greeks and Jews, which Winston Churchill, in his own inimitable way, captured so brilliantly:
“No two races have set such mark upon the world. Both have shown a capacity for survival, in spite of unending perils and sufferings from external oppressors, matched only by their own ceaseless feuds, quarrels and convulsions… No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem… Personally I have always been on the side of both, and believe in their invincible power to survive internal strife and the world tides threatening their extinction.”
It may be more than just sheer coincidence that Greeks and Jews are today once again drawing closer to one another.
Each faces challenges. Each finds a source of strength and support in the other.
It is especially gratifying to see the growing link between Greece and Israel. I have been involved in Greek-Jewish issues long enough to remember a time when the ties between the two countries were weak and frosty, largely because Greece saw its interests in the Arab world.
Our point, repeated over and over, was that Greece did not have to choose between Israel and the Arab world. Other European countries managed to have good ties with both, and, therefore, it need not be viewed as a zero-sum equation.
Things began to change in earnest with Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, assisted by then Foreign Minister Antonis Samaras. They saw the obvious advantage in exploring relations with a neighboring democracy in the Eastern Mediterranean. That was two decades ago.
But in the last few years, things have really begun to take off in many spheres, with a potential for still more. As Greek leaders told us in Athens, “Greece and Israel today have a strategic partnership.” And the forthcoming visit to Greece of Israeli President Shimon Peres, following other Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, will no doubt take the link to the next level.
With the Arab upheaval in full swing – Egypt’s future direction uncertain, Syria in flames, Gaza in the grip of Hamas, and Lebanon threated by Hezbollah’s state-within-a state – the nexus between Greece and Israel suddenly makes a lot of sense to more and more people.
Add to that the rapidly changing energy picture. Israel and Cyprus have discovered massive reserves of gas in their territorial waters. That has profound consequences for the region, including Greece, which, I hope, will one day soon find itself in the same category as its friendly neighbors.
Then there’s the growing stream of people coming into contact with one another. Israelis have discovered Greece as a tourist destination that is alluring and, at the same time, familiar. And Greeks are realizing that Israel, a country that until recently had no natural resources yet built a cutting-edge economy based on intellectual capital, has much of value and applicability to share from its own experience.
As an American Jew with many friends in Greece, including the proud Jewish community reduced to a shadow of its former self by the Nazi occupation and deportation, I also do not want to be on the sidelines as Greece goes through its current anguish.
Friends are tested in time of need. This is such a time. Together with our partners in the Greek American community, I hope we will encourage more Americans to visit Greece, to explore business opportunities, and to support government initiatives that contribute to brighter days ahead. There is a reservoir of good will in the United States towards Greece, explained by the prominent role of Americans of Greek background in all walks of life, by the deep contribution of Greek civilization to the evolution of American ideas and ideals, and by the recognition that, for reasons of outlook and security, democracies must stand together in this topsy-turvy world of ours.
No outsider, neither Israel nor American Jewry, can singlehandedly reverse Greece’s direction. That is, first and foremost, a challenge for the Greek people. In the spirit of Churchill, I have confidence the challenge will be met. But nor should Greece ever feel alone in its struggle. Our task is to help ensure it does not.
NOTE: This column originally appeared in the Greek newspaper To Vima