“I strongly believe that [the Golden Dawn party] should be banned,” Greek Deputy Minister of Justice, Transparency and Human Rights Konstantinos Karagounis told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Interviewed in the aftermath of EU elections that saw the far-right group enter the European Parliament for the first time, Karagounis indicated that his views on how best to combat the group have changed.
In an interview with this newspaper last year, Karagounis said a ban of the party deemed neo-Nazi by the World Jewish Congress would be counterproductive.
While Greece must face the rising influence of Golden Dawn in a “determined way,” there are examples of such bans in other countries that “generated the exact opposite result.”
Since then, the Greek government has cracked down on Golden Dawn’s leadership, arresting many of its top members, including several MPs, following the killing of a popular left-wing rapper by a party sympathizer.
Despite many of those arrested being charged with running a criminal organization, however, the party is still legal and Greece’s high court cleared it to run in the European elections.
While he respects the right of an independent judiciary to adjudicate on the legality of the party, Karagounis said that “if you would ask me the same question right now I would say that, yes, this party should be banned.”
In combating Golden Dawn, whose leaders use imagery and symbols akin to those of the Nazis, and publicly declare their denial of the Holocaust and admiration for Adolf Hitler, a distinction must be made between the leaders and members of the party, who should be prosecuted, and the nearly 10 percent of Greeks who voted for the faction, he added.
Most Golden Dawn supporters “are not Nazis [and] not anti-Semitic,” but rather “people who registered their frustration in the last elections” over the economy, he said.
Despite gains made by the far Right, Karagounis was optimistic that the party’s growth could be contained and eventually rolled back.
“Of course, as our economy is getting better and better I think we are going to reduce the power of this Nazi party,” he said, adding that public education and ideological battle would serve well to fulfill the government’s goals.
“As far as the people that voted for this party, we have to make a lot of efforts, mainly ideological, and of course political efforts to repatriate them and reduce the power of this party,” he said. “On the other side, we will be strict and decisive about the leaders and members of this party.”
Speaking at the World Jewish Congress’ plenum in Budapest in May 2013, David Saltiel, then president of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, said that the government would soon pass a tough hate speech law that would outlaw incitement against people because of their race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation, and impose up to six years in prison for offenders.
A year later, Karagounis, one of the primary backers of the bill, said that it should come to a vote next month and lead to his country “minimizing the freedom of expression” for racist or anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Recent reports by both by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights and the Anti-Defamation League criticized the Mediterranean nation for its high levels of anti-Semitism.
In December, the Agency for Fundamental Rights decried the “mainstreaming of elements of extremist ideology in political and public discourse” in Europe, especially in Greece and Hungary, while a study the ADL released last month pointed to Greece as the most anti-Semitic country outside of the Middle East and North Africa.
According to the survey, 6.3 million Greeks (69 percent) out of a population of over 9 million harbor anti-Semitic attitudes.
Karagounis said that he was unfamiliar with the ADL study and that he believed his country to be somewhere around average for Europe or even better when it came to anti-Semitism. Greece is “in the middle, maybe lower,” he said.
“I think anti-Semitism is rising in Europe – it’s masquerading under [the guise] of anti-Israel propaganda, so we have to be very careful and we have to be very decisive in combating anti-Semitism. This is what we are doing in Greece right now,” he said.