ATHENS – “This is not the Weimar Republic, this is a united Europe,” Greek Prime
Minister Antonis Samaras declared during a meeting last week in the spacious
Maximos Mansion – the prime minister’s residence – with the European Jewish
Congress’s executive body.
Much of the Greek prime minister’s message,
made upon receiving an award from the EJC “in recognition of his courageous
leadership in protecting tolerance and human rights,” was dedicated to the theme
of balancing the need to fight the enemies of democracy, while avoiding the
undermining of the very principles on which democracy is founded. Both the medal
and Samaras’s comments were given in the wake of a recent crackdown launched by
the prime minister’s government on the activities of Golden Dawn, a political
party that uses neo-Nazi rhetoric and received 7 percent of the vote in Greece’s
national elections in June 2012.
The outcome of this crackdown, a risky
effort to prove in court that Golden Dawn is a criminal organization, is still
If Samaras’s government fails, Golden Dawn might actually come
out even stronger and more popular. The EJC decided to give Samaras the medal
now to provide encouragement and to ensure that no matter what happens, his
efforts are acknowledged.
Samaras’s decision, during a meeting with
leaders of Europe’s most influential Jewish institution, to evoke Weimar, even
if to reject any similarities between it and present-day Greece, is not at all
disconnected from the general discourse surrounding the plight of Greece.
Greece’s sorrowful economic situation and the worrying rise of Golden Dawn –
even the inclusion of at least one politician with a fascist background in
Samaras’s government – understandably remind quite a few both inside and outside
of Greece of Germany in the 1930s.
Greece is widely believed to be on the
brink of economic catastrophe. Without regular injections of hundreds of
billions of euros into Greece’s economy presided over by the troika – an
alliance of international creditors made up of the European Commission, European
Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – and funded principally by the
Germans, Greece risks going broke and being forced out of the euro zone. If this
were to happen, Greek banks would collapse and Greeks would “loot the
supermarkets” Oxford-educated Greek Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras told The
New Yorker in September.
No longer pegged to the euro, Greece’s currency
would undergo a precipitous devaluation. We would be witness to Weimar- era
images of Greeks coming to market with baskets full of cash to buy bread and
vegetables. One positive result would be that Greece’s exports would suddenly
become very cheap, fueling economic growth.
The troika makes its aid
conditional upon various austerity measures that have drastically cut pensions
and resulted in the layoff of hundreds of thousands of workers (the Greek
unemployment rate is 27%, and is even higher for workers aged 25 to 30). Greek’s
Jews have suffered along with everyone else, and the organized Jewish
communities are cash-strapped and overburdened with requests for aid.
next installment of the troika-arranged cash infusion is conditional upon at
least two reforms: one which would allow creditors to evict Greeks who default
on mortgage payments, and one which would enable public sector layoffs of more
than 5% of the workforce. Samaras, meanwhile, has warned that if the troika
pushes too hard and thousands of Greeks are forced out of their workplaces and
their homes, his narrow coalition will fall apart and a government even less
disposed to austerity measures will be voted in – led, perhaps, by the leftist
opposition party SYRIZA, neck-in-neck in opinion polls with Samaras’s New
The allusion to Weimar is also connected to worrying
signs of a rise in the popularity of Golden Dawn, which has serious
ramifications for, among others, Greece’s 5,000-strong Jewish community split
primarily between Athens and Thessaloniki.
Once a fringe group known for
Nazi-like stiff-arm salutes and Holocaust denial, Golden Dawn has risen to
nearly 15% support in opinion polls this fall. Golden Dawn’s new-found political
attraction is part of a wider phenomenon sweeping across Europe, from Spain and
Finland to France and Hungary, in which extremists on both the Left and Right,
with agendas calling for anti-EU separatism and/or the expulsion of immigrants
are on the rise, while centrist parties’ support bases have deteriorated. These
smaller centrist parties have increasingly been forced to adopt more extremist
positions, or risk losing votes to newly popular fascist or communist
The rise of Golden Dawn is undoubtedly connected to Greece’s dire
economic situation and to the influx of migrant workers, who are an additional
drain on an already battered economy. But as one scholar of European
anti-Semitism noted, it was not immediately clear why Greece, a country without
a profound history of anti-Semitism, has produced a party like Golden Dawn –
while Spain, known for its long tradition of anti-Semitism and afflicted by
similar levels of unemployment, illegal immigration and stagnant growth, has not
produced its own popular fascist party.
Leaders of the Jewish community
in Greece with whom I spoke provided no more insight. Perhaps it has to do with
the strong influence of the Greek Orthodox Church, which never underwent a
reform comparable to Catholicism’s Nostra Aetate that included the revamping of
negative attitudes toward non-Christians, including Jews. And the Greek Orthodox
Church is intimately tied to Greeks’ national identity, unlike the more
universalist Catholic Church. Perhaps the country’s political culture, which was
shaped in part by a military junta that ruled between 1967 and 1974, is also a
Golden Dawn has strong supporters both in the Greek Orthodox
Church and within the military and the police. In September, when black-clad
Golden Dawn thugs chased and attacked Pavlos Fyssas, a 34-year-old anti-fascist
rapper in Piraeus, police on the scene stood by watching.
Only after a
Golden Dawn member fatally stabbed the rapper did the police officers make an
arrest, according to eyewitnesses.
There have been numerous incidents in
which Golden Dawn members have viciously beaten Pakistani, Afghani and Egyptian
migrants and at least one – Shehzad Luqman – was stabbed to death in Athens in
January. In its 2012 election campaign, the party vowed to “clean” Greece of
immigrants. But only the murder of Fyssas, an ethnic Greek, truly resonated with
Samaras, who originally seemed to think that the best way of
dealing with Golden Dawn was to ignore it, under the hope that when the economy
improved the party would lose its attraction, changed tactics and launched a
crackdown. Raids were launched on Golden Dawn’s offices; phone connections from
the night of Fyssas’s murder were mapped; witness protection was granted to some
ex-members of Golden Dawn. Six party members in parliament and 30 activists were
indicted for allegedly belonging to a criminal organization.
spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, a lawmaker with a swastika tattooed on his shoulder,
said the effort was a conspiracy led by “the European Commission, the US
government and the Israeli lobby.”
Expressions of anti-Semitism are by no
means unique to Greece. A recently published survey conducted in 2012 by the EU
Fundamental Rights Agency among 5,847 Jews living in Belgium, Britain, Germany,
France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia and Sweden found that large percentages (76%)
thought anti-Semitism had increased either a lot or a little over the past five
years; that 27% had witnessed other Jews being verbally insulted or harassed or
physically attacked in the past 12 months; and a quarter were afraid to wear a
kippa or attend a Jewish event or visit a site which would publicly identify
them as Jews.
Walking the streets of Athens and sitting in coffee shops
with a kippa on my head I cannot say that I felt completely comfortable. And
some of the nastiest looks I received came from police. The Jews from the
community that I met did not wear kippot, though members of Chabad do. A modest
Holocaust remembrance site in Athens, located where the city’s Jews were
deported to Auschwitz during World War II, is periodically vandalized – lights
are broken, swastikas spray-painted on its walls.
president of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, told me that the
vast majority of the country’s Jews voted for Samaras’s New Democracy party. He
said they were motivated principally by the party’s economic policies. Another
reason mentioned by EJC members is that Center- Right parties tend to be
pro-Israel. But the catch is that often, these parties are in competition for
the same votes that go to more extreme right-wing parties.
case in Hungary, between the Center-Right Fidesz party presently leading the
coalition, and the extreme-Right Jobbik party. And it’s true in Greece as well.
Samaras has brought into his government men with extreme-Right political
backgrounds like Makis Voridis, special representative on migration. In the
1980s Voridis served as secretary of the youth wing of EPEN, a far-Right party
founded by Georgios Papadopoulos, head of the military junta that ruled Greece
in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Voridis succeeded Nikos Michaloliakos, Golden
Dawn’s general secretary.
Samaras also understands he has to balance
competing forces. In October, just weeks after launching the crackdown on Golden
Dawn, Samaras was in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem. When he was asked to wear a kippa,
he refused. The incident caused some tension, but one member of the Jewish
community explained with understanding that Samaras could not come across as too
pro-Jewish. Avoiding the kippa was, thus, “understandable.”
a few advisers to Samaras reportedly opposed launching a legal battle against
Golden Dawn, out of concern it would turn away right-wing voters. Some advisers
have reportedly even entertained the possibility of political cooperation with
the extremist party.
As one senior member of the Jewish community in
Athens told me, the minuscule Jewish community of Greece has very little
political influence. And the situation is not very different throughout
“We have nothing comparable to AIPAC here,” he said, referring to
the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
strategy is to keep our expectations low and remain on best terms as possible
with the present government.”
My natural inclination as an American Jew
who immigrated to Israel is to advise European Jews to make aliya. But beyond
the numerous difficulties of leaving a place where one feels relatively
comfortable culturally and economically, there are also the very real
existential dangers that face Israelis. This point was made very clear by Gen.
(res.) Yaakov Amidror, former head of the National Security
Toward the end of my short stay in Athens, Amidror gave an
in-depth briefing to the EJC’s executive body on Iran, part of which was open to
Besides providing a pessimistic analysis of the interim
agreement reached in Geneva between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 world
powers, Amidror emphasized that the mullahs running Iran were intent on
eliminating Israel. And while sanctions have definitely hurt the Iranian economy
and helped force the mullahs to negotiate, they have not changed their basic
ideology – which includes the belief that “Israel should not exist.”
telling European Jews to come to Israel does not really resolve the sense of
existential danger. It just switches a fascist European version of anti-Semitism
with an apocalyptic Shi’ite one. And organizations like EJC still hope to combat
anti-Semitism in Europe through legislation and education. For instance, the EJC
and others are promoting the European Model National Statute for the Promotion
of Tolerance, an attempt via the EU to define in binding legislation all member
states’ “concrete and enforceable obligations that ensure tolerance and stamp
I cannot help but think, however, that the rise and
fall of anti-Semitism is as inevitable as changes in the weather. Attempts to
combat anti-Semitism, while admirable, often seem futile. Worrying about the
rise of anti-Semitism is not much different from fretting and wringing one’s
hands over a coming storm.
Obviously, anti-Semitism is different from the
weather in the sense that it is given expression by humans and, therefore, falls
under the category of phenomena that depend on the conscious acts of individuals
with freedom to choose. But this only makes attempts to battle anti-Semitism all
the more frustrating, for it extends the false hope that because sentient humans
beings are the ones espousing the hatred, they can somehow be reasoned with or
cajoled or enforced into abandoning their beliefs.
Samaras is definitely
correct in noting that unlike in the Weimar era, today the European continent is
united under a single political entity. The question, however, remains whether
this makes much of a difference.
The writer was a guest in Greece of the