Jerusalem and Athens

Two cities, two cultures, both at the roots of defining elements in Western civilization. In the vast writing on each, we can rest with the summary that Jerusalem is a source of much that is spiritual, and Athens much that is philosophical, rational, and ultimately scientific.
Each affected the other in the ancient period when they were doing what came to be important for subsequent generations.
The most prominent Greek effort to learn about the Jews was their translation of the Hebrew Bible. Called the Septuagint, it came from a version of the Bible earlier than than ultimately canonized by the rabbis. It differs in some detail from the Jewish version, most prominently in the order of the books, which carried over to the version most used by Christians.
Greek thought and language also influenced the Jews. Scholars find words of Greek origin at several points in the Hebrew Bible as well as in modern Hebrew. The Book of Ecclesiastes is the most obvious example of Judaic spiritual writing that reflects the influence of Greek philosophy.
“Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go,but the earth remains forever . . . The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. . . . I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind." (Chap 1)
In terms of power politics, ancient Israel was a pale shadow, and heavily dependent on Greece. The Books of Maccabees tell about a successful revolt that provides the basis of Hanukkah but did not last. The victorious Hashmonaim eventually did what modern Jews have done in various settings. They became more Greek than the Greeks. There were high priests and rulers with the names of Hyrcanus, Aristobulus, Alexander, and Salome Alenandra, and court intrigues that resembled patterns elsewhere in the ancient (and not so ancient) world, Greek dominance morphed into Roman, and scholars are still arguing about the various streams of Judaic, Greek, and Roman influences on us all.
The greatest irony in this stream of history is that the Children of Israel are far more prominent and weighty in our world seen than the Children of Greece. However, the Jews who are notable in modern times are more Greek than Jewish. It is the Greek influences of rationality and science that have been absorbed by Jews, and produced far more Nobel Prizes than associated with Greek nationals or descendants. Modern Israel also outscores modern Greece in economic well being, its prominence in world media and on the agenda of world powers. Not all is rosy for modern Israel, but they are even less rosy for Greece.
It is not the ultra-Orthodox--who claim to be closest to what Judaism contributed to the world--who stand out as leading Jews. They are prominent within Israel, but more as a nuisance and barrier to progress.
The two countries are a bit more than 700 miles and two hours flight time from one another. Relations between their governments have had some rocky times, with the Greeks more partial to the Arabs, but that changed as Turkey as become more Islamic. Now there are joint military exercises between the Greeks and Israelis, as well as between the Greek Cypriots and Israelis, and prospects of joint energy development of the gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean.
That may change again with a recent tidying up of relations between Turkey and Israel, but it is too early to see how that will develop, and how it affects the Greek government. The US was prominent in bringing Israel and Turkey to what may be an accommodation, and is likely to be involved in keeping Greece within the American tent.
A visit to our neighbor reveals more prominently than anything else the greater wealth of ancient Greece. There are more ruins worth seeing than in Israel. A number of the ruins in Israel are more Greek or Roman than Judaic. That may have something to do with the greater wealth the accumulated at the center of an empire, and the greater population of Greece, along with the greater concern of ancient Judeans for things spiritual. The Judean contribution was what they thought and wrote, far beyond what they built. The Greeks left both books and buildings, or what is left of their buildings. Jewish heritage isn''t much more than intellectual, but that is nothing to overlook even while most of what is modern Israel/Jewish does not follow in the ways of those who composed sacred texts.
I recall my first visit to Athens more than 40 years ago. I arrived after six months in East Africa, where much of the construction was dried mud and reeds. It was August. We had flown several hours from Asmara, I was hot and cranky and the kids (7 and 9) no less so. But I could not resist the sight of the white marble on the Acropolis, and up we went.
Currently Greece is among the poorest orphans of Western Europe. We delayed our visit in order to avoid entanglement in someone else''s general strikes and other commotion. Now we''re here, and hoping for the best. For the moment, the Greeks of Cyprus are in worse trouble, but here there are ample signs of the problems read about.
One indication is an impressive infrastructure that appears too good for the needs. Our drive from the airport through Athens and on to the Peloponnes was free of congestion. An American or Israeli experience at the same time--mid morning on a weekday--would have been much different. Our first stop was the gentrified and tourist-oriented port of Nafpilo. There we ate excellent meals and drank good wine at significantly less than the prices we would pay elsewhere, and we were often alone or nearly alone in restaurants impressive in their facilities and decor.
It is far beyond the concern or capacity of this note to explain the long decent of Greece and the ascendance of Israel. However, the two historical processes warrant general observations.
•The quality of Greek life, still prominent despite current problems, has something to do with its European status. No doubt the Germans and others feel annoyed as well as responsible for financing the infastructure, but the European Community has its costs as well as benefits.•Migration, as part of the last several hundred years of "globalization" helps to explain the success of Israel as well as Greece. However, a great deal of Israel''s success has been outside of Israel and is more Jewish than Israeli. Likewise, many Greeks have done better away from Greece rather than within Greece.•The Greek story, as well as the Israeli/Jewish story both encourages and warns about changing fortunes. Americans as well as Israeli/Jews ought to be concerned about staying at current heights.•Israelis have to limit the support given to non-productive Haredim, and to the messianic non-ultra-Orthodox with unlimited territorial aspirations.•Americans ought to worry about domestic violence and poor health, as well as thier own messianic and foolish aspirations in foreign policy. The most horrible recent example is Iraq, where the locals and migrants are still killing one another.•Insofar as neither Egypt nor Syria have done noticably well as a result of Barack Obama''s prize-winning Cairo speech, it is fair to conclude that neither the American left nor right is free of destructive messianicism.•All must cope with American power and demands without being sucked into American foolishness. There are goods as well as bads that come from America. Media frenzies can make it difficult to know one from the other.
Survival and prosperity, or holding on to prosperity have never been easy. Somewhere in the benefits of pax Americana and globalization there lurks the threats.