Remembering Weimar in Greece

Admirable attempts by the European Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations to combat anti-Semitism often seem as futile as trying to change the weather.

Golden Dawn supporters 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Golden Dawn supporters 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 uncertain.
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.
The 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 Democracy party.
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 voices.
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 factor.
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 Greeks.
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.
Golden Dawn 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.
Benjamin Albalas, 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.
That’s the 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.”
Furthermore, 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 Europe.
“We have nothing comparable to AIPAC here,” he said, referring to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“Therefore, the 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 Council.
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 journalists.
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.”
So 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 out intolerance.”
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 EJC.