Greece: the missing link between Israel and Palestine

Greece’s rapprochement with Palestine created many pro-Palestine liberation caucuses in universities and gave youth a struggle to identify with, in the spirit of Greek resistance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, November 25, 2015 (photo credit: KOBY GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, November 25, 2015
(photo credit: KOBY GIDEON/GPO)
As Greek Jews living in Jerusalem we follow closely Greece’s current change of strategy with regard to Israel and Palestine. A few op-eds were written on the subject by various analysts and politicians but nothing has so far appeared from the perspective of Greek Jews who on the one hand experienced life in Greece as Jews and on the other have experienced Israel’s politics and approach as Israelis. And it is the distinct voice of Greek Jews, who made aliya as adults, that we want to have heard.
Greece’s rapprochement with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority reached its zenith in the 1980s with then prime minister Andreas Papandreou opening the gates of Greece to the Palestinians. We were both growing up in Greece at the time, in a Jewish community which boasted a presence of many generations and with a mutual background of Holocaust survivors in our respective families. The friendship between Papandreou and Arafat was a shock and viewed as a menace by our community.
Greek Jews were on the verge of being unwanted and threatened in their own country. Pro-Palestinian spirit within the ruling socialist party, PASOK, but also in the Greek mainstream came with anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli demonstrations. It was at that time that my father’s textile shop in the center of Athens was vandalized with graffiti on the shop window that read “Jewish pigs, assassins” – obviously referring to the Greek identification with the Palestinian cause.
Greece’s rapprochement with Palestine created many pro-Palestine liberation caucuses in universities and gave youth a struggle to identify with, in the spirit of Greek resistance. In those days many Palestinian youth flooded the state-funded Greek universities, where they had the privilege of studying for free – like Greeks, funded by the Greek tax-payer, while the Greek state supplied Palestinians in Greece and Palestine with humanitarian aid.
But somehow today, even though a majority of Greek people are still pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel in their worldview, Greeks recognize that the close relationship with Palestine did not contribute much to Greece in return. The relationship was rather one-sided: Greece was the giver and Palestine the receiver.
At the same time, the relationship with Israel was a big taboo for Greece for many years and it was only the right-wing government of Konstantinos Mitsotakis that eventually came forward and established full diplomatic relations with Israel, in 1990. In contrast, the opposite was true for Israelis when it came to Greece: a strong philhellene spirit was present from the time of Ben-Gurion, through Greek philosophy and high culture, through the influx of Greek Jews and their contribution to building the State of Israel, right up to today’s embrace of Greek popular music, cuisine and culture. For modern Israelis, love for Greece is as old as the state, and when many Israelis choose Greece as their vacation destination, they return feeling an immediate acceptance and embrace of the authentic Mediterranean spirit and identity that Greece still represents.
The exciting aspect about Greece’s recent rapprochement with Israel is that it does not need be disruptive of Greece’s ties to Palestine, but can rather serve as a force for rapprochement among all three neighbors: Israel, Greece and Palestine. Greece can stage itself diplomatically as a mediator and bridge between the two cultures. For us, Greek Israelis, it is crystal clear that Greece’s hospitable and friendly Mediterranean good-hearted approach constitutes the missing piece of the puzzle to building human relations and trust, to foster contact between people, to bring communities, cultures and religions closer, and thus help build peace in the region.
The Greek crisis may not be in vain: Greece is really paying a high price for past mistakes and mismanagement.
But now, as Greece moves out of its comfort zone we experience a shift in governance, and a fresh reexamining of its interests. The Greek position does not need to be “either or” but rather “both and,” choosing to act first upon its own micro interests, and second upon its macro interests. Greece’s choices do not have to be led only by ideology or by only financial interests. Its decisions may be led by a combination of factors putting first the human factor and how choices of today will influence the future. A tragic example of wrong choices is Europe’s five-year foot-dragging in Syria, resulting today in the influx of thousands of refugees – and many illegal immigrants – into Europe.
We have been living in Israel for more than 20 years. But although our connection to Greece is constantly strengthened, we have experienced a sharp shift in our own perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite our earlier feelings when we grew up in Greece, over the years we have become more exposed to the neighboring Palestinian community and professionals, and through our non-profit work we have developed programs to encourage human contact, dialogue and cooperation between young Israeli and Palestinian professionals. Getting to know the other makes it much easier to accept the other, and to find ways to live together or live side by side – whatever the political decision may be.
A place that has taught us a great deal about coexistence is the Greek community center in the Greek colony of Jerusalem. The Greek center could serve as a model, a prototype of a vision, were Greeks, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims and Christians sit together and talk to each other over a cup of coffee.
Every Saturday morning, at 8 Yehoshua Bin Nun street, where the compound gate is always open and the well-tended garden welcoming, one will hear Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, French and English, and may also taste different cuisine and cherish the company of a variety of people. Greek “filoxenia” (welcoming of the other) can be the guiding principle for a polyphonic symphony of religious and cultural diversity, to be achieved and to be sustainable and rewarding for all.
Yvette Nahmia-Messinas is the author of the collection of poems They All Sound Like Love Songs, Women Healing Israeli-Palestinian Relations and co-founder of NGO ECOWEEK along with her husband architect Dr. Elias Messinas. Greek-Israeli NGO ECOWEEK fosters regional cooperation among young professionals through sustainable design and architecture.