Greece and Israel have developed strategic ties in the areas of defense and energy, while ongoing cooperation between the two countries' military leaderships in exchanging information on potential threats and carrying out joint exercises, is particularly important, says Robert Singer, chief executive officer and executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, the leading umbrella organization of Jewish communities around the world.
In an interview with Kathimerini during a recent visit to Athens, Singer hails both the Greek government and the opposition for supporting closer ties with Israel in a broad range of activities, while at the same time expressing concern over the influence of neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, saying that the party has damaged Greece's image and its views need to be combatted. He also expresses the hope that an ongoing trial of the party's leadership will not drag on.
Singer laments the high number of Greeks who espouse anti-Semitic stereotypes but expresses his satisfaction over assurances by Greek Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos that he is opposed to the anti-Jewish rhetoric of certain metropolitan bishops. He also hails efforts by the Education Ministry to teach the history of the Holocaust at Greek schools.
How do you assess Greece's position and role in the region?
Greece is facing big challenges, above all the influx of refugees from the Middle East and the ongoing economic crisis. It’s important that Greece has the support of its partners in the European Union. These challenges need to be resolved through more and closer international cooperation. I think that’s where the people I saw in Athens this week agree.
I welcome that both the Greek government and the opposition are placing emphasis on good relations with the Jewish community of Greece, with the international Jewish community and with Israel. It wasn’t always this smooth…
How do you view relations between Greece and Israel, and the prospects for them deepening further?
This is really a positive story. Currently, we have a strategic cooperation between Jerusalem and Athens in the military field and energy. This is not a threat to anybody but it’s important that military leaders cooperate, share information about potential threats, and hold joint exercises.
I hope this cooperation will be extended to other fields as well, such as science and culture. In the long-term, we hope it will lead to a deepening of the friendship between the peoples of the two countries.
There is also a potential for strengthening the relationship on a religious level, between Israeli Jews and Muslims on the one hand and Greek Christians on the other. We always encourage dialogue, whether it is in the political field or in interfaith relations. It helps to avoid problems and misunderstandings to sit down and talk.
What is your view of the Greek government and of New Democracy opposition party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis?
We are certainly encouraged by some of the initiatives undertaken by the Greek government, and its predecessor, with respect to Holocaust education in schools, with respect to better relations with Israel and with acting against Golden Dawn, among other things.
Both the Greek ministers I met with and the leader of the opposition, Mr Mitsotakis, are well aware of the problem Golden Dawn poses, and although government and opposition disagree on some things, they appear fairly united when it comes to certain issues such as this, or the relations with Israel.
As I said to Education Minister [Nikos] Filis, we are ready to cooperate in implementing any idea that can contribute to our common fight against racism and anti-Semitism.
Do you feel that anti-Semitism is prevalent in Greece?
Unlike other European countries there have been very few violent incidents against Jews and Jewish sites in Greece in recent months, so this is certainly encouraging. However, there is no reason to celebrate yet. As studies show, there is a very high proportion of people in Greece who hold anti-Semitic stereotypes, who believe that Jews run the world – believe me, we don’t! – who say that Jews hold governments to ransom, that we control international organizations, etc.
Some metropolitans of the Greek Church made anti-Jewish remarks but I am glad to say that at our meeting with Archbishop Ieronymos II, he assured us that the Greek Orthodox Church does not agree with these statements and that he is open to intensify the interfaith dialogue with the World Jewish Congress.
In this respect, I also welcome the efforts undertaken by the Greek Ministry of Education to teach about the Holocaust in public and private schools. This is important.
Racism and anti-Semitism are not just opinions, they are dangerous to our societies as a whole and they need to be combatted vigorously. The key to this is education, and also firmness on the part of the government and the leaders of civil society. We need people who speak out against racism, people who condemn hatred of any form.
How do you view the presence of Golden Dawn?
We have seen in recent years what damage to the international reputation of Greece was done by the actions of the Golden Dawn party. Its leaders are currently on trial on serious charges. I hope that this trial will soon be completed – it is worrying that there has been little to no progress in recent months. I hope it won’t be dragged out forever.
Golden Dawn must be politically isolated and fought, and I am glad that nobody I spoke to here in Greece thinks that any contacts ought to be established with that party. It is sad that Golden Dawn, a movement that is glorifying Nazism and Fascism and its leaders, ie the very people who attacked Greece and killed so many Greek citizens, is so strong in Greece. I thanked Archbishop Ieronymos II for the support the Greek Orthodox Church gave to save Greek Jews during the Holocaust. These are the people today’s young generation should look to for inspiration, and not the hatemongers past and present.
What are the prospects and benefits from energy cooperation with Greece and Cyprus?
This is not really a subject that we deal with at the World Jewish Congress but of course good business ties and economic cooperation between Greece, Cyprus and Israel are important and beneficial for everybody.
How real and viable is the recent improvement in the Turkish-Israeli relationship?
We’ll have to wait and see but I think it’s absolutely important that Israel and Turkey have re-established full diplomatic relations. All the countries of the Mediterranean, including Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and Egypt, should aim to strengthen cooperation. It is beneficial to all of them and it will also have a positive impact on the security situation in the region. Achieving stability in this part of the world is obviously not an easy task but it requires the contribution of all countries to be successful.