Greeks and Jews

In a world that is becoming increasingly violent and uncertain, it is truly bizarre that Greece, a haven of tranquility, should find itself at the center of attention for something other than the Olympic preparations. And yet, there we were again, on the op-ed pages of international newspapers yesterday, thanks to the attentions of The New York Times’ hugely influential foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman. «Reading the latest poll from the European Union, which indicates that 59 percent of EU citizens now consider Israel the greatest ‘threat to world peace,’ reading reports that Mikis Theodorakis, the composer of ‘Zorba the Greek,’ has opined that Jews are ‘the root of evil,’ and observing the latest bombing in Saudi Arabia by Islamist fanatics, the following heretical thought comes to mind: The keepers of the Muslim holy places and the keepers of the Jewish holy places really need each other today,» Friedman wrote. Even for Friedman, whose work is rich in hit-or-miss theorizing and proposals, this was a strange juxtaposition. Could Islamists blowing up Muslims, Europeans being asked dumb questions by pollsters and the ramblings of a 78-year-old popular composer in insignificant little Greece create a triumvirate of ills so great as to force the House of Saud and Ariel Sharon to join hands and walk off together into the dawn of a new Middle East? Theodorakis’s sin is that, at the presentation of three biographical books last week, he digressed into a comparison of the Greeks and the Jews. At a news conference at his home, which has a splendid view of the Acropolis, among journalists and two government ministers representing a fawning public, Theodorakis said: «We are alone. But without the fanaticism and self-knowledge of the Jews. We are two nations without brothers in the world, we and the Jews. But they have fanaticism and manage to get their way,» he said. «Today we may say that this small nation is at the root of evil and not of good, which means that too much self-knowledge and too much obstinacy causes harm. The reason that we (Greeks) are laid-back and have not become aggressive is because we had more weapons. They had Abraham and Jacob – shadows,» Theodorakis said. «We had someone of the stature of Pericles here. Can you imagine what the Greeks could have become if we had… the aggression of the Jews! That’s how laid-back we are. We are ashamed to say who we are.» Theodorakis’s comments went unremarked at the time, mostly because everyone is used to his stream-of-consciousness declarations and emotional outbursts and placed them in this context. But one newspaper, the right-wing Apoyevmatini, reported them, noting, however, that Theodorakis had never been an anti-Semite. As we all know, in this age of globalized communications, that was enough for Theodorakis’s comments to gain international notoriety. The story appeared on an Israeli website, Y-net, on November 11, with Theodorakis being quoted (in a translation by the Jerusalem Post) as saying, «Today it is possible to say that this small nation is the root of evil. It is full of self-importance and evil stubbornness.» This, in the retelling, naturally evolves into Friedman’s «Jews are ‘the root of evil.’» On November 12, official protests began coming out of Israel. Also, the Central Israeli Council of Greece said: «With his comments, Mr Theodorakis brought into the 21st Century opinions of the Dark Middle Ages and slogans which were used in Nazi Germany, with the result that he sowed in Greece and abroad winds of bigotry and racism. It is beyond belief how Mr Theodorakis, who has given so much to democracy, should make such racist statements.» These were weighty words, as the council represents the few thousand successors of the Jewish communities that has flourished in Greece from the time of Alexander the Great, if not earlier. «Documents on the History of the Greek Jews,» published in 1998 by the Historical Archives of the Foreign Ministry, notes the cost of the Holocaust on Greece’s Jews. «After the repatriation in 1945 and 1946 of those who survived the death camps of Poland… and the 8,000 who emerged from the underground and hiding, the count was gruesome. Out of 70,000 only 10,000 remained. On Zakynthos the mayor and archbishop saved the entire community (a unique case in the chronicles of Europe), but Epirus and Crete lost their ancient Jewish communities,» it said (page 36). This passage reveals both the extent of the murder of Greece’s Jews but also that 8,000 of them had managed to survive in hiding. Steven Bowman, a scholar of Judaic studies at the University of Cincinnati, noted in a series of books on Greek Jews that over 650 of them joined the Resistance while thousands of others served it in various capacities in the mountains. In one instance, Greek Resistance and Palestinian Hagganah operatives managed to secretly ferry 1,000 Greek Jews to Turkey, from where they went to Palestine. Manolis Glezos, a left-wing Resistance hero, rushing to Theodorakis’s defense yesterday, declared that the Israeli government was «forgetful and has no historical memory.» «They do not remember how many Greek Jews the Greek Resistance, including Mikis Theodorakis, saved from the claws of the Nazis during the Occupation. I will remind them: We saved 8,000 and there would have been many more if certain rabbis had allowed this.» He referred also to Theodorakis’s beautiful Ballad of Mathausen, a Nazi death camp in Austria. Theodorakis himself stated on Wednesday that he had been criticizing the policies of the Sharon government and not the Jews. «I was always on the side of the weak… And among them were the Israeli people. I sang their suffering as well as I could,» he said. It was not an apology, though it declared that being labelled an anti-Semite was «slander.» On Thursday, Israel’s interior minister, Tommy Lapid, a Holocaust survivor, said Theodorakis was not criticizing Israeli policies, which would be legitimate, but direct attacking the Jews. «He says that the Jews are the root of all evil in the world,» Lapid told Israel Radio. «These are statements of the type made by Goebbels and Hitler,» he said, dramatizing the situation for all its worth. By late Thursday the situation was spinning out of control. US Ambassador Thomas Miller ventured of Theodorakis that it «is sad and regrettable that a man of that kind of stature makes such comments,» only to have the government spokesman warn him yesterday that he was looking for trouble. «Particular care is required of people who have a specific mission in Greece and whose duties, in our opinion, do not include criticizing remarks by Greek citizens – especially when these remarks do not concern the country they represent,» Christos Protopapas said. Two days earlier, the government had said it did not share Theodorakis’s views though it respected his work. How did all this happen? How did a silly comment take on such significance? The obvious answer is that emotions are high, even dangerously intense on all sides, everyone is ready to think and say the worst of the other. It is easy to blame the criminally shortsighted and brutal policies of the Sharon government for heightening Middle East tension, as most Greeks do. And it is equally wrong to ignore the indiscriminate terrorism of some Palestinian groups, which many Greeks also do. But it is equally simplistic to regard Greece as representative of a growing climate of anti-Semitism in Europe, and then run the danger of provoking precisely this sentiment. (This paper uses the term anti-Semitic despite some protests that Arabs too are Semites: the words have come to mean anti-Jewish and are understood as such.) This is not to deny that there is anti-Semitic sentiment in Greece, which has not been brought out into the open. Jewish targets have been repeatedly vandalized, but there has been a strange official timidity in tackling those responsible. Still, it seems minor compared to other European countries which have much larger neo-Nazi groups and angry Muslims. In Greece the main crime is that of stupidity, complacency and intellectual laziness rather than ideology. This does not excuse it but it provides necessary context. Most blame lies with Greek officials, news media and the so-called intelligentsia for not challenging the monolithic view that the Jews are to blame for the world’s ills. With the excuse that Israeli policies toward the Palestinians are inexcusable, anti-Israeli feelings have intensified and been expressed in a loud and self-congratulatory way. Our debate remains at coffee-shop level, with Israel-bashing on a level with anti-Americanism. The arguments, which manage to unite both left and right, hold that the Americans and the Israelis (or Jews) are one and the same, omnipotent, and unjust to those opposing their interests. Greeks love conspiracy theories and this is the mother of them all – the key that unlocks the universe. Tied to this, as Theodorakis pontificated, is our long and close relationship with the Jews and our sense of being outdone by them. And the virulence of the Israeli attacks on Theodorakis now turns into a self-justifying prophecy for the Greeks: The Jews are exaggerating in order to harm us. The Church also plays a strange role. For the Orthodox, the Jews crucified Christ. Many parishes still burn «the Jew,» not an effigy of Judas, at Easter. The Church in Greece is quite intolerant of all who are not inside it – witness some priests’ refusal to bury people who married in civil ceremonies, and its opposition to the building of a mosque in the Athens area. A strong strain of Orthodox Nationalism says that only the Orthodox are Greek and everyone else is headed for Hell. Perhaps Theodorakis was right about one thing. What distinguishes the Greeks from the Jews is our lack of self-knowledge – precisely what that great Greek Socrates tried to say. We get passionate about causes without looking at reality. We have no empathy for the suffering of others. We do not expect to be judged for the stupid things we do and say among ourselves. Our tragedy, though, is that we are part of a bigger world. And that is a lesson that Sharon’s government, too, has ignored for too long.