“We have turned a page in Greek-Israeli relations and there’s no going back,” says Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president and chief executive of B’Nai-B’rith, one of the two biggest American-Israeli organizations in the United States.
Kathimerini met up with Mariaschin in Jerusalem on the sidelines of the Israel-Hellenic Forum, an initiative that included the participation of academics and journalists and is aimed at strengthening ties between Greece, Israel and Cyprus at the civil society level as well. The forum’s next meeting will take place in Greece, followed by Cyprus and the US. Coordinated on the Israeli side by the director of B’nai-B’rith’s World Center in Jerusalem, Alan Schneider, and on the Greek side by researcher and academic George Tzogopoulos, the event covered topics ranging from security and the geopolitical dimension of the relationship between the three Eastern Mediterranean countries, to cultural and economic cooperation. It was attended, among others, by Cyprus’ former foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides, Cyprus Ambassador in Tel Aviv Thessalia Salina Shambos and former Israeli ambassador to Greece Irit Ben-Abba.
Mariaschin stresses the need to further expand the relationship between the three countries, noting that the Jewish and Greek diasporas in the United States can – and want to – play an important role to this end, and concluding that even if ties between Israel and Turkey were to improve, this would not affect the “natural affinity” between the Israelis and the Greeks.
Ties between the Greek and the Jewish diaspora go back a long way. Why did it take so long for cooperation to be forged between Greece and Israel?
I think we went through phases. Our relationship goes back to the age of immigration. My parents were immigrants and, in one city after another, the Jews and the Greeks, the Irish and the Scandinavians, lived as neighbors. But they were intent on building their lives, not on forging relationships with other ethnic groups. The more they became a part of the American social fabric, the less they saw themselves through the prism of their ethnic differences. They knew their neighbors were Jewish or in our case Greek, but they didn’t see each other that way. I think that neither of the two sides – if we can talk about sides – invested in this kind of relationship. I think that some of the changes that took place in the region 15 years ago prompted us to start looking at each other and seeing if there were ways to work together. At first it was about getting to know each other better and then about the first step forward, when then prime minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis decided to upgrade the relationship. Greece at the time had ties with the Arab world and with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, so Mitsotakis’ decision to upgrade diplomatic ties sent a strong message. It paved the way for [ex-prime ministers] [George] Papandreou and [Benjamin] Netanyahu to have the meeting in Moscow where they said that it was time to develop a bilateral relationship. These signals were not lost on the Greek or our community in the US, and we both immediately started working towards this end. I remember that the Greek Embassy held two very important dinners in Washington, inviting leading Jewish and Greek-American figures. And we have not looked back since. We are making up for lost time and making tremendous progress.
The Israel-Hellenic Forum, an effort to strengthen civil society ties, met for the first time in Jerusalem. How do you see it progressing?
One of the panels was on the historical evolution of the relationship. Another focused on common points but also our differences. Last year we held an event in Sparta that addressed the bonds from ancient times. It was a revelation for those who attended. There are a lot of real things strengthening the relationship, such as security issues in the Eastern Mediterranean, research for and exploitation of hydrocarbons, tourism, Israel’s startup culture and the same issue in Greece… What I mean is that all things are not built just on a single pillar – at least I hope they’re not. Security is, of course, a very important pillar, but it cannot stand alone. The relationship between the Greek and the Jewish diasporas can help in many different ways.
Are the two diasporas also a factor in promoting the participation of other, bigger, countries like the US?
Yes. I think it is very important that the US is now the Plus One in the tripartite partnership between Greece, Israel and Cyprus. This has happened mainly because of the security issue, but also because of the two important diasporas in the US. We are visible, we are proud of our heritage, but we are also Americans. And it is this factor that attracted the attention of the US government and administration.
Do you see a closer relationship in the coming years on the social, national and professional levels, beyond governments and states?
As in everything else, now is the time to open up cooperation between the two nations. I assume that most of the people in the Greek- and Israeli-American communities, but also in Greece and Israel, do not know about all of the very important plans that are in the works and they need to be made aware. We need to organize events. I’ll give you two examples: We have already held two events on the Sephardic culture in the Balkans and we are now preparing an important conference with the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies on Eastern Mediterranean security issues. Then there’s tourism. We are talking with Greek-American organizations about how we can bolster air connections between Israel and Greece, and how we can make it easier for people to visit Greece, Israel and Cyprus as part of one package. United Airlines, for example, already has a direct flight between Tel Aviv and Athens. Next week, meanwhile, I will be meeting the Greek tourism minister in Washington.
Israel’s relations with Turkey are particularly tough right now. Do you think that a thaw between Israel and Turkey or Greece and Turkey could have a negative effect on the Greek-Israeli relationship?
This is a question that has come up a lot over the past few years. The more we progress, the less likely I think this is. The evolution between our two countries is normal and natural. We have proximity, history and respect. We grew up with Greek neighbors who were our friends, on the same block. And we hope that in the issue of security we will find ourselves on the same side in the future. We have turned a page in Greek-Israeli relations and there’s no going back. Those of us who are invested in this affair will not let it go back. I know the Israelis very well and they are very pleased with this relationship. The relationship will remain and it will grow. I think that what we are getting now is a level of comfort between the Greek and the Jewish community, between Greek-Cypriots and Israelis, that benefits the enhancement and continuation of this relationship. No one imposed this relationship on us. We saw the opportunity and we grabbed it. It’s true we don’t always look at things the same way and don’t agree on everything, but the context of history and in the present, with all that this entails, favors an ever-stronger relationship and this is the end we are working towards.