Greece, Israel ‘have come a long way,’ says head of World Jewish Congress


Greece is a key player in the Mediterranean and the strengthening of ties with Israel is an important development given the rise of Islamic terrorism, according to Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, who visited Athens on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day last week.

The billionaire son of Estee Lauder, who is also an investor and art collector who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy and then as ambassador to Austria under US President Ronald Reagan, calls for coordinated action against the rise of nationalism and anti-Semitism, stressing that it is a threat not just to minorities but society as a whole.

What is Greece’s role in the broader region?

Greece is a central player in the Mediterranean, which is the nexus between Europe and the Middle East. Greece is the country which is very affected by the stream of refugees coming from the war in Syria, and for this reason it is very important that Greece gets the support it needs to cope with these problems. Let me also highlight the central role Greece is playing in achieving a settlement in Cyprus. We all hope that a diplomatic breakthrough will be achieved in the months ahead. This could unleash a positive dynamic when it comes to other longstanding conflicts in the region.

How do you view deepening cooperation – political, military, intelligence – between Greece and Israel?

This has been one of the positive developments of the past decade, and I am very happy about it. Greece and Israel have come a long way, and both sides have a lot to give to each other. In times of Islamic terrorism and other threats, it’s important that the intelligence services cooperate to the largest possible extent to prevent attacks to our democracies.

Do you see serious prospects in the US for investment in Greece?

I am not an expert in that field, and my visit to Athens was to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. However, I do hope there is foreign investment that would improve Greece’s economic situation.

How do you assess the growing wave of right-wing nationalism, including anti-Semitism, in Europe?

The far-right parties in a number of countries, including Greece, are a big problem. They feed on people’s fears. Sometimes, they try to mask or play down their anti-Semitism, but often – like in the case of Golden Dawn – they openly state their hatred of Jews, and of Israel. But there are other factors: There is growing anti-Semitism from Muslim immigrants in Europe, and we also see growing anti-Semitism on the internet, in mainstream newspapers and even in places like the British Labour Party. We certainly see it at the United Nations, where Israel-bashing seems to be the UN’s first and only mandate. There is no need to be alarmist, but we are prepared, and we are strong.

What is the situation with respect to anti-Semitism in Greece?

I’m looking forward to speaking with the leaders of the Greek Jewish community and with government officials next week about this. We certainly notice reports about this issue in the international media, but we also sense a heightened awareness among Greek politicians that anti-Semitism at the beginning of the 21st century is completely unacceptable.

From what I heard, a lot of anti-Semitic stereotypes persist in Greece, but the actual number of anti-Jewish attacks is lower than in other countries. The way I interpret this is that we need more education to get rid of these stereotypes. Holocaust remembrance is also important.

On this point, I am happy to hear that an agreement of understanding and cooperation [has been] signed between the Greek Ministry of Education, the Jewish Museum of Greece and Yad Vashem. This is the sort of thing we need: cooperation.

Plus, all democrats in Greece must fight parties like Golden Dawn, because they are dangerous in the longer term if permitted to spew their vile hatred – dangerous to everybody, not just to minorities.

How do you view the rhetoric and role of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

I met with Erdogan a number of times, and he is certainly a fiery and sometimes controversial character. However, when it comes to speaking out against anti-Semitism, he has made clear statements. I am also glad that diplomatic relations with Israel were re-established last year. There are differences on a number of opinions, but I believe these can be resolved.

The re-establishment of Turkish-Israeli relations should not be seen as detrimental to Greek-Israeli relations. On the contrary, I believe they will contribute to the stability of the entire region, which is to the benefit of everyone.

How do you see the world during the Trump presidency?

The Trump presidency will certainly be different from that of his predecessor, but unlike others, I am rather optimistic. I have known Donald Trump since our time at university 50 years ago, and I think he will be a strong president. In any case, we shouldn’t pass judgment after just one week of him being in office. Let’s give him a chance to implement the things he promised to do.