Fortifying Greece's Democracy

 

Kenneth Bandler
June 10, 2013

 

Extremist, hateful political groups in Europe that have come to the fore during the economic crisis may, at least in Greece, finally be facing a backlash.

“The most important thing for Greece over the last two years is the legislation against racism and anti-Semitism,” said Benjamin Abalas, president of the Athens Jewish community. “I am confident there will be a bill adopted after the summer.”

Increasing attention in Greek media and public debate to the need for firm action by political leadership comes in response to Golden Dawn’s ascendancy.

The Nazi-like party won seven percent of the national vote last June and today holds 18 out of 300 seats in Greece’s parliament. Recent polls show the party, feeding off continuing economic despair and anti-immigrant animus, gaining 10% 12% of popular support.

“If elections were held now, Golden Dawn would be the third party” in the parliament, said Abalas.

“It would be a shame for Greece and democracy.”

While Golden Dawn’s main target has been Muslim immigrants, its hatred of Jews is no secret. Party leaders have openly questioned the fact that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and claim that world Jewry, especially American Jews, are responsible for the current economic crisis.

In April, Golden Dawn viciously attacked the American Jewish Committee (AJC), for the second time in four months. A grotesque cartoon on the Golden Dawn website depicted Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras sitting on the floor under a bloody AJC logo in front of a caricatured Jew in a chair, reminiscent of horrific, Nazi-inspired cartoons of the ‘30s and ‘40s in Europe. On the wall was a demonized President Barack Obama, portrayed as a religious Jew. The sinister message of the cartoon, and accompanying article, was American Jews “control” policy-making in Greece and the US.

For Greece’s Jewish community, 87% of whom were murdered by the Nazis during World War II, Golden Dawn is worrisome. Yet Abalas, meeting with me in Washington last week during AJC’s Global Forum, was calm and confident in discussing the community’s current challenges, and hopeful about its future.

“We know they don’t like us,” but so far “we don’t have any problems,” Abalas said of Golden Dawn. No synagogue, school, monument, cemetery, or person has been assaulted. Still, security measures have been increased. After all, only one or more individuals inspired by hateful Golden Dawn rhetoric could cause damage, if not deadly harm, as has occurred in other European Jewish communities.

A more immediate concern is the impact of the economic crisis on the Jewish community’s resources. The community depends heavily on income from its rental properties and donations from members. Rents are down by 35%, says Abalas, and, due to extremely high unemployment, many members are withholding their annual membership dues.

“Total annual income for the community is down by 40% to 45%,” said Abalas, adding quickly that all activities, schools and synagogues have continued to operate, in part thanks to assistance from US Jewish organizations.

A new law that penalizes anti-Semitism and racism, and Holocaust denial, would be a huge boost for Greece’s Jewish community of 5,000, down from 80,000 before the Nazi extermination.

I asked Abalas why, if there is general support across the political spectrum for an anti-racism law, is it so difficult to settle on an agreed text and get parliamentary approval? “In my opinion there is no difference” between the proposals of the parties comprising the government and the opposition, he said. The real inhibitor is competition to be viewed as the principal author of this potentially groundbreaking measure. “Every political party in Greece understands it is a good opportunity to make politics for their own clientele,” said Abalas. “This is Greek theater.”

Golden Dawn, of course, is the one party in parliament not supporting the efforts, though it has introduced its own version, aimed at protecting Greeks against alleged racism by Muslim immigrants.

While Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos, in his address to AJC’s Global Forum, did not mention by name Golden Dawn, or other extremist, racist parties in Europe such as Hungary’s Jobbik, he did not mince words in warning about “the return of the spectrum of anti-Semitism in Europe,” and calling on Europeans to stand together to end “a threat that undermines the edifice of peace and democracy.”

Focusing on the one country where he and the government in which he serves does have capacity to make a difference, Avramopoulos declared: “No one should ever believe that the country, which gave birth to democracy and respect for the human being, which has become the best example of resistance against Nazism, would ever tolerate and allow the revival of hatred and racism.”

Since Prime Minister Samaras and leaders of other political parties are not considering any proposition to ban Golden Dawn, a strong anti-racism law, with clear penalties, could help temper its audacious and dangerous bravado. As Abalas pointed out, this is of import not only to the Jewish community, but to all of Greek society.

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.

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