In the minds of many here in Greece and across Europe, the State of Israel was and is considered the state of the Jews. The Greek public does not clearly distinguish between Israelis and Jews, and even government officials often refer to all Israelis as Jews in their speeches, although not maliciously.
There are Greeks who believe that anything done by Israel, whether positive or negative, is done in the name of all Jews.
During the first two decades of Israel’s independence, when it made wonderful progress agriculturally, economically and even militarily — such as the stunning success of the Six-Day War in 1967 — Jews were highly admired by Greeks. Conversely, recent Israeli military operations — particularly since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000 — have elicited the opposite response.
Just as we must explain to the Greek — and, indeed, the entire European — public the many nuances of Israeli and Jewish opinion, it is also incumbent upon world Jewry to understand the complexities of continental attitudes toward Jews and Israel. The history of Jews in Greece offers a primer for understanding how we have arrived at our current cultural misunderstanding.
Roughly 95% of Greece’s 10 million citizens belong, religiously speaking, to the Greek Orthodox Church. During the long centuries when Greece was under the Ottoman rule, from 1453 to 1821, the Orthodox Church played a leading role in communal governance. Clergymen held administrative power, exercised unofficial judicial power in the financial and personal realms and led the struggle of emancipation from Turkish rule.
After independence in 1821, the newly established Greece legislated the official separation of church and state. But to this day, the full separation of church and state has neither been practiced nor legally enforced. As a result, the clergy still plays a very powerful unofficial role in nearly every subject of public interest.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, Jews were considered by many Greeks, particularly in the provinces, as traitors and murderers of Christ — a perception that had been actively encouraged in previous centuries by the Orthodox Church. It was only during the last century that clergymen, academics and enlightened individuals began painting a more sympathetic picture of Jews.
Despite public stereotyping, individual Greek Jews were loved and well treated by their fellow countrymen. Jews held Greek citizenship and had all the rights and obligations attached to citizenship.
While there was resentment of urban Jews prominent in the management of the Greek economy, the petit bourgeois and poor tradesmen who comprised the majority of Greece’s Jewish population were truly equal with their compatriots.
Before the outbreak of World War II, 77,377 Jews lived in Greece. Of the country’s 27 organized Jewish communities, by far the largest was Thessaloniki, which was home to 50,000 Jews.
The Greek Jewish community, of course, was decimated by the Nazis, and today numbers no more than 5,000. During the Holocaust, Greek society was relatively supportive of Jews. The Greek Orthodox Church in particular — and in contrast to centuries of official animosity toward the community — helped many Jews escape deportation.
But since 1967, and particularly since the outbreak of the intifada, Greek public opinion has soured on Israel. As perceptions of the Jewish state have worsened, so too have perceptions of Jews.
In order to combat negative opinions about Israel and world Jewry in general, we must insist on the facts from those who hold sway over public opinion.
The fine line between journalistic freedom and licensed irresponsibility is easily crossed in today’s charged media climate — and not just in Greece. Editorializing creeps into the dispassionate reporting of the facts, and respectable journalists sacrifice their professional responsibility when they add their opinions to all the news that’s fit to print.
Beyond making the media adhere to standards of journalistic integrity, though, we must also accept that even if Israel does not represent all of world Jewry, Jews are in some measure representatives of Israel.
Israel pursues policies with which a fair number of Jews around the world may disagree, but it is nevertheless doing so as the Jewish state.
No, Israelis and Jews are not one and the same, and we must vigilantly monitor those who argue otherwise to serve their own malicious ends.
Moses Constantinis is president of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, the main Greek Jewish representative body.