As Greeks voted on Sunday in their third election this year, my wife and I hiked up the stunningly beautiful Mount Hymettus. When we reached the top, we were rewarded with a panoramic view of Athens. But we also found a large red swastika, painted alongside other graffiti.
Later that evening, we learned that the far-right Golden Dawn party — whose symbol is a slightly modified swastika — had placed third in the elections. That marred an otherwise celebratory night in Greece, which returned former prime minister Alexis Tsipras to power.
Most Greeks are outraged and embarrassed by Golden Dawn, whose leaders have praised Hitler and denied the Holocaust. So there was a good deal of handwringing when news outlets announced that the party had taken 7% of the vote, slightly more than it won in its previous election. “Golden Dawn was the only party to hold its ground,” one disgusted commentator said. “Its performance is a danger and a disgrace for our democracy.”
But almost nobody pointed out that politicians in Tsipras’ victorious coalition have engaged in their own brand of anti-Semitism. It’s subtler than the neo-Nazi version, of course. But that makes it scarier, too, because it suffuses a much wider swath of Greece than Golden Dawn does.
Consider Panos Kammenos, founder of the right-wing Independent Greeks party that has joined forces with Tsipras’ leftist Syriza organization. Back in December, Kammenos told TV reporters that Jews in Greece don’t pay taxes. The comment was baseless, of course, and it echoed some of the worst themes of classic anti-Semitism: the Jew as liar, swindler and bloodsucker.
A month later, when Tsipras swept into office, he made Kammenos his defense minister. And they were on TV again last night, holding hands in triumph. Syriza didn’t win an absolute majority of the vote. By uniting once more with Kammenos’ Independent Greeks, however, it should have enough seats in parliament to form a government.
In many ways, the two parties — and their standard-bearers — are strange bedfellows. Tsipras is a self-described atheist, while Kammenos has called for closer cooperation between the Greek Orthodox Church and the state. They also differ on immigration, policing and gay rights.
But Kammenos has been vehement in his denunciation of Greece’s bailout deal, employing the same nationalist rhetoric that Tspiras used until he was forced to sign the deal earlier this summer. Kammenos is also a frequent purveyor of conspiracy theories, which are ubiquitous in Greek politics. Most absurdly, he has hinted that government airplanes have sprayed citizens with a “mind-altering” substance.
And where conspiracies run wild, alas, anti-Semitism is never far behind. According to a survey by Greek and British scholars earlier this summer, Greeks who believed in popular conspiracy theories like the moon-landing hoax and the 9/11 “truther” movement were also more likely to express negative views about Jews.
Ironically, Golden Dawn’s outright hatred for Jews might provide a kind of cover for the more polite kind. If you march around in stormtrooper boots condemning “Jews and faggots,” to quote a favorite Golden Dawn aphorism, you’ll be reviled as a fascist. But if you say that Jews don’t pay taxes, you can be a minister in the government.
To be fair, Tsipras made a point of visiting a memorial to murdered Jews when he traveled to Berlin for debt-relief negotiations earlier this year. And his Syriza party dumped a gubernatorial candidate who claimed — most bizarrely of all — that government officials had somehow conspired with Jews to plot “a new Hannukah against the Greeks.”
But Panos Kammenos remains a key figure in Tsipras’ coalition, reminding us that standard-issue anti-Semitism is hardly a barrier to power here. And Kammenos isn’t alone, either. Earlier this summer, another member of his party replied to a report about attacks on Jews in Europe by tweeting, “Have you recorded the attacks of the Jews against all of us?”
His comment echoes another timeless anti-Semitic theme: the Jew as usurper. It doesn’t come with a creepy-looking swastika, like Golden Dawn does. But that also means you can get away with it, which might be the creepiest thing of all.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education,” which was published in March by Princeton University Press.