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Why is Greece the most anti-Semitic country in Europe?

by Gavin Rabinowitz, JTA

May 20, 2014 | 10:21 am

<em>Prime Minister Antonis Samaras of Greece speaking at a synagogue in Thessaloniki, the first visit by a sitting prime minister to a Greek shul in more than a century, March 2013. Photo by Gavin Rabinowitz/JTA</em>

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras of Greece speaking at a synagogue in Thessaloniki, the first visit by a sitting prime minister to a Greek shul in more than a century, March 2013. Photo by Gavin Rabinowitz/JTA

When the Anti-Defamation League published its global anti-Semitism survey last week, Greece, the cradle of democracy, captured the ignominious title of most anti-Semitic country in Europe.

With 69 percent of Greeks espousing anti-Semitic views, according to the survey, Greece was on par with Saudi Arabia, more anti-Semitic than Iran (56 percent) and nearly twice as anti-Semitic as Europe’s second-most anti-Semitic country, France (37 percent).

On its surface, the poll suggests that anti-Semitism is running rampant in Greece. Much of the blame goes to the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, which has found fertile ground for its extreme-right ideology in the ruins of Greece’s economic crisis. In elections held Sunday for Athens mayor, for example, 16 percent of the vote went to Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, a man notorious for beating a female political opponent during a television interview and for the large swastika tattooed on his shoulder.

But both the ADL and Greece’s small Jewish community caution that the reality is more nuanced than the poll numbers suggest.

“There is a danger of sensationalizing it, a danger of overplaying the psychological impact of the poll,” Michael Salberg, ADL’s director of international affairs, told JTA. “There needs to be real hard internal look at the data and examining what are the forces at play.”

For their part, Greek Jewish leaders took pains to point out that despite widespread bigotry, Greece hasn’t seen the sort of anti-Jewish violence that has cropped up in some other European countries, such as France.

“Despite the poll showing high levels of anti-Semitism, it must be noted that in Greece over the last four years we have not had any anti-Semitic violence against people or Jewish institutions,” said Victor Eliezer, the secretary general of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.

“This is not a poll about violence, but rather a survey on stereotypes, and yes, there are a lot of stereotypes among the Greek public,” he said.

The poll gauged anti-Semitism based on whether respondents agreed with a majority of 11 statements on Jewish power, loyalty, money and behavior that the ADL says suggest bias. They include such statements as Jews talk too much about what happened to them during the Holocaust; Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the countries they live in; Jews think they are better than other people; Jews have too much power in the business world; and Jews have too much control over global affairs.

Critics have suggested that the survey is deeply flawed because the statements are not fair indicators of real anti-Jewish bias.

Of the 579 Greeks polled, 85 percent said Jews had too much power in the business world, 82 percent said Jews have too much power in the financial markets and 74 percent said Jews have too much influence over global affairs. The margin of error for Greece was plus or minus 4.4 percent.

In Greece, anti-Semitic viewpoints are aired frequently, particularly the notions that Jews control the global economy and politics. In 2012, when the Golden Dawn’s Kasidiaris read in Parliament from the anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the reading drew no condemnation from the other lawmakers present.

Nor was there public condemnation when Golden Dawn slammed the recent visit by the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, David Harris, as a trip to ensure further “Jewish influence over Greek political issues” and safeguard the interests of “international loan sharks.”

Golden Dawn hasn’t been alone in expressing such sentiments.

Earlier this year, the left-wing Syriza party’s candidate for regional governor accused Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras of heading a Jewish conspiracy to visit “a new Hanukkah against the Greeks.” Syriza reluctantly dropped the candidate, Theodoros Karypidis.

At the heart of Karypidis’ theory was a move last year by Samaras to shut the allegedly corrupt Hellenic Broadcasting Authority and replace it with New Hellenic Radio and Television, known by its Greek acronym NERIT. According to Karypidis, NERIT is derived from the Hebrew word for candle, “ner,” which he links to Hanukkah.

Even the mainstream political parties have long histories of using anti-Semitic tropes.

“Greeks are fond of conspiracy theories, as they are steeped in conspiracy on a personal level,” Euthymios Tsiliopoulos, a journalist and political commentator, wrote on the popular current affairs website The Times of Change in the wake of the Karypidis scandal.

“As so many things are conducted through under-the-table, backroom deals, most naturally assume that the whole world is run in this manner,” he wrote. “As such, there is willingness to believe that the hardships the country and its inhabitants have undergone throughout the centuries is due to the machinations of foreigners. After all, it’s easier to believe this than to fix the perennial ills plaguing Greek society.”

Still, there are some signs of improvement.

Samaras and his government have moved to condemn anti-Semitic expressions and launched a crackdown on Golden Dawn, jailing many of its leaders. The government also has acted against Holocaust denial and runs school education programs together with the Jewish community.

“From the results of the poll, what is clear is that these stereotypes are very prevalent in Greek society,” Eliezer said. “How do you combat these stereotypes? Only through education.”

The ADL’s Salberg hopes the results of the poll will motivate others to act, too.

“Perhaps,” he said, “these very sobering numbers will raise questions within civil society among religious and civic leaders who don’t hold those views.”

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