Behind the New Israel-Greece Alliance

Following recent discoveries of major natural gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel, Greece and Cyprus have taken a loose strategic alliance to an entirely new level. The three countries are now collaborating to build a $7 billion gas pipeline from Israeli and Cyprus into Italy, with the aim of opening up energy distribution from Israel to European markets.

Experts say the creation of this pipeline would gradually decrease the region’s dependence on Arab-Muslim and Russian oil—which could constitute a game-changer for this volatile region of the world.

Two recent events have boosted the newly formed energy alliance between Israel, Greece and Cyprus.

The first is that the United States began joining their trilateral talks earlier this year, with the participation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the Jerusalem summit of March 2019. One month later, Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez introduced a bill to provide more support for the alliance through allocating more military aid to Greece and Cyprus.

The second event boosting the trilateral energy alliance was the landslide victory of the conservative New Democratic party over the far-left Syriza party in Greece’s July elections. This electoral triumph swept into office a strongly pro-Israel prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is expected to strengthen ties with Israel and steer Greece closer to the United States.

Mitsotakis visited Israel last year and publicly vowed to enhance relations were he to be elected prime minister. Addressing the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Jerusalem, he offered his “personal commitment” to strengthen Israel-Greek ties, “should the Greek people give me the opportunity of leading my people.”

Mitsotakis is the son of Konstantinos Mitsotakis, a former Greek prime minister who established full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1990.Until then, Greece had refused to recognize Israel.

“As obvious as that decision [to recognize Israel] seems to us now, that was far from the case 28 years ago, because Greek public opinion at the time was staunchly pro-Arab and staunchly anti-Israel,” said Mitsotakis in his 2018 speech at the AJC ceremony.

Friendship of Necessity

Greece’s relationship with Israel has steadily improved over the past three successive governments. Spurred by its severe economic crisis as well as regional threats coming from Turkey, it has been forced to look for new allies.

Tensions are high in the eastern Mediterranean due to Turkey’s encroachment in the region. President Edrogan has sent gunboats accompanying Turkish drilling vessels searching for natural gas in Cyprus’ zone.

The Turks claim the right to explore there, saying the area belongs to northern Cyprus where a majority of the territory’s inhabitants are ethnic Turks, and a Turkish occupational regime has ruled there since 1974. No other country has recognized northern Cyprus as a separate country.

In response to Turkey’s illegal oil drilling, the European Union Foreign Affairs Council decided last month to slap sanctions on the country. Just as Israel and Greece have clashed with Turkey in recent years, U.S.-Turkish relations have been at odds as a result of Erdogan’s increasing belligerence and cozying up to Russia and Iran.

Last month, Turkey announced it planned to buy S-400 missile defense systems from Russia. The Trump administration threatened to retaliate by kicking Turkey out of the F-35 program (US choice aircraft weapons systems shared with America’s top allies), and imposing sanctions.

Turkey was not always engaged in menacing its neighbors. In fact, it was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel in 1949 and the two countries once enjoyed good relations. In the past, its government was viewed as an aspiring democracy and a dependable ally to both Israel and the United States.

All this has changed under Turkey’s current regime. President Erdogan and the ruling AKP party have transformed the country into an anti-Western, belligerent regime, hostile to Israel and fiercely supportive of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

To counter these developments, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought alliances with other Balkan countries. Slowly and steadily, Israel, Greece and Cyprus have expanded their cooperation. Trilateral summits have provided the basis for important agreements on energy, security, trade, and culture issues.

Following the discovery of significant gas deposits off the coast of Israel, Greece and Cyprus, and given the shared need of all three parties for stronger defensive alliances, the ties between the countries deepened into a trilateral pact that includes military cooperation.

A New Bedrock of Eastern Mediterranean Security?

“The partnership between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus will be the bedrock of Eastern Mediterranean security for the remainder of the 21stcentury,” asserted Michael Rubin, of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. “Not only cooperation over gas fields, but also the common interests of democracy will cement relations.”

“Theirs will also be a relationship of necessity, he added, noting that Syria will remain unstable for years to come, while Erdogan has transformed the country into an anti-Western, paranoid regime. Today’s Turkish army is as committed to the spread of radical Islam as is the Pakistani military.

Following a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, newly appointed Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Denidas noted in a press conference that “Israel acts as a stabilizing factor in the region… which is very, very important.”

Rivlin issued a statement saying that he and Denidas “shared their concern regarding growing anti-Semitism around the world.”

Dendias also met with Greek Holocaust survivors, and visited Yad Vashem, where he laid a wreath. “The Greek word for truth literally means ‘that which can never be forgotten,’” he said. “Denying truth is a form of evil and memory is our weapon against it.”

Anti-Semitism’s Deep Roots in Greece

The Greek official’s stirring proclamation stands in stark contrast to Greece’s reputation as one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe, according to recent opinion polls.

Despite the presence of a relatively small community of about 5,000 Jews, anti-Semitism remains an ongoing concern in Greek society. Although it has not assumed a lethal character as in France and other European countries, it is widespread and out in the open.

A new poll by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found that the majority of Greeks—67 percent according to the most recent survey—continue to hold anti-Semitic views about Jews controlling the national and global economy.

Anti-Semitism in Greece spills over into frequent vandalism of Jewish Holocaust memorial sites and cemeteries. It is manifested in hate speech, in Holocaust trivialization, and conspiracy theories about international Jewish plots to seize world power. Anti-Semitic tropes of this sort regularly appear in the mainstream press, on social media and on the internet.

Jew-bashing slurs are frequently aired by the country’s political class. MPs of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party – until recently the third political force in Greece – have openly denied the Holocaust, even in Parliament. Jew-bashing is also common in the mainstream press. Panos Kammenos, past defense minister and head of a junior coalition partner “Independent Greeks,” has claimed that “Jews don’t pay taxes.”

The Orthodox Church and the media have also played a role in spreading the seeds of hatred toward Jews. Newspapers regularly feature anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, as well as cartoons with anti-Semitic themes or caricatures.

The presence of a clearly marked police sentry box equipped with surveillance outside the premises of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki testifies to the prevalence of anti-Semitism in this city. The museum owes its embassy-style protection to the government’s concern that it will pose a target for anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish demonstrators.

Neo-Nazi Party Was Third Most Popular Movement in Greece

Until July’s elections, the neo-Nazi party, led by people of violent character some of whom are now sitting in jail, was the third largest party in Greece’s parliament, boasting 18 members in the past government. It was repeatedly found to be the third most popular movement in Greece.

The recent criminal prosecutions against some of the party’s leaders heavily impacted the July elections and for the first time in years, the neo-Nazi group did not pass the minimum threshold required for representation in parliament.

Yet polls show that anti-Semitism is found in equal measure among both the older generation and the young. In trying to understand what contributes to the rampant anti-Semitism throughout Greece, one needs to take note of another phenomenon—the almost complete obliteration of Holocaust memory in the country.

Greece’s Jewish population stood at 77,000 before the war, with 55,000 Jews residing in Thessaloniki (Salonika), a city nicknamed the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” because of its flourishing Jewish character and history.

Ninety-five percent of Salonica’s Jews died in the Holocaust. Then came the veil of silence over the city, where even today there is hardly any talk about who supported the German occupying forces in their expulsion and annihilation of the Jews.

Despite the immense economic and culture influence the Jewish community had on the city for centuries, and the mass persecution it faced during World War II, almost no physical or cultural trace of it can be found today. In the space of 75 years, almost all memory of the Jewish community has been expunged.

Salonica’s Glorious Early History

Although Salonica’s Jewish presence dates back to its founding in 315 B.C.E., the arrival of thousands of Jews from Spain, Portugal and Italy following their expulsion by Christian rulers, turned Salonica into a vibrant city with a pronounced Sephardic Jewish character. The Jewish community of Salonica is the only known example outside of Eretz Yisroel that retained a Jewish majority for centuries.

By the mid-16th century, there were an estimated 20,000 Jews in Salonica residing in about 30 independent kehillos, each with its own shuls, chevrah kadisha, batei din, gemachs for the needy and other elements of community infrastructure. Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), Hebrew and Turkish were the spoken languages. Yiddish was virtually unknown.

Many of the city’s renowned rabbonim, Torah scholars and mekubalim exerted a profound influence that spread beyond the borders of Salonica and even the Ottoman empire, spanning the generations until the present day.

Among these illustrious leaders were Rav Yosef Taitazak, Rav Moshe Alshich, Rav Yitzchak Adarbi, Rav Yosef Karo, Rav Moshe Almosnino, and Rav Shmuel de Medina (Maharashdam).

By the middle of the century, about 30,000 Jews lived in Salonica, which represented half of the total population of the town. Throughout the decline of the Ottoman empire, Salonica remained a center of Torah study and Halacha, home to renowned halachic authorities such as Rav Chaim Shabbetai, author of Toras Hachaim, Aharon Kohen Perachyah, author of Parach Matteh Aharon, and Rav Dovid Conforte, author of Korei Hadoros.

The 17th century debacle of Shabsai Tzvi who misled multitudes of Jews into believing he was the long-awaited moshiach began in Turkey but played out for several years in Salonica. When the rabbonim expelled the imposter from the city, he traveled throughout central and eastern Europe, winning adherents and fueling a messianic movement. The movement fell apart when Shabsai Tzvi ultimately converted to Islam.

Salonica’s Decline

The 19th century saw the decline of the golden age of Torah scholarship in Salonica as European culture and industry began making inroads. In 1873, the “Alliance Israelite Universelle” established a school in the city. Soon additional schools in the new spirit of liberalism and secularism sprang up, further eroding the traditional Torah-true lifestyle that had for so long defined Salonica.

In 1900, there were approximately 80,000 Jews in Salonika out of a total population of 173,000. But a series of events devastated the Jewish community during the 20th century. The era of coexistence that had persisted for centuries under Ottoman rule came to a halt when the Greek Army took control of the city in 1912.

With the advent of Greek nationalism and the resettling of large numbers of Orthodox Christians in Greece in 1923, Salonica’s Jews began to feel increasingly marginalized.

Then in 1917, a massive fire tore through the city, causing mass destruction and leaving more than 50,000 Jews homeless. The disaster sparked a wave of emigration, mostly to Paris but also to Palestine.

Before the two world wars, periodic outbursts of anti-Semitism occurred, in part sparked by the 1928 translation into Greek of the infamous forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These violent pogroms caused some 20,000 to 25,000 Jews to leave the city before World War II erupted, a move that ultimately saved a great many lives.

The Holocaust

On the eve of World War II, the Jewish population of Salonica stood at 55,250, almost half of the city’s total population.

In April 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia and then Greece. Both governments quickly capitulated. King George II fled Athens, and a pro-Axis puppet regime was installed, with Greece then carved into three different zones.

Athens and certain islands were under Italy’s control; eastern Macedonia fell to Bulgaria’s jurisdiction, and the Nazis controlled Salonica, home to the vast majority of Greece’s Jews.

Within a week of the occupation, the Germans arrested the Jewish leadership, evicted hundreds of Jewish families from their homes, and expropriated the Jewish hospital for use by the German army. The Germans plundered tens of thousands of artistic properties from Jewish academies, shuls and private homes, and sent the loot to Germany.

In the following months there were more and more expropriations and seizures of Jewish businesses, warehouses, and property.

In mid-July 1942, the Germans forced nearly 10,000 Jewish men to assemble at Liberty Square (Plateia Eleftheria), where they were registered for forced-labor assignments. Instead of receiving their assignments, however, the men were kept standing in the blazing sun for the entire day, while German and Italian soldiers humiliated them by forcing them to perform calisthenics and other back-breaking tasks.

Those who collapsed from the heat and exhaustion were beaten by the troops or doused with cold water and forced to stand again.

At the end of the day, thousands of Jews were assigned to forced-labor projects for the German army in malaria-infested regions, where hundreds soon perished from disease and overwork. The Germans demanded a massive ransom for the release of the remaining Jews. The Jewish community struggled to raise the funds, turning to the Jews of Athens and nearby towns for help.

In the end, the leaders were forced to agree to sell the ancient Jewish cemetery in Salonica, a 90-acre property that contained 500,000 graves dating back to the 15th century. The terms of the sale allowed the Jews a grace period to provide for an orderly removal of sacred tombs and for the safety of graves of those buried in the past thirty years. Alternative burial places were to be provided.

Yet no sooner was the transaction concluded when five hundred municipal workers descended on the site and began the demolition. The shocked community scrambled to retrieve their loved ones’ remains. In most cases, it was too late. Cartloads of bones had to be buried in one mass grave outside the city.

In the end, paying ransom to free the Jews from murderous slave labor was nothing but a ruse. The men whose freedom had been bought with the sale of the cemetery met the same fate as all the other Jews of Salonica.

Eichmann’s Henchmen Arrive

In February 1943, following the payment of the ransom, two prominent Nazi officials, Dieter Wisliceny and Alois Brunner, both top aides to Adolph Eichmann, arrived in Salonica to implement the final solution for the city’s Jews. No one except those who carried Spanish passports and identity papers was exempted.

With the help of Greek collaborators, using methods they had perfected in other Nazi-occupied lands, the Germans first concentrated the Jews into ghettos city near the railway station, in preparation for impending deportations. Some Polish paper money was distributed to the victims, in order to hide the real purpose of their trip. Lies about “resettlement in the east” were disseminated to quell any thoughts of resistance.

Between April and August 1943, 19 transports carrying a total of 45,850 men, women and children were brutally dispatched to Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Day after day for five months, bloody scenes of Nazis herding helpless people into cattle cares till they were packed to twice their capacity continued to play out.

Very few Jews of Salonica found refuge in the surrounding countryside or in Athens, where many were saved by compassionate local Greeks. The horrific trip across central Europe in the intense summer heat, without food or water or sufficient air, killed multitudes even before their arrival at the death factories.

In October 1944, Salonica was recaptured by the Greek and Allied forces. A few hundred Jewish survivors straggled back to the city. They found their homes occupied, their property looted, their shuls destroyed, and their five-century-old cemetery still being used as a quarry.

Bitter memories and harsh economic con­ditions in post-war Greece forced many of the Jewish survivors to emigrate to Israel or the United States. 

 

‘Memocide’

In the decades following the Holocaust, the Greeks of Salonica engaged in what one historian has dubbed “memocide” — not only killing generations but also killing their memory.

Confronting the Holocaust would mean “the city and country would have to confront, in a direct way, the collaboration and complicity of not only some Greek Orthodox Christians, but also state institutions — the university, the church, the municipality,” historian Devin Naar noted, addressing the veil of silence in Greece about the Nazi genocide.

It wasn’t until 2014 that a monument was erected on the grounds of Aristotle University in Salonica, to educate visitors that the college was built on the city’s Jewish cemetery after being razed by the Greeks with the Nazis’ encouragement.

The university not only was built on the 90-acre site of the former Jewish cemetery; much of the building material used to construct classrooms and halls came from the hundreds of thousands of tons of marble plundered from the cemetery.

A year ago, just days before the city was set to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, vandals smashed that monument on the campus of the Aristotle University. It was the third time in as many months that the monument had been vandalized and defaced.

A month earlier, thugs had also smashed headstones in the Jewish section of a cemetery in Athens. The attacks were attributed to far-right agitators, including those from neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which, until lately, consistently ranked as the third most popular movement in Greek opinion polls.

In the following statement, the Central Council of Jewish Communities of Greece bitterly protested the vandalism: “On January 27, humanity commemorates the Holocaust of the six million Jews who were exterminated in the German concentration camps by the Nazis and their collaborators,” the statement read.

“On January 25, 2019, the descendants of those Nazi collaborators smashed and destroyed the Jewish Monument in the campus of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Salonika). They have no moral scruples. They respect neither the living nor the dead.”

“The University was built upon the shattered tombs and the scattered bones of our forefathers of Thessaloniki, while the Jews of Thessaloniki where confined into ghettos pending deportation,” the statement continued.

“The Nazis began by burning our books at first, then our synagogues and our monuments, then our homes and stores and then…with the collaboration of their allies, they burnt our relatives, our friends and our neighbors. They even burnt our dead.”

“It took 72 years for the city to assume responsibility for and pay tribute to the memory of the destroyed Jewish community with the erection of this monument. Today, the memory of the Jews of Thessaloniki, along with the history and the culture of the city, are desecrated yet again by the preachers of hatred.”

“For how long? How long will authorities remain bystanders at the vandalizing of memory and civilization? How long will society tolerate the supporters of Nazism operating freely among us, assaulting human dignity?” 

 

The Ancient Jewish Cemetery of Salonica

The largest beis olam in all of Europe containing 500,000 graves, the ancient cemetery of Salonica dating back to the 15th century sprawled across almost 90 acres. Throughout the years leading up to WWII, there were many attempts by Salonica’s city authorities to expropriate part of the land but the plans never came to fruition.

The arrival of the Nazis in 1941 finally changed things. At the request of Salonica’s municipal authorities, the wheels were immediately set in motion for the cemetery’s destruction.

First, the Nazis set an extravagant ransom for two thousand men forced into slave labor under horrendous conditions. Unable to raise the amount from Salonica and Athens, Jewish leaders agreed to sell the cemetery to free their men. The Nazis then turned most of the property over to the city who immediately set about plundering it.

Many monuments were used by Nazi occupation forces, including for the construction of a swimming pool for German soldiers. Most were incorporated into various Greek building projects including sidewalks and roads.

“Six months after the deportations of the city’s Jews to Auschwitz began, the massive Church of St. Demitrius took 500 marble slabs and 20,000 bricks, which it used for repairs. Many other parishes were in on the take as well,” writes historian Thomas Laquer.

Tombstones were used to pave sidewalks and to build toilets at a chapel at a nearby Christian cemetery, he notes. The Aristotle University Professors Association decorated the church in their summer retreat with fragments of Jewish tombstones.

In addition, entire slabs were used as dissection tables in the university’s medical school. Fragments of tombstones were used to raise an artificial hill for a new royal summer palace.

Plunder of the cemetery continued for decades after the war. The Hebrew inscriptions of many monuments, pointing left, right, up and down, can still be clearly deciphered from the sidewalks, stone fences and random places in Salonica where pieces of Jewish tombstones have been incorporated.

The dead and their names in stone were thus built into the fabric of a world that had hated and rejected them. These stones, stripped of their history and meaning, nevertheless tell the chilling story that modern-day Greece has for so long kept hidden.