My London Life


I have been spending a lot of time in London over the past year and I love it here. I am sitting in my room, looking out the window as the sun is desperate to break though, watching people walk past, and feeling very happy. This city is alive and hopeful and even though there is palpable stress and fear, my soul is at peace here. On many levels, and for many reasons, it feels like London is home.

To clarify, home is ultimately where my son is, so with him in London with me this week, it truly is home. We have had a terrific time and he feels the same way in London that I do. It is a great city, with great people, namely our friends J and S, who I have written about often, and call Victoria and David Beckham. They are wonderful human beings and we truly love them and their children.

We spent last night at the Beckham Castle and I slept like a baby. I have not slept well since I got to Engalnd because internal clock has been screwed up due to all my traveling. I went from Los Angeles, to London, to Los Angeles, to Las Vegas, to Los Angeles, to Toronto, to Los Angeles, to Melbourne, to Los Angeles, to London, all in 10 days. Sleep has been elusive, last night however, I slept like a baby.

I went to bed at 10:00 pm and was Sleeping Beauty for a divine 9 hours. I don’t worry about anything when I am there, and that peace invites sleep because I’m very comfortable and happy there. Today my son is at Wembley stadium with the oldest Beckham son, watching two football teams compete to get into the Premiere League. It makes me happy when these two young men hang out.

My son spent the past week on holiday in Greece and Italy. He went on his own and it was a great adventure. It takes courage to travel on your own and his bravery inspires me. (To be clear, it also scares the crap out of me!) I am seeing my son in a new light following his trip. He has grown up somehow and it is exciting. He is 21, and will always be my baby, but he is also an amazing man.

Tomorrow I am going to take my favorite person on the planet to Paris. We’ll spend a glorious day walking around, seeing the sights, and eating the perfection that is French cuisine. It has been over 30 years since I was last in Paris, and to take my son there for his first time is special. We’ll be there for 28 hours, so will jam pack as much as we can into our day and I hope it doesn’t rain!

I love my London life and being here has allowed me to have my son come over and see parts of the world he has wanted to visit since he was little. He always wanted to see the world and it is an honor to watch his face as tells me about what he has seen and done. He is a remarkable child and being even a small part of his dreams coming true is the greatest gift I can receive as his mother.

Israel is home because I was born there and it is where my parents met and fell in love. Canada is home because it is where I grew up and where my family is. Los Angeles is home because my son was born there and it is where he is building his life. London is home because it makes me comfortable and happy. I’m a lucky girl to feel connected to so many places. I’m grateful and keeping the faith.

President of Israel Reuven Rivlin, right, with Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations CEO Malcolm Hoenlein. Photo courtesy of Chris Goldenbaum.

Amidst changing regional and international landscapes and bomb threats, American Jewish leaders return home from Israel


“This is a new era,” claimed Malcolm Hoenlein, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which safeguards the interests of the American Jewish community, sustains bi-partisan support for Israel, and addresses the critical concerns facing world Jewry.

The delegation of 110 leaders of America’s most important Jewish umbrella organizations returned home to continued bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers and organizations across the country following their mission in Israel after visits to Egypt, Morocco, and Greece.

Upon arrival in Israel, Hoenlein proclaimed that he is optimistic about opportunities for Middle Eastern partnerships to increase stability in the region.

“There is a new attitude, a new atmosphere, partly driven by instabilities in the region and partly by Iran. The messages we hear everywhere are the same: coming to terms [about the causes of instability in the region] and new approach [to addressing the causes],” Hoenlein said.

Before the Cyprus visit, Hoenlein cited successful meetings with Egyptian and Moroccan Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, Ministers of Interior, heads of religious councils, royalty, ambassadors, and government officials. The important message of both meetings, said Hoenlein, were the new opportunities for recognition and aspirations for tolerance and countering extremist tendencies.

“There is great interest in looking at ways to cooperate with Israel as a central hub in this process,” specifically citing Israel’s energy capacities and desires to counter Iran’s nuclear weapons program that will serve as a further bond between Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries.

The group also met the former President of Bulgaria, Rosen Plevneliev, who participated in the opening dinner with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. “There is a recognition of desire to move away from the instability of the Middle East, and our meeting with the President of Bulgaria is an indicator of this,” said Hoenlein.

He added that there are other countries, “some of which would surprise you,” that have privately expressed their interest in being part of a Middle Eastern partnership. He hypothesized that under-the-radar private meetings will increase in the next year with these countries.

Among the discussions at the conference were lectures addressing the U.S.-Israel relationship under the new U.S. administration, reapplying pressure on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, keeping the United Nations accountable for delegitimization of Israel and anti-Semitism, countering BDS and growing anti-Semitism within the American public and on U.S. campuses, strengthening Jewish-Christian relations, building alliances with U.S. minority groups, promoting bipartisan support for Israel, and most of all, promoting unity within the American Jewish community.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin also focused his address to the conference on keeping a united vision on Israel in the context of polarizing politics in the American Jewish community. “We cannot allow Israel to be a political football between different sides and ideologies,” he said.

Echoing Former President Kennedy, he exclaimed, “Friendship for Israel is not a partisan matter, it is a national commitment.”

In terms of Israeli foreign policy, President Rivlin said, the three most important issues are “number one, our relationship with the United States of America,” “number two, our relationship with the United States of America,” and “last but not least, Israel’s relationship with the United States of America.”

In addition to meeting with Israel’s elected leaders and strategic thinkers, the conference delegates were briefed on the importance of free, objective, and accurate media in the U.S. and Israel, Israel’s regional dangers of ISIS and Hezbollah, minority communities within Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Israel’s entrepreneurship and investment in high tech fields.

Before departing back to the United States from Israel, the conference concluded with a daylong visit to Cyprus, featuring meetings with President Nicos Anastasiades and Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides.

Just as the conference began with successful meetings in Egypt and Morocco, so too did it end with an amicable meeting in Greece.

President Nicos Anastasiades announced, “In a world characterized by the rise of turmoil, extremism, sectarianism, and terrorism, Cyprus, and Israel—two countries at the heart of the Mediterranean that share the same values and common vision– are beacons of stability, and natural partners of the West in the Middle East.”

 

Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, New York Daily News, Forbes, and The Hill.

Turned off by rabbis, Israelis are planning small weddings in Greece


Destination weddings abroad are almost unheard of in Israel, where weddings are all about family and community. And what better place to celebrate Jewish continuity than the Jewish homeland?

But this past summer, a new Israeli company challenged tradition by throwing wedding getaways on Greek islands. The one-woman startup, called Wedaway, is tapping a market of Israelis alienated by the Charedi Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, which controls Jewish marriage in the country.

“A lot of people who can’t or don’t want to get married through the Rabbinate find Wedaway online,” company founder and CEO Gal Zahavi said. “But what really attracts them is the idea of a small wedding like they see when they travel or on the internet. And Israelis love Greece.”

Zahavi, who began planning other people’s weddings this year from her home office in the central Israeli city of Kadima, came up with the idea for Wedaway from her own Greek wedding. She and her husband celebrated in a castle on the island of Evia. They wanted something more than the typical Israeli wedding, which often includes hundreds of guests gathered at a local event hall for a relatively standardized few hours of nuptials, dining and dancing.

Later they officially married through the Rabbinate, a decision she said they regret because so many Israelis are not afforded the same privilege.

There is no civil marriage for Jews or same-sex marriage in Israel, but the state does accept such marriages performed abroad. Cyprus, the Czech Republic and the United States are the most popular destinations. While Israelis cannot marry in Greece, as Athens requires documents that Jerusalem will not provide, it doesn’t mean they can’t party there.

Zahavi can thank the Rabbinate for most of her clients. Of the 12 couples celebrating their unions with Wedaway this summer, seven opted to marry outside Israel at least in part to protest the Orthodox authority. Four are not recognized by the Rabbinate as Jewish or have other issues with Israel’s religion-based marriage system. Just one is getting married in Israel and celebrating in Greece.

Neither the Rabbinate nor the Interior Ministry in Israel were immediately reachable for comment.

Wedaway weddings are the kind of carefully crafted events exalted on wedding blogs, reality shows and social media, with charming local musicians, colorful Greek feasts, high-end ouzo cocktails served under paper lanterns and pool parties complete with floatie toys. The ceremonies are usually contemporary takes on religious traditions, Jewish or Christian.

One downside — or upside, depending on how you look at it — is that couples planning a Wedaway wedding have to drastically pare the invitation list. An average Israeli wedding includes several hundred guests — everyone from the couple’s parents to their favorite barista. Zahavi’s clients usually bring 40 to 50 people with them. Even at an average cost of $300-$500 per head, it can actually be cheaper than being married in Israel.

Still, cutting guests can be difficult. Family and community are central to Israeli culture, and a wedding is the ultimate symbol of that, explained Larissa Remennick, a sociology professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

“Jews have always been very familial, focused on getting married and having children. The biblical mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply is still very influential in this country. You could says it’s our raison d’être,” she said. “What this company is doing is kind of a subversive act in a way.”

Wedaway isn’t the first company to help Israelis marry abroad; an industry has been around since the 1990s. In 2014, some 8,782 couples registered foreign marriages in Israel, compared with 50,797 who married in the country, according to the government’s Central Bureau of Statistics. But the businesses tend to focus on cutting international red tape, not wedding planning.

Wedding Tours is the biggest marriage abroad company in Israel. CEO Igal Lukianovsky said the company, founded in 2001, arranged 1,200 marriages in Cyprus and the Czech Republic in 2015. Of those, he said, the company helped with no more than a couple dozen wedding celebrations.

“Maybe 80 percent of couples make a party here in Israel with family and friends,” he said. “They go to Cyprus just for the formal part, to sign documents.”

Wedaway, by contrast, is all about the celebration.

A growing number of Israelis are holding off on getting married, some indefinitely. The number of unmarried couples living together in Israel have risen 29 percent in recent years — to 88,000 in 2014 from 65,000 in 2012 — according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Some attribute this trend to the Rabbinate as well.

In a September statement about the rise in unmarried couples, Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious freedom in Israel, wrote: “Israel’s official, state empowered religious establishment arouses disgust among Jewish Israeli couples considering marriage. This is due to the needless tribulations many couples experience at the hands of the Rabbinate on their paths to marriage, and due to their fear of being required to conduct their divorces via the State rabbinical courts.”

“The Rabbinate is good for my business,” Wedaway’s Zahavi concluded, “but I would prefer that people could get married here.”

Anti-Semitism, Israel and the Olympics: What to take away


The original Olympics in Ancient Greece, the games that inspired the modern recreation that just ended in Rio, showcased the greatest Grecian athletes stretching from the Peloponnese to the Mediterranean colonies. In the Grecian Olympics, only those of pure Greek decent could participate, making the old games far more exclusive than the modern games that have come to celebrate international diversity. There are several differences between the original and the modern games; however, the similarities between two games are far more striking and relevant. Greek city-states agreed to an Olympic Truce during the celebration of the games to allow athletes safe travel to Olympia, which is now an implied aspect of the games. The Olympics in Ancient Greece also, like in modern times, developed into a political tool for city-states to claim dominance over rivals through athletics. The modern Olympics are meant to foster a sense of international unity and cooperation through the love of athletics, a passion shared universally across international borders and cultural boundaries. Comparable to the old games, The Olympic Games in Rio were not devoid of political opportunism and cultural discrimination. And Israel, expectedly yet baselessly, found itself at the center of the controversy.

Before the opening ceremonies could even begin, members of the Lebanese Olympic delegation barred Israeli athletes from boarding a bus headed to the ceremony. Salim al-Haj, head of the Lebanese delegation, told the Agency France-Presse (AFP) that he demanded the door be closed before the Israeli athletes could enter, but the Israelis “insisted on getting on.” What a potentially scarring experience for the Lebanese delegation: they were almost forced to participate in the Olympic spirit of international camaraderie. The Israelis eventually boarded a separate bus to “avoid an international and physical incident” but Udi Gal, an Israeli athlete, pondered on Facebook, “How could they let this happen on the eve of the Olympic Games? Isn't this the opposite of what the Olympics represents?” He is, of course, absolutely right; no intelligent individual would oppose this statement. Yet, predictably, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) only warned al-Haj that a similar situation would not be tolerated in the future. Apparently blatant anti-Semitism is passable as long as it is the first offense, according to the actions of the IOC.

This incident, of course, was just the start of the harassment Israeli athletes faced at the Rio Olympics. A female Saudi Arabian judo athlete allegedly forfeited her first-round match to avoid an Israeli competitor in the proceeding round. The Saudi Arabian Olympic delegation denied the claim and instead offered an injury as a legitimate excuse. Curiously, Saudi Arabia does not recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel; far more interesting, though, is why the Saudi athlete’s injury only became a limiting factor once the draw—and her potential Israeli competitor—was determined.

If you do not regularly keep up with Israeli news or watch Fox News, you likely haven’t heard about these detestable and flagrant acts of discrimination against Israeli athletes. For those who haven’t received news of these incidents, it is not due to your own inattentiveness, but rather the  main stream media’s (MSM) lack of interest with overt anti-Semitism at the Olympics. Neither CNN nor MSNBC published articles on either of the aforementioned discriminatory incidents. When I scoured Google for other articles and quotes regarding these episodes, nearly all the articles on the individual incidents were published by conservative news sources, such as Breitbart and Fox News, or Jewish newspapers, such as the Jewish Post and Haaretz. After I noticed the disparity between the attention conservative publications gave the incidents as opposed to liberal agencies, I deliberately searched the archives of CNN and MSNBC for articles on these two incidents and found nothing. I find it greatly unsettling that these liberal publications would refrain from posting pieces on anti-Semitic incidents at the Olympics at a time when the world—especially champions of equality on the left—seems devoted to ending discrimination. Some on the left enjoy attacking conservatives for their cultural insensitivity and lack of “political correctness,” but, in this case, CNN and MSNBC seem to miss the mark.

This is not to say, however, that CNN or MSNBC are not concerned with the equal treatment of all athletes at the Olympics. In 2014, after the Sochi Winter Games, MSNBC published an article titled “IOC Makes non-Olympian Sized Move on Gay Rights, Critics Say”. and, just a few weeks ago, CNN posted an article titled “In Testament to U.S. Sports Progress, Women Lead Rio Medal Count for Team USA”. As all Americans should be, I’m glad that our country has news agencies that object to social injustices and inequalities and praise the accomplishments of women. However, in my eyes, CNN and MSNBC lose all credibility in standing up for equality when they arbitrarily select which groups deserve their defense in the face of severe unequal treatment. If CNN and MSNBC, and other like news agencies, truly stood for equality and not for political pandering, they would have given equal coverage to the undisguised anti-Semitism practiced by the Lebanese delegation and the Saudi Judo competitor.

To claim that CNN directed no attention to anti-Semitic incidents at the Olympics would be unfair and false; apparently CNN was able to ignore the first two anti-Semitic incidents but just couldn’t bring itself to neglect the final and most flagrant incident. Egyptian Judo fighter El Shehaby was booed after he refused to shake the hand of his Israeli competitor, Or Sasson. After Sasson defeated Shehaby in the opening match, he extended his hand to the Egyptian, who refused and barely gave a nod as opposed to the traditional and compulsory bow after a Judo match is completed. CNN’s article is devoid of even a hint of disapproval towards Shehaby’s actions. At the end of the article, CNN attempts—and fails—to address the earlier bus incident with the Israeli and Lebanese athletes, stating “Reports have surfaced that Lebanese athletes refused to let Israel's competitors share a bus with them to the opening ceremonies.” At the latest, the story was confirmed by both the Lebanese and Israeli delegations by August 8th, yet the CNN article, dated August 18th, merely states that “reports have surfaced”, as if the incident is merely an illegitimate piece of gossip. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, MSNBC published no articles on any of the anti-Semitic incidents. Even more unbelievable was the response from the International Judo Federation, which absurdly claimed that it was “…already a big improvement that Arabic countries accept to (fight) Israel”. Supposedly sportsmanship between athletes is just too much to ask for when one of them is a Jew.

The Israeli athletes, and Jews around the world, do not require the sympathies of CNN, MSNBC, or any other news agencies or organizations to succeed, at the Olympics or anywhere else. (CNN practically ran a propaganda war against Israel during the 2014 Gaza war, and Israel yet again prevailed.) The Jewish people have stood up to and beaten far greater injustices than what the Israeli athletes faced at the Olympics. That commendable fact does not justify the actions of the Muslim nations that treated Israeli athletes with inhuman disdain, nor does it excuse the laughable or absent responses from organizations globally. It does, however, point to the strength of the Israeli athletes, something that should not be forgotten or overlooked after the Muslim athletes’ failed attempts to beat down the morale of the Israelis.

This year at the Olympics, the United States Olympic delegation included its first Muslim athlete to wear a hijab during competition, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. CNN wrote three separate articles on the momentous occurrence, which points to the cultural acceptance practiced in the United States. CNN has posted multiple opinion pieces on Islamophobia, including one (offensively) titled, “America’s Islamophobia Problem”. By no means am I suggesting that unjust discrimination against Islam and Muslims should be tolerated: it should be defeated, as should all ignorant discrimination. But where is the CNN opinion piece entitled “Arab Countries’ Anti-Semitism Problem”? Although the actions of a few athletes from Arab countries do not represent the views of those countries (Egypt actually sent El Shehaby home after he refused to shake Sasson’s hand), CNN has no qualm posting an opinion piece insinuating all of America has a problem with Islamophobia. I can only wonder what CNN would have titled their article if it had been a Jewish athlete who had refused to shake a Muslim’s hand.

At face value, much has changed in regards to the original games’ homogenous nature. The International Olympic Committee has successfully transformed what was once known for is exclusivity into a celebration of athleticism and international inclusivity. A clear and foreboding lesson of Rio, though, is that the Olympics’ original prejudicial environment is far from defeated so long as our world refuses to universally condemn discrimination.


Ethan Katz is a first year political science student at the University of Florida. He is dedicated to exploring political and international issues through his writings from an analytical and impartial viewpoint.

Thessaloniki’s mayor wants his Greek city to remember its vibrant Jewish past


“I am proud to be a Vlach,” says Yiannis Boutaris, the mayor of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city.

Ostensibly, we’re here at the Washington Hilton to discuss Boutaris’ bid to put the Jewish back in Thessaloniki, a city — perhaps best known as Salonika —once home to the largest numbers of Jews in Greece.

But I’m the one who brought up the Vlachs, a dwindling minority of speakers of an ancient Latin dialect, scattered throughout the Balkans. When he ambles over, I greet him with the “Ci fac?” I have learned from my wife’s family. Pronounced “Tzi fatz,” it more or less means “what’s up?”

His eyes widen a little. “Gini!” he says, he’s fine. He looks at his aide, Leonidas Makris, with a look that suggests, “I thought you told me this guy was Jewish?”

I explain my connection, through marriage, to the Vlachs, insular shepherds whose descendants, starting a century ago, assimilated throughout Balkan societies. He asks me where my wife is “from.” I know better than to say Washington, and I tell him Perivoli, the tiny village in the Pindar mountains where our family has summered. He smiles, recognizing the village as one of a constellation of mountaintop Vlach summertime refuges, even before I have completely pronounced it.

Boutaris, a youthful, wiry 74, was here in June to be honored by the American Jewish Committee at its annual Washington conference. He is among 508 American and European mayors who have signed on to the AJC’s Mayors Against Anti-Semitism pledge.

Boutaris stands out among the mayors, though, for his commitment to his city’s Jewish meaning. At his most recent inauguration, he wore a yellow patch reminiscent of the ones forced on Jews during the Holocaust. It “was received as a definite position against the Golden Dawn,” Greece’s anti-Semitic, ultranationalist party, he said.

“Everyone knows what the yellow star was,” he said.

The gesture also infuriated the city’s powerful and at times intrusive Greek Orthodox leadership.

Boutaris, a vintner by trade, enjoys recounting his bouts with his city’s prelates. He recalls his first election campaign, spearheading an alliance of left-leaning parties in 2010. “I said in a public speech, ‘the archbishop acts like the mujahedin!’” he said, referring to the Muslim jihadis in various countries.

On Thessaloniki’s national day, October 26, the archbishop warned him, “‘you will never see the municipality chair’!”

The next month, Boutaris won the election handily. Of the archbishop’s expressed enmity, he says: “I think this helped a lot,” although he hastens to add that he has since achieved a détente with the church.

Boutaris’ city, an Ottoman haven for Jewish refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions, was famous for centuries for its Jewish plurality. Its reputation for tolerance diminished when the city was riven by nationalist struggles as the Ottoman empire collapsed in the early part of the 20th century, and then by a devastating fire in 1917 that drove many Jews to emigrate.

Thessaloniki was a haven for Jewish refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

There remained a vibrant community nonetheless, even as the ethnocentric Greek nationalist movement exerted pressure on minorities – Turks, Jews, Vlachs – to repress their languages and identities and become Greek. Two of my Jewish grandparents were born there. In 1941, the Nazis occupied the city and in short order deported over 95 percent of the community to death camps and labor camps. Salonika’s Jewish past is a faint echo now, recalled only in the occasional neighborhood name – like the Modiano market, named for a prominent Jewish family.

Boutaris, like the other 188 European mayors who signed onto the AJC pledge, casts it as a means of containing the anti-Semitism reemerging on their continent.

Boutaris and the other signers “are individually and collectively sending a powerful, if not unprecedented, message to their larger communities,” David Harris, the AJC CEO, told JTA in an emailed statement.

He and Makris, his assistant, are not comfortable discussing Greece’s status, according to Anti-Defamation League surveys in 2014 and 2015, as the continent’s most anti-Semitic country. Some 67 percent of the population hold anti-Semitic views, the more recent survey said. The mayor and his assistant believe the survey is vastly exaggerated.

Makris tries to explain the results as a product of a deeply pessimistic Greek political culture, where poll respondents are likely to believe the worst about their leaders, immigrants, minorities, their next-door neighbors — just about everyone — but otherwise behave in a welcoming manner.

“There is an ambivalence among Greek people,” he says, noting how Greeks simultaneously cast the flood of refugees from Syria as a burden — and yet have turned out en masse to assist them.

Boutaris says that Israel’s conflict is keenly felt in a country that has ancient ties with the Arab world, and that has been influenced in recent decades by close relations between Arab nationalists and the Greek left. “Greeks wonder why they can’t find a way of living together,” he says of Israel and the Palestinians.

Yet the obsession with Israel among some Greeks clearly frustrates Boutaris, in a way that Israel’s leaders would appreciate. Every country deals with internal and external threats, he says, some in ways that make Israel’s actions pale by comparison. “You have to sit down and see what’s happening in Syria!” he exclaimed.

There is a deeper, more resonant dimension to Boutaris’ Jewish outreach, one that aligns with his origins as a Vlach, a people disappearing into Greece’s forcefully monolithic culture.

Boutaris wants Greeks to remember that their country was once not so monocultural, that there were other peoples that once thrived here. He has proposed a monument to the Young Turks, who emerged in Thessaloniki in the first decade of the 20th century and whose uprising eventually led to Turkey’s transformation in the 1920s into a secular state.

His focus in Washington is raising awareness about a Jewish cultural center he hopes to found. (The city has a small Jewish museum.) He has raised $20 million so far; he needs another $5 million or so for operating costs.

The one thing he does not want it to be is another Holocaust memorial; instead, he wants a monument to a community that thrived in Thessaloniki for 500 years and that helped define the city.

“Enough with the Holocaust, enough with the mourning, although we will never forget,” he says. “We want to bring up the Jewish heritage, which should not stop with the Holocaust.”

I bring up with Boutaris another personal connection to Thessaloniki: an incident from my first visit to the city, in 1996, that still haunts me.

A newly met Greek friend plied me and my then fiancée with a little too much retsina, the sweet and potent Greek white wine, during a visit to his house.  When I conked out and lay down, I overheard him, through a haze, ask my fiancée what had become of me. She told him I was sleeping it off, and he laughed and began to sing “Durme, Durme,” the Jewish Ladino lullaby that at one time would have been familiar to the city’s Jews and non-Jews alike.

I asked our Greek friend afterward if he understood the lullaby’s Jewish origins; he had no idea. It was a song. It was another echo of a disappeared Jewish city.

Boutaris gets it, before I have even finished pronouncing “Durme, Durme” – he knows the lullaby. “Attention must be paid” might as well be his mission statement. “No one knows what Thessaloniki could have been,” he says, “if it hadn’t lost 95 percent of its Jewish community.”

Israel trained against Russian-made air defense system in Greece


Israel has quietly tested ways of defeating an advanced air-defense system that Russia has deployed in the Middle East and that could limit Israel's ability to strike in Syria or Iran, military and diplomatic sources said.

The sources said a Russian S-300 anti-aircraft system, sold to Cyprus 18 years ago but now located on the Greek island of Crete, had been activated during joint drills between the Greek and Israeli air forces in April-May this year.

The activation allowed Israel's warplanes to test how the S-300's lock-on system works, gathering data on its powerful tracking radar and how it might be blinded or bluffed.

One defense source in the region said Greece had done so at the request of the United States, Israel’s chief ally, on at least one occasion in the past year. It was unclear whether Israel had shared its findings with its allies.

“Part of the maneuvers involved pitting Israeli jets against Greek anti-aircraft systems,” one source said. Two other sources said the Crete S-300 was among the systems turned on.

The sources spoke to Reuters on condition they not be identified by name or nationality. The Greek and Israeli militaries declined to confirm or deny any use of the S-300 system during drills held in the Eastern Mediterranean last April-May or similar exercises in 2012 and 2010.

A senior Greek Defence Ministry official, asked whether the system was operating during Greek-Israeli military exercises, said: “At this moment the S-300 is not in operation.” He said Athens' general policy was not to permit any other country to test the system's abilities.

The S-300, first deployed at the height of the Cold War in 1979, can engage multiple aircraft and ballistic missiles up to 300 km (186 miles) away. Israel is concerned by Russia's plan to supply S-300s to Iran.

Israel says Egypt, with which it has a cold peace, has bought a variant of the system. The Israelis also worry about Moscow's announcement last month that it will deploy the S-300 or the kindred system S-400 from its own arsenal in Syria, in response to Turkey's shooting down of a Russian jet there.

Israel has bombed Syrian targets on occasion and is loath to run up against the Russians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met President Vladimir Putin at least twice in recent weeks to discuss coordination and try to avoid accidents.

LEARNING FROM FRIENDS

Igor Sutyagin, a Russian military expert with the Royal United Services Institute in London, said that for Israel training against the Crete S-300 would be “precisely what you need” to study the system's radar frequency, pattern and reach.

“If you know all these details then you are perfectly fitted to replicate this same signal, which means you have a chance to imitate, to sort of bluff-echo” the S-300, he said.

“You can brutally jam it,” he said. “You can take the signal and return it, and then you send another ping which imitates the same signal. So instead of one target, the radar operator sees three, five or 10 and he does not know where to fire.”

Tal Inbar, senior scholar for the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv, said S-300s in areas where Israel operates or might want to operate would challenge its advanced, U.S.-backed military – but not insuperably so.

“In general, any system can be defeated this way or that. Some are harder and some are easier,” he said. “The rule of thumb is that if your friends have a system that you are interested in, you can learn all kinds of things about it.”

The Crete S-300 was originally bought by Cyprus in 1997, triggering a vitriolic response from Turkey, its decades-old adversary. Under pressure from Britain and NATO, then Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides agreed to store the S-300 on Crete. A 2007 Greek-Cypriot arms swap formally transferred it to Athens.

Greece has experienced a boom in ties with Israel since Israel's once-strong alliance with Turkey broke down in 2010.

After this year's joint drill, Israel's official air force journal said maneuvers had involved all of Greece's air combat arm and “other apparatuses”. It offered no details, but quoted an Israeli air force captain as saying the exercise had fostered “flexibility in thinking and dealing with the unknown”.

Honduras detains 5 Syrians said headed to U.S. with stolen Greek passports


Honduran authorities have detained five Syrian nationals who were trying to reach the United States using stolen Greek passports, but there are no signs of any links to last week's attacks in Paris, police said.

The Syrian men were held late on Tuesday in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, on arrival from Costa Rica, and had been planning to head to the border with neighboring Guatemala. The passports had been doctored to replace the photographs with those of the Syrians, police said.

“We received information from (fellow) police services that these five Syrians left Greece and passed through Turkey, Brazil, Argentina and San Jose in Costa Rica before finally reaching Tegucigalpa,” said Anibal Baca, spokesman for Honduras' police. “They are normal Syrians.”

U.S. Republican lawmakers defied President Barack Obama on Wednesday and set out plans following last week's deadly Paris attacks to tighten screening of Syrian refugees. 

Obama has pledged to take in 10,000 Syrians next year from the war-torn country. But his plan faces stiff resistance from Republicans, concerned some of the refugees could be associated with Islamic State. 

Reports that at least one of the Paris attackers was believed to have slipped into Europe among migrants registered in Greece prompted several Western countries to begin to question their willingness to take in refugees.

How Israeli volunteers on the ground in Europe are helping Syrian refugees


As the small rubber dinghy crowded with Syrians and Afghans emerged from the midnight-black sea to land on a desolate pebble beach, the first people to greet the bewildered and frightened refugees were two Israelis.

“Does anyone need a doctor?” Majeda Kardosh, 27, a nurse from Nazareth, shouted repeatedly in Arabic as the asylum seekers scrambled ashore amid cries of celebration and tears of relief at surviving the short but perilous crossing from Turkey to this Greek island.

Her team partner, Tali Shaltiel, 31, a physician from Jerusalem, stood knee deep in the water, helping a shivering 4-year-old girl out of her wet clothes and a pair of inflatable armbands that would have provided little protection had the overloaded boat capsized at sea.

Kardosh and Shaltiel are part of a small advance group of volunteers from IsraAid, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that is trying to provide some assistance to the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants who are flowing into Europe.

While IsraAid has plenty of experience in disaster relief and assistance in 31 countries — from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa — this mission presents a unique challenge: The beneficiaries come from countries that are traditionally hostile, or even officially still at war, with Israel.

But for Shaltiel, that’s unimportant.

“You are meeting fellow human beings,” she said. “You see agony and pain, you see a need, then what does it matter where the person is from.

“In the end you hope that the human contact will bring us forward,” added Shaltiel, who also volunteered for the IsraAid mission in South Sudan.

But she does acknowledge that for the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis — who make up the vast majority of those arriving — having Israelis as a first contact in Europe can be unexpected and unnerving.

“We try to find a balance,” Shaltiel said. “On the one hand, we are wearing IsraAid shirts and speaking most of the time in Hebrew to each other. But, ultimately, you just want people to get help, you don’t want to put up barriers to that.”

Plus, in reality, even though the Israelis are wearing bright blue Stars of David on their shirts, most of the refugees don’t even notice amid the chaos and tumult of emotions of the landing beaches, said Kardosh, who does most of the communicating with them in Arabic.

A dinghy carrying refugees arrives at a beach on the island of Lesbos in northern Greece (Boaz Arad/IsraAid)

A dinghy carrying refugees arriving at a beach on the island of Lesbos in northern Greece. Photo by Boaz Arad/IsraAid

Among those who recognize the T-shirts, most have a positive response — although some are resistant. One man who was receiving treatment from Shaltiel kept asking Kardosh, “Tell me the truth, is she a Jew?”

“I tried to ignore him, but he persisted. Eventually I said to him, ‘She is here to help you, what does it matter who she is?’” Kardosh said.

“After about 10 minutes he came back and offered Tali a biscuit and apologized.”

Another issue for IsraAid has been finding Arabic-speaking personnel who can communicate with the refugees. That’s particularly important for the second part of IsraAid’s mission, which is providing psychological first-aid to those who have experienced trauma.

One IsraAid volunteer social worker spent Saturday providing support to the family of a 5-year-old girl who drowned on the crossing.

Another team was on the island of Rhodes assisting survivors from a boat that sank, killing 34, including 15 infants and children.

“We are working in complicated conditions and our Arabic speakers have that experience of working in difficult situations,” said Naama Gorodischer, IsraAid’s global programs manager.

Still, it’s a challenge for those who have never done field work before.

“Usually I’m dressed in heels and a skirt with my regular shift and going to the gym four times a week,” said Kardosh, who is also a lecturer at the Schoenbrunn Nursing School at Tel Aviv University.

“Now I’m here,” she said, pointing at the beach strewn with deflated dinghies, hundreds of life jackets, lost shoes and trash — the debris of thousands of journeys.

At the moment, the main aim of the team is to assess the needs of the refugees and find gaps in the services provided by the overwhelmed Greek authorities and other volunteer groups.

IsraAid plans to expand the medical teams and eventually establish a mobile clinic that will provide emergency care for new arrivals on the beaches. It will also expand the psycho-social help to bases in the registration and refugee camps that have been set up.

The NGO also has volunteers providing assistance on the Croatia-Hungary border. Eventually IsraAid plans to be in final-destination countries, like Germany, where they hope to help with refugee rehabilitation.

“The aim is to have a presence as an organization along the entire journey,” Gorodischer said.

On the beach in Lesbos, the work goes beyond the medical. When she is finished dealing with the hypothermia, dehydration, wounds and illnesses of the travelers, Shaltiel gathers some of the refugees to explain their situation to them.

Israeli Doctor Tali Shaltiel explains to a group of Afghans how to get to the refugee registration center some 40 miles away. (Gavin Rabinowitz)

Dr. Tali Shaltiel explaining to a group of Afghans how to get to the refugee registration center some 40 miles away. Photo by Gavin Rabinowitz

Most have only a vague idea of which country they are in, or that they are on an island and not the mainland. None realize that their landing spot is still a grueling 40-mile walk from the registration camps.

“It’s safer to stay here during the night and start your walk in the morning,” she tells them, giving them a map made by the IsraAid team with instructions written in Arabic.

The volunteers look to assist in any way they can.

“The situation is chaotic, you don’t always know what you need in the beginning, so we keep looking for ways to help, to see what’s needed,” said Boaz Arad, a volunteer who was documenting IsraAid activities and also organizing the logistics and transportation.

After finding hundreds of people sleeping in the open along the road, IsraAid volunteers bought sleeping bags to distribute to families with children. They were also waiting for a shipment of donated baby carriers from Israel.

The American Jewish Committee said it was increasing funding to IsraAid, which is also supported by other American Jewish groups and the Israeli government.

“During this holiest period of the Jewish year, we are proud to assist … in offering vital help to Syrians who fled the horrific war in their homeland and seek a new start,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris.

For Shaltiel, the sight of tens of thousands of refugees walking across Europe was especially poignant.

“When we say ‘Never again,’ it is also an obligation to do something,” she said. “Apparently I can’t stop the war in Syria, but I can do something.”

In Greek elections, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party sees slight gain


The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party made slight gains in Greek elections, remaining the country’s third largest party.

In Sunday’s balloting, the fifth general election in the last six years and second since January, Golden Dawn received 6.9 percent of the vote, giving it 18 seats in the 300-member national parliament, with nearly all of the votes counted.

In the January elections, the party had received 6.3 percent of the vote and 17 seats. Analysts attributed the rise to lower voter turnout.

The far-left Syriza party under Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras won with nearly 36 percent of the vote, but fell just short of an overall majority under the country’s reinforced proportional representation system. The center-right New Democracy Party finished second with 28.1 percent.

Golden Dawn maintained its popularity despite most of its leaders being jailed amid an ongoing crackdown on the party leadership on charges of heading a violent criminal organization.

The party, which frequently uses Nazi imagery, has been accused of being behind dozens of racist attacks on immigrants. Its leaders have denied the existence of Nazi death camps and gas chambers.

Greece faces last chance to stay in euro as cash runs out


Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras launched a desperate bid to win fresh aid from skeptical creditors at an emergency euro zone summit on Tuesday, before his country's banks run out of money.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on arrival there was still no basis for reopening negotiations with Athens.

“It is not a matter of weeks but of a few days” to save Greece from collapse, Merkel told reporters.

With Greek banks down to their last few days of cash and the European Central Bank tightening the noose on their funding, Tsipras tried to convince the bloc's other 18 leaders to authorize a new loan swiftly.

Merkel and French President Francois Hollande said after conferring on Monday in Paris that the door was still open to a deal to save Greece from plunging into economic turmoil and possibly having to ditch the euro.

But some of Athens' 18 partners in Europe's common currency vented exasperation at five years of crisis wrangling with Greece. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite complained: “With the Greek government it is every time manana.”

Merkel, under pressure in Germany to cut Greece loose, made clear it was up to Tsipras to present convincing proposals after Athens spurned tax rises, spending cuts and pension and labor reforms that were on the table before its 240 billion euro ($262.7 billion) bailout expired last week.

Euro zone finance ministers complained that their new Greek colleague Euclid Tsakalotos, while more courteous than his abrasive predecessor Yanis Varoufakis, had brought no new proposals to a preparatory meeting before the summit.

“I have the strong impression there were 18 … ministers of finance who felt the urgency of the situation and there is one … who doesn't feel the urgency of the situation,” Belgian Finance Minister Johan Van Overtveldt said.

Greek officials said the leftist government broadly repeated a reform plan Tsipras sent to the euro zone last week before Greek voters, in a referendum on Sunday, overwhelmingly rejected the austerity terms previously on offer for a bailout.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, chairman of the Eurogroup of currency zone finance ministers, said the ministers would hold a conference call on Wednesday to review a Greek request for a medium-term assistance program from the European Stability Mechanism bailout fund, due to be submitted within hours.

Reflecting the irritation of several ministers, he said the Eurogroup was still awaiting a Greek letter with one clear set of proposals.

A Greek government official retorted: “Some are maintaining 'we don't have proposals'… Is it really that 'we don't have proposals' or is it that they don't like our proposals?”

Tsipras met privately with the leaders of Germany and France, the currency area's main powers, and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker just before the summit began. Euro zone officials said there was no plan to issue any statement at the end of the summit. One official said there could be another emergency summit on Sunday after more work by finance ministers.

WORKING TO EXCLUDE GREECE?

Earlier Juncker, who has tried to broker a last-minute deal, told the European Parliament: “There are some in the European Union who openly or secretly are working to exclude Greece from the euro zone.”

He did not name names but may have been referring to German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who has made no secret of his scepticism about Greece's fitness to stay in the euro and last week suggested a possible “temporary” exit.

From the Greek side, the key to making any deal politically acceptable will be to secure a stronger commitment from Merkel and other lenders to reschedule Greece's giant debt burden, which the International Monetary Fund says is unsustainable.

Without some firmer pledge of debt relief, neither Greece nor the IMF is likely to accept a deal. But that may be more than Germany and its northern allies can swallow.

Schaeuble said on arrival that anyone who had read the EU treaty knew debt write-offs were forbidden in the euro zone. He did not rule out other forms of restructuring.

At stake is more than just the future of Greece, a nation of 11 million that makes up just 2 percent of the euro zone's economic output and population. If Greek banks run out of money and the country has to print its own currency, it could mean a state leaving the euro for the first time since it was launched in 1999. The precedent could raise risk for other countries.

Yet even in France, one of the euro zone countries most sympathetic to Athens, an opinion poll published on Tuesday showed one in two people want Greece to leave the euro zone.

TSIPRAS STRENGTHENED AT HOME

Strengthened by the overwhelming 61.3 percent 'No' vote in Sunday's referendum, the leftist Tsipras won the unprecedented support of other Greek party leaders on Monday.

But he gave little clue of what reform concessions he would make to try to convince deeply skeptical European leaders to lend Athens more money after five months of acrimonious and fruitless negotiations with his leftist administration.

Even with the country on the brink of economic collapse, Greek officials said the government was still seeking exceptions from its reform pledges to protect special interests.

Athens wants to keep a 30 percent discount on value added tax on Greek islands and delay defense spending cuts. It is also resisting raising VAT on restaurants to 23 percent, and wants to wait until 2019 to phase out an income supplement for poorer pensioners, officials said.

Juncker told EU lawmakers he was working night and day to get negotiations reopened and chided the Greeks for their aggressive attitude, saying it was unacceptable to accuse the EU of behaving like “terrorists”, as Varoufakis did last week.

European Central Bank policymaker Ewald Nowotny suggested the bank might be able to provide some sort of bridge funding while Greece negotiated a longer-term conditional loan to see it over a crucial July 20 bond redemption to the ECB.

But one of his hardline ECB colleagues, Ilmars Rimsevics of Latvia, said Greece had effectively voted itself out of the euro and issuing a second currency was the most likely next step.

An ECB policy paper said the central bank could not be overly generous with emergency funding nor provide liquidity on insufficient collateral.

A bank closure in force since the talks collapsed was prolonged until Thursday at least, and cash withdrawals remain limited to 60 euros a day, with 20 euro notes running out.

The Athens stock exchange was also ordered closed for two days on Tuesday and Wednesday to throttle speculation.

Greek FM thanks Israel for concern over rejection of austerity measures


Greek Foreign Minister Nikolaos Kotzias offered his gratitude to Israel for its concern over his country’s economic crisis while visiting Jerusalem.

“I thank Israel for following what is happening in Greece, and for caring for us,” Kotzias said Monday before meetings with Israeli officials. “Greece is a small country with a long history and more than a few problems, but I am sure that we will overcome this crisis.”

Kotzias arrived in Israel for a three-day visit hours after his country voted 61 percent to 39 percent to reject further austerity measures in exchange for an economic bailout from international creditors. His visit reportedly was set several weeks ago.

The visit will have an “economic emphasis,” the Times of Israel reported, citing Emmanuel Nahshon, Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Kotzias is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also is his country’s foreign minister, along with President Reuven Rivlin and other government ministers. He also is scheduled to meet with opposition leader Isaac Herzog.

On Wednesday, he will meet with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

Kotzias announced last month during a meeting with P.A. Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad al-Maliki that he had instructed his ministry to refer to the area under the P.A. as “Palestine.”

Israel’s National Economic Council chairman, Eugene Kandel, on Sunday briefed government ministers on the economic crisis in Greece, and on its implications and lessons for Israel. Kandel also reportedly will meet with Kotzias during his visit.

Amid their country’s financial crisis, Greek Jews struggle and brace for more turmoil


For 55 needy Jewish families, a cash welfare payment is the only thing that gets them through the month. But when they came to the Athens Jewish Community last week for their July assistance, they were given only a portion of the payment in cash — the rest was in supermarket food coupons.

“We just don’t have cash and we can’t get anymore, the banks are closed,” said Taly Mair, the community director who oversees the welfare program. “We hope to make the rest up to them later.”

Scenes of turmoil and uncertainty have played out across Greece over the past week with the country on the verge of bankruptcy after failing to make a payment to the International Monetary Fund. Banks have been shut, ATM withdrawals are limited to 60 euros (about $66) a day, and panicked citizens are stocking up on staples such as bottled water, pasta, lentils and baby formula.

Amid the economic crisis — and especially following the country’s overwhelming rejection in a referendum Sunday of the terms offered by Greece’s European creditors — the Greek Jewish community of about 5,000 is grappling with two main concerns: how to provide emergency assistance to Jews in need and how to ensure that the Jewish institutions can continue to function.

Among those particularly hard hit are the poor and elderly members of the Jewish community, including many Holocaust survivors. A number of them don’t have bank cards, meaning they are unable to access their pensions or Holocaust restitution payments.

While the government insists that the referendum’s defeat leaves Greece better positioned to negotiate a deal beneficial to Greek citizens, many observers believe that Greece as a result could be forced out of the Eurozone, the community of nations that have adopted the euro as a common currency. The country’s finance chief resigned Monday.

The Jewish community has traditionally been in favor of staying in the Eurozone, and in the European Union, but did not take an official position ahead of the referendum, encouraging members to decide for themselves.

Greece has been in a deep financial crisis for the past six years; two massive financial bailouts from Europe and international institutions have failed to alleviate the problems. A harsh austerity plan imposed by creditors has seen the country’s economy shrink by 25 percent and its unemployment rates rise sharply.

For the Greek Jewish community, the financial crisis is just the latest setback in a chain of events that has seen Europe’s oldest, and one of its most storied, communities dwindle to just a few thousand members.

Jews trace their history in Greece to 300 BCE, and the country is home to the ruins of the oldest known synagogue in the Diaspora. Greece’s Romaniote Jews, neither Ashkenazic nor Sephardic, were joined in the 15th century by Spanish Jews who had been expelled from their homeland. Greece’s Jewish community numbered 78,000 on the eve of World War II — most lived in the port city of Thessaloniki — and was nearly wiped out in the Holocaust.

In recent years, the community has been diminished further by the economic woes and the European Union-imposed austerity measures, including cuts to wages and pensions. Many younger Greek Jews, faced with youth unemployment of 50 percent, left the country, most of them looking to work or study in other European countries.

Today, most of the nation’s Jews live in Athens, and a large portion of them are elderly. In recent years the community has sought assistance from the Jewish Agency for Israel and other international Jewish groups, such as the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee.

The economic crisis also brought with it a rise in anti-Semitism. In 2012 the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn became the third-largest party in Greece, while surveys from the Anti-Defamation League show that Greece has the highest levels of anti-Semitic feelings in Europe. According to the polls, 85 percent of Greeks believe some Jewish stereotypes, such as Jews have too much influence over the global economy.

Last week, in response to an impasse in negotiations over a new bailout deal, panicked Greeks pulled billions from their accounts, forcing the government to shut banks. Which is why welfare payments from the Jewish community are so crucial.

The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece “is continuing to help, in the spirit of Jewish solidarity, so that no Jew will be left without a meal or can’t meet their basic needs,” said Victor Eliezer, a member of the umbrella organization of Greece’s Jewish communities.

In addition to food coupons, the Athens community is also working with a pharmacy to ensure that community members have access to needed medications, Mair of the Greek capital’s community told JTA.

Another concern is making sure that Jewish institutions — synagogues, the retirement home outside Athens, community centers and schools — can stay open.

The Jewish youth summer camp started on Monday, despite many concerns.

“We have to figure it out, how are we going to organize, provide food, transport and security for all the children,” Mair said, adding that many parents have been reluctant to send their children away in such times of uncertainty. “Parents are afraid when the situation is so fragile.”

There is also worry about how to keep all the other institutions running, too, and no clear plan, said David Saltiel, who leads the Jewish community in Thessaloniki.

“Very shortly we won’t have money to pay salaries and the needy,” he said. “The whole system is down, and the community functions within the system.”

French court: Centrists slandered leftist with anti-Semitism claims


A French court found three center-right politicians guilty of defaming a far-left counterpart when they accused him of being affiliated with anti-Semites.

In the ruling Thursday by the Correctional Tribunal of Paris, the judge ordered the three Union for a Popular Movement politicians – Alain Juppe; Jean-François Copé and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet – to each pay $1,300 to the defamed, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

The ruling, according to Le Monde, concerns claims made by the three against Mélenchon, asserting that he has anti-Semitic acquaintances or that he associates with anti-Semites. The claims were made after he posted on his blog a text by the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis against that government’s austerity measures.

In 2003, Theodorakis was quoted as saying that “Jews are the root cause of evil” in the world. But Melenchon said he had no knowledge of Theodorakis’ anti-Semitic statements when he posted the blog.

Separately, the French far-right author and Holocaust denier Alain Soral was called to appear before the same court on Thursday in connection with a complaint filed against him alleging incitement to racial hatred.

The complaint concerns a picture that Soral posted on his Facebook account in which he is performing the quenelle at a memorial site for Holocaust victims in Berlin.

The quenelle is a gesture that French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has called an anti-Semitic expression of hate, though its inventor, the French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, claims it’s a sign of discontent with the establishment. Both Dieudonne and Soral have multiple convictions for inciting hate against Jews and denying the Holocaust.

In an unrelated action, the Union of Jewish Students of France, or UEJF, on Wednesday announced that it and the SOS Racisme watchdog group had filed criminal charges against 10 members of the far-right National Front party for allegedly making racist statements.

Shots fired at Israeli embassy in Athens


Unidentified assailants opened fire on the Israeli embassy in Athens with a Kalashnikov assault rifle in the early hours of Friday, police said, but no injuries or damage were reported.

Four people on two motorcycles fired shots at the embassy building in a northern suburb of Athens, a police official said. Bullets were lodged in the walls and 54 spent bullet cases were found about 40 meters (yards) from the building, police said.

The government condemned the attack saying it was an attempt to create instability at a “tough” moment for the country.

Greece wants to exit an unpopular EU/IMF bailout and has pushed forward a presidential vote in parliament which could trigger snap elections.

“Any terrorist attack hitting at the heart of democracy hits the heart of the country,” government spokeswoman Sofia Voultepsi said.

Police cordoned off the area around the embassy, which has not been a target in other acts of violence in Greece in recent years as an economic crisis raises social and political tensions.

Shots were also fired at the German ambassador's residence in Athens a year ago. Ballistic tests showed that the same weapons were used in both attacks, police said.

A Greek urban guerrilla group, the People's Fighters Group, claimed responsibility in February for the gun attack on the German ambassador's residence.

The same group claimed an attack on the headquarters of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' New Democracy party.

Bomb and arson attacks that cause little damage and rarely injure are common in Greece, which has a long history of political violence. The attacks have picked up in recent years as the country has imposed austerity cuts to tackle its deepest economic crisis since World War Two.

Golden Dawn member convicted for threatening to put migrants in ovens


A member of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party was found guilty of inciting racist violence after threatening to turn immigrants into soap and to put them in ovens.

Alexandros Plomeratis, a losing candidate for the party in recent elections, was given a one-year suspended jail sentence by an Athens court.

Plomeratis had been filmed as part of a documentary by Britain’s Channel 4 News in which he made Holocaust references in threatening the many immigrants who live in Athens.

“We are ready to turn on the ovens,” he said. “We will turn them into soap but we may get a rash.” Plomeratis also threatened to “make lamps from their skins.”

He told the court that his comments were filmed during a private conversation with friends and he was “only joking,” according to the Kathimerini newspaper.

The sentence comes a week after Greece’s Parliament adopted a law that bans Holocaust denial and imposes harsher penalties of up to three years in prison for inciting racist violence. The new law cannot be imposed retroactively.

Greece has been trying to crack down on Golden Dawn. Many of its leaders are awaiting trial on charges of running a criminal organization.

The party, which has 18 seats in Parliament, frequently uses Nazi imagery. Its leaders have denied the existence of Nazi death camps and gas chambers.

Amid neo-Nazi surge, Jewish groups applaud Greece’s Holocaust denial ban


Jewish groups say the passage of a bill banning Holocaust denial and imposing harsher penalties for hate speech is an important milestone in the fight against Greece’s rising neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.

“This comes very late, but not too late,” World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer told JTA.

Greece’s parliament passed the bill Tuesday following more than a year of political wrangling.

Riding a wave of fear and despair brought on by Greece’s devastating economic crisis — coupled with a large influx of illegal immigrants from Africa and Asia — Golden Dawn emerged from obscurity in 2012 to become the country’s third largest political party, with 18 members of parliament.

Golden Dawn, which uses Nazi imagery, has been blamed by the government, prosecutors and law enforcements for hundreds of xenophobic attacks. The incidents include the killings of at least four Pakistani immigrants and the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, a noted anti-fascist Greek rapper known as Killah P.

The new law increases jail time to three years for instigating racist violence and imposes fines of up to 26,000 euros (about $34,000) for individuals and up to 100,000 euros (about $130,000) for groups convicted of “inciting acts of discrimination, hatred or violence.” It also criminalizes denial of the Holocaust and other recognized genocides, with the same penalties.

In a move that will allow the government to target political groups like Golden Dawn, organizations found to incite racism can be barred from receiving state funds. However, the law cannot be applied retroactively.

Anti-racism laws dating back to 1979 did not provide for prosecuting groups or parties that incited bias crimes. They also barred police from investigating suspected hate crimes if the victim chose not to press charges.

“We have anti-racism laws already, but the reason they were not applied was that immigrants, for example, were afraid to report the crimes because they did not hold proper travel documents, lived here illegally and feared deportation,” Justice Minister Haralambos Athanasiou told parliament ahead of the debate on the legislation.

There were also no prior provisions against Holocaust denial. So there was little the authorities could do when a Golden Dawn lawmaker proudly declared himself a Holocaust denier or when party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos, in a television interview, denied the existence of gas chambers at Nazi death camps.

Following the 2013 murder of Fyssas, which Greek prosecutors blamed on Golden Dawn activists, many Golden Dawn leaders and lawmakers were arrested and accused of running a criminal organization. Their trials are scheduled for December.

Even with top party leaders jailed, including Michaloliakos, Golden Dawn maintained its popular support in recent municipal elections.

“We really hope the law will limit racist and anti-Semitic statements and will deter Holocaust deniers, who have multiplied in the last two years, including inside parliament,” said Victor Eliezer, the secretary general of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.

Some 5,000 Jews live in Greece today. The prewar community of some 78,000, most of whom lived in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, was almost entirely wiped out in the Holocaust.

It is also hoped that the law will curb expressions of anti-Semitism. A recent Anti-Defamation League survey found Greece to be the most anti-Semitic country in Europe, with 69 percent of the population holding anti-Jewish views.

The new law brings Greece in line with most of the other European Union countries, which have barred Holocaust denial and impose similar jail sentences for inciting racial or ethnic violence.

An initial draft of the measure failed to garner enough support after right-wing elements in Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy party proposed excluding the Orthodox Church and the military or police from prosecution under the law.

Other holdups were over which genocides to recognize, whether or not to include provisions for homophobic violence and a petition by 139 academics against the Holocaust denial clause in the name of free speech.

In addition to the Holocaust, the new law includes the mass killings of Armenians, Black Sea Greeks or other Christians in Asia Minor during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Under the law, inciting violence or discrimination for homophobic reasons is illegal, but provisions allowing for civil unions of gay couples were removed.

In a measure of how problematic the law is, only 99 of the 300 members of parliament turned up for the final vote, with 55 voting in favor.

“What is xenophobia? The railings at my home stopping a Pakistani, or any foreigner, from raping my wife or killing me?” Golden Dawn lawmaker Michail Arvanitis told parliament, according to Reuters. “Discrimination is a fact of life.”

But the nation’s Jews, its Jewish leaders and others who support the new legislation see things much differently.

“We hope [the law] will be applied rigorously by the courts,” the WJC’s Singer said.

“However, more efforts will need to be undertaken if the fight against extremist forces such as Golden Dawn is to be successful,” he said, but did not mention specifics.

 

Five doubting dudes and the holy relics of Mount Mortality


“Protestant,” I lied, not for the first time, when the Holy Mount Athos Pilgrims Bureau officer asked me my religion.

In January, when my friend Sandy, who was born Greek Orthodox, applied to the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs to allow five of us to set foot on the Mount Athos peninsula in June, I’d agreed that putting “Protestant” on the form was a safer answer than the truth – “It’s complicated” – and less likely to be a deal-breaker than “Jewish.”  Even so, my surname was enough to trigger a “Really?” from the ministry and gum up the paperwork.  And though our written reassurance that this Kaplan was indeed ΠΡΟΤΕΣΤΑΝΤΗΣ resulted in a message that permission would be granted, when the permit official was face-to-face with me at the Pilgrims Bureau in Ouranoupoli, something – maybe my nose – didn’t pass his smell test.  So I was asked the question again, and I nonchalantly replied “Protestant,” casually adding “Episcopal,” in the hope that such a detail would somehow make it more plausible, and silently wondering if my ethnic treachery would send me to hell – if I’d actually believed in hell – or whether it was really no more grave a transgression than adding a couple of inches of height to my JDate profile.

For more than a thousand years, Mount Athos, a forested peninsula jutting 40 miles into the northeast Aegean, has been the center of monastic life in the Greek Orthodox faith.  Twenty monasteries, and little else, are scattered along its wild coastline.  Some are as large as colleges; some rise from the rocks like the Potala Palace in Tibet.  Inside their walls there is an astonishing abundance of medieval icons, mosaics, illuminated manuscripts, jeweled reliquaries, precious metalwork and ancient marble. The Byzantine frescoes in just one of Mount Athos’s chapels would be more than enough art to fill a major exhibition in any of the world’s museums.

Four days is the longest visit that pilgrims – not tourists – may make.  One hundred and twenty are granted permission to enter per day, and all but 10 of them must be Greek Orthodox.  There are no hotels, and a maximum of a single night’s stay per monastery – arranged through a separate application process – is permitted.  No women are allowed to set foot on Mount Athos, a prohibition that the bearded, black-robed monks, some 1,500 of them on the peninsula, say honors the Virgin Mary, who visited there when her ship was blown off course on her way from the Holy Land to Cyprus.  Shorts, bare toes and pierced ears are also forbidden.

The trip was Sandy’s idea.  His 95-year-old father is Greek, and though Sandy was baptized in the Orthodox faith, he would be the first to call himself an atheist.  Two of us – Tim, an Englishman, and Adam, half English and half Swedish – are Christian, but only nominally.  Geza, whose parents were Hungarian Catholics, is also an unbeliever, and vocally appalled by the historic carnage committed in God’s name. I’m Jewish.  Though Adam dubbed us five the Mount Atheists, I hesitate to call myself that because of my ineluctable awe at the ineffable, at what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “the inconceivable surprise of living” – my amazement and gratitude that there is something rather than nothing, an improvised mysticism that nevertheless leaves me religiously way closer to my four secular bros than to someone whose Savior is Christ or whose God is the God of Scripture.

During our visit we were meticulously respectful of the monks’ practices, but we still stuck out among the other visitors.  I was the only American, and we were the only native English-speakers that we encountered, but I think it was the monks’ radar for apostasy, not for nationality, that marked us.  At each monastery where we stayed, a monk approached us, looking for spiritual embers to blow on.  Father Savvas urged us to reflect on the deeper reasons we had chosen to come to Mount Athos rather than hitting one of Greece’s beach-ringed pleasure islands.  Father George wrote out a list of books for us to read, memoirs of Protestants and Catholics and lapsed Orthodox who had found their way back to the one true religion.  Father Gregory told us of the doubter struck dead on the spot for disbelieving that an icon of the Virgin Mary in the monastery’s possession had spouted blood when struck by a knife. Father Vasilios told us of the miraculous power of one of his monastery’s holy relics, Saint Marina’s hand – still at body temperature after 1,700 years – to raise believers from the dead.  He also urged us to turn our backs on the rotten, homosexuality-accepting Sodom and Gomorrah we came from.

All this left us unmoved.  If anything, the relics and the miracles and the culture war talk made it more difficult for us to discover the highest common denominator between the faith of the monks and our own ad hoc spirituality.  So why, if not for worship and conversion, had we gone there?  There was aesthetic pleasure galore, of course, and spectacular natural beauty, and the coolness of parachuting across 10 centuries into “The Name of the Rose,” and the thrill of being among the few to get in.  But the real reason we went, I think, was to wrestle with our own mortality.    

The five of us have been friends since college.  Four of us were roommates.  Sandy’s brother George was also our roommate, but we lost him three years ago, after a bruising battle with leukemia.  In a way, this pilgrimage was a tribute to George, an effort to keep him alive by keeping the bonds among us alive, a sentimental but inevitably futile attempt to transcend his ending by denying our own.  The miracle we bore witness to turned out to be the earthly wonder of enduring friendship.  The relics we accepted turned out to be ourselves, a handful of 60-somethings, killer backpacking from one monastery to the next and sleeping five to a cell with a bathroom down the hall.  If this understanding of holiness was a humanistic heresy, we were glad to be guilty of it. 

Sailing to Byzantium – literally enacting the title of Yeats’s poem – had been our original plan; we were going to make our way to Mount Athos in the beautiful wooden caïque owned by George and Sandy’s family. But a storm registering eight on the Beaufort scale made us rethink our course.  Herodotus tells of 300 Persian ships destroyed by a northerly gale at Mount Athos, and we were in no rush to join them, so Plan B for getting to Byzantium was 24 hours by ferry and car.  Despite the change of route, Yeats’s words still apply. 

“That is no country for old men,” it begins.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing…

We traveled to Mount Athos to revel in one another’s company, to savor each moment left to us, to testify to the sanctity of being.  We went to Byzantium so our souls could clap hands and sing.  If that’s not where God is, I don’t know where else to look.


Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Greek Jews rap appointment of rightist Makis Voridis as health minister


Makis Voridis, a longtime member of ultranationalist parties, was appointed health minister in Greece.

Monday’s appointment, part of a widespread government reshuffle, was met with disappointment by members of the Greek Jewish community.

“No Jewish person can be happy about the appointment  of a man who was, until two years ago, a head of the extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic LAOS party,” said Victor Eliezer, the secretary general of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.

Voridis, 49, after being elected to the European Parliament, formed an alliance with the head of France’s National Front party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was a guest at his wedding. He then merged his party with LAOS, a populist, nationalistic party founded by a politician known for his anti-Semitic views, George Karatzaferis.

Two years ago, Voridis was among several LAOS members who joined the conservative New Democracy party of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras after LAOS failed to qualify for Parliament amid the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. Samaras has been accused of pandering to the far right in a bid to stem the loss of votes to Golden Dawn, which emerged as the third-largest party in Greece.

Samaras maintains that those who joined New Democracy have committed to abide by party policy, which condemns anti-Semitism and racism.

Voridis has since written to the Jewish community, expressing his opposition to Holocaust denial and his commitment to “putting an end to anti-Semitic, racist prejudice which is an outright violation of human dignity.”

Eliezer called it a “step in the right direction,” but said the Jewish community would like to see him and the other former LAOS members completely renounce their past views.

In the reshuffle, Voridis replaces another former LAOS member, Adonis Georgiadis.

Voridis had risen to prominence as the head of a student group at Athens University that fellow students recount as painting swastikas on the walls and greeting each other with “Heil Hitler.”

 

Golden Dawn’s gains in EU election signal failure of Greece’s crackdown


The picture of Golden Dawn leaders being led away in shackles by masked policemen last September was supposed to be a defining image: Greek authorities cracking down on the country’s neo-Nazi party as a harbinger of its demise.

Instead, soon there will be a new iconic image: three members of the party taking their seats in the European Parliament.

Golden Dawn — supposedly persecuted, prosecuted and in tatters – made substantial gains over the weekend in European elections, capturing 9.4 percent of the popular vote to emerge as the third-largest political party in Greece. Leaders of the party, which won 7 percent of the vote in the 2012 national elections, hailed the weekend vote as a clear triumph.

“We are the third political power in Greece,” jailed Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos wrote in a message to his followers. “We are the upcoming Greece.”

[Related: Why is Greece so anti-Semitic?]

For Golden Dawn’s opponents, including the small Jewish community in Greece, the election was deeply frustrating, signaling the apparent failure of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ strategy for dealing with ultranationalist party.

“It is a vote that makes us very uncomfortable,” said David Saltiel, the president of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece. “I think the Greek government needs to find ways to explain to the voters that the Golden Dawn is a Nazi party of killers.”

For the embattled Greek government, already struggling to pull the country out of a massive economic crisis amid a harsh austerity regime imposed by Europe, the vote is another blow. Samaras’ center-right New Democracy party, fearful of alienating the right wing of the party, until now has balked at outlawing Golden Dawn or bringing a tough anti-racism bill to parliament.

Instead, the government went after Golden Dawn in the courts, arresting most of its lawmakers. Six were jailed and stripped of their political immunity and state funding.

Samaras had been forced to act following widespread outrage and protests in Greece in the wake of the Sept. 18 killing of anti-fascist rapper Killah P by a suspected Golden Dawn member. Party members also have been accused of being behind dozens of violent attacks on immigrants in Greece.

Prosecutors have said the party, with its Nazi swastika-like flag and Holocaust-denying leadership, has a structured organization that operates along military lines and is inspired by the ideals of National Socialism.

Some of the leaders since have been released on bail while others await their trials. No dates have been set; Greece’s legal system often operates extremely slow.

Much of the government’s credibility with the public evaporated in April when a top aide to Samaras was forced to resign following the release of a video that appeared to show him telling Golden Dawn lawmakers that the government was only pressuring the courts to jail party members in order to stem the loss of New Democracy votes.

Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris released the video during a parliamentary debate on lifting his immunity.

The elections for European Parliament, the EU’s legislative branch, also have undermined the Greek government’s central tenet — that exposing Golden Dawn members for what they are would drain them of support.

This was clearly a fallacy, said Victor Eliezer, the secretary general of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.

“Now no one can say that they did not know, no one can say that it was a vote of protest,” he said. “This time, to my sorrow, the votes for Golden Dawn are clearly ideological; they are votes for a neo-Nazi party.”

For Greek Jews, the question remains of what can be done?

Some, like Saltiel, believe that only by tackling the underlying problems that affect Greece can they truly deal with Golden Dawn. A recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League showed that Greece has Europe’s highest rate of anti-Semitic viewpoints, with 69 percent of Greeks espousing anti-Semitic views. That’s nearly twice the rate as the next highest country, France, where the rate was 37 percent.

“Golden Dawn is a symptom of the sickness,” Saltiel said.

Some of Golden Dawn’s support comes from the role it has played in filling a vacuum created by the economic crisis.

While the government has slashed salaries and pensions, and unemployment soared to nearly 30 percent, Golden Dawn has stepped up by distributing food, medicine and other supplies to ethnic Greeks and providing security patrols in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods. Some of the patrols have resulted in violence against immigrants. Greece has seen a huge influx of immigrants in recent years who have used the country as a gateway to the rest of Europe.

“I think the government has to work to see the real problems of the people and see why people are voting for this extremist Nazi party,” Saltiel said.

Greek authorities have not said what their next steps will be, except for a brief statement from government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou reiterating that the government needs to do a better job explaining the dangers of Golden Dawn.

Others say it’s time that neo-Nazi extremism is addressed on a wider level. They point not just to the far-right surge in the European Parliament elections but to an uptick in extremist violence across Europe – including Saturday’s attack at the Brussels Jewish museum that left four dead.

“European leaders must address this problem urgently and come up with a strategy to fight extremism,” said Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress.

Lauder said he wants European leaders to find a “credible plan” to combat the problem.

“The future of European Jewry is at stake if these forces are not reined in,” he said.

Far-right surge expected in European elections


Armed with ropes and long sticks, a group of teens in Germany’s capital headed out under the cover of night. Their goal: to tear down from lampposts the campaign posters of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NDP).

The young people are one small posse among those who fear gains for far-right parties in the upcoming elections for European Parliament.

While the NDP seems unlikely to get more than a single seat, far-right parties in other European countries are looking forward to major advances.

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said in an interview that he is worried about “a surge in the number of extremist, racist and anti-Semitic lawmakers in Strasbourg and Brussels.”

The parliament, he said, should establish a “no platform policy toward those parties to ensure that they are completely marginalized in the decision-making process.”

Taking place May 22-25 amid economic hard times, the elections are expected to yield a strong showing for far-right, far-left and anti-establishment parties.

Polls suggest that Euroskeptic parties are likely to take a quarter or more of the parliament’s maximum 751 seats. Despite their antipathy toward the European Union (EU), such parties — some unable to win significant representation in the national parliaments of their own countries — are eager for the platform provided by the European Parliament.

The president of the European Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor, warned that anti-establishment and anti-European parties on the far left and far right are a danger to “all Europeans, including Jews.”

While some Euroskeptic parties have built alliances with like-minded factions from other countries, they are a fractious lot.

There is a divide between left and right, as well as fissures within the right. Far-right parties aiming for broader appeal have been reluctant to cooperate with overtly fascist parties.

“Even if those Euroskeptic extreme-right parties will be more powerful in the next parliament — and they will be — their power will not be enough to block legislation. I don’t believe this will happen,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a French researcher on anti-Semitism and far-right parties, citing such divisions.

But their growing power reveals profound discontent with how the EU is being run. More and more people are saying, “The kind of Europe that is being offered is not our cup of tea,” he added.

Extremist parties have become “more polished, more professional in communication and have changed their way of saying things so they don’t appear as extremist as they are,” said Viviane Teitelbaum, a member of the Belgian Federal Parliament who serves on the steering committee of the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians.

For example, she said, the leader of France’s National Front, Marine Le Pen, “doesn’t use the same language against democracy in general as her father [party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen] was using. … She does not deny the Holocaust like her father did. But it is a matter of time.”

Teitelbaum went on to say, “You cannot be just a little bit democratic or a little bit fascist. When you are a fascist, you are a total fascist.”

In France, the National Front is expected to garner nearly a quarter of the vote for European Parliament and potentially will be first among all French parties. It has agreed to form a parliamentary alliance with Holland’s Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders, which polls suggest could take some 17 percent of the Dutch vote.

The UK Independence Party, an ardently anti-EU group, is predicted to finish first in Britain’s European Parliament election, even though it holds no seats in the country’s House of Commons. Its leader, Nigel Farage, has said he will not form an alliance with the National Front, citing the French party’s record of “anti-Semitism and general prejudice.”

The alliance being formed by Wilders and Le Pen also would not include more extreme parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary.

Golden Dawn, with its swastika-like symbol and anti-immigrant platform, could finish third or fourth in the Greek vote for European Parliament. Golden Dawn’s leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, a Holocaust denier, is currently in prison with other party activists facing charges filed in the wake of the murder of an anti-fascist Greek musician.

Earlier this month, a Greek court ruled that the party would be allowed to participate in the European Parliament elections.

“We are worried, yes, but not afraid,” said Victor Eliezer, secretary general of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece. “We are sure that European democratic forces generally — and especially in Greece — will safeguard the principles of democracy.”

Jobbik, Hungary’s third-largest party, won 20 percent of the vote in national elections and is expected to post a similarly strong showing in the European Parliament contest. It is fervently anti-Roma, and its leaders have often used anti-Semitic rhetoric.

By contrast, the NDP has never managed to pass the 5 percent threshold necessary to gain a seat in Germany’s national parliament, though it currently has seats in two state legislatures.

But the NDP has a chance of breaking into the European Parliament for the first time. A German Supreme Court ruling in March eliminated the threshold to gain a seat in the European Parliament, so a party needs only about 1 percent of the vote to claim one of Germany’s 99 seats on the EU body, the largest representation of any country.

Golden Dawn’s showing in elections worries Greek government


The ultranationalist Golden Dawn party’s showing in local Greek elections prompted concern from the national government.

In voting Sunday, no Golden Dawn candidate made it through to the second round to be held next Sunday, when elections to the European Parliament also will be held. But government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said he was unsure why the party still had so much support following a harsh government crackdown in which most of its leaders had been charged with belonging to a criminal organization.

[Related: Rise of Greece’s Golden Dawn]

Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris received more than 16 percent of Sunday’s vote in the race for mayor of Athens, while the party’s candidate for governor of the Attica region had more than 11 percent. In Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, the Golden Dawn candidate drew nearly 8 percent of the vote, according to results released Monday.

Kedikoglou said the government would do more in the run-up to the European Parliament elections to emphasize the dangers posed to Greece by Golden Dawn, according to the Kathimerini daily newspaper.

The government has arrested several party leaders and stripped the 18 Golden Dawn parliament members of their immunity.

The crackdown followed widespread outrage and protests in Greece in the wake of the Sept. 18 killing of anti-fascist rapper Killah P by a suspected Golden Dawn member.

Golden Dawn has been accused of being behind dozens of attacks on immigrants in Greece. The party is known for its Nazi swastika-like flag and Holocaust-denying leadership.

Politician with anti-Semitic past appointed Greek health minister


A right-wing Greek politician who has made anti-Semitic statements was appointed health minister of Greece.

The naming of Adonis Georgiadis came as part of a Cabinet reshuffle last week after one of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ junior coalition partners walked out over attempts to reform the struggling economy in Greece.

Georgiadis, who also owns a publishing house, has promoted and sold the notorious book “Jews: The Whole Truth,” written by Konstantinos Plevris. In the book, Plevris describes himself as a “Nazi, fascist, racist, anti-democrat, anti-Semite.”

In the past, Georgiadis has said that “all major banks belong to the Jews” and that “the Jewish lobby” would determine the fate of Greece’s foreign debt.

Georgiadis and several other members of the far-right LAOS joined Samaras’ conservative New Democracy after their small party failed to garner enough votes last year to qualify for the parliament amid the rise of the ultranationalist Golden Dawn party.

The Anti-Defamation League wrote to Samaras to protest the appointment and urge him to reconsider, as well as to ensure that the delayed anti-racism legislation meant to combat Golden Dawn is enacted and enforced.

Report says Greece could ban anti-Semitic Golden Dawn party


A report released by the Council of Europe says that Greece could legally ban the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party, which has been linked to a number of violent, racist attacks.

The 32-page report by the France-based council was issued Tuesday by its human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, following a fact-finding mission to Greece earlier this year.

The report said Muiznieks was “seriously concerned by the increase in racist and other hate crimes in Greece,” and that “a number of the reported attacks have been linked to members or supporters, including MPs, of the neo-Nazi political party ‘Golden Dawn.’ ”

It said that under existing Greek legislation and under treaties signed by Athens, Greece had the legal means to take steps against Golden Dawn, including banning the party.

“The Commissioner calls on the Greek authorities to be highly vigilant and use all available means to combat all forms of hate speech and hate crime, and to end impunity for these crimes,” the report said.

The Greek media said the Greek government had sent the council a response indicating that it was unlikely to ban Golden Dawn.

“Solutions cannot be the products of emotional responses, which could backfire or bring about unwanted results,” the Eleftherotypia newspaper quoted the Greek government's response as saying.

A statement on the Golden Dawn website dismissed the report, saying the Council of Europe was a “Zionist institution.”

The Council of Europe, which is based in Strasbourg, runs the European Court of Human Rights.

Golden Dawn emerged on the political scene last year, winning 7 percent of the vote, or 18 seats, in the 300-member Greek Parliament. Recent polls have indicated the party, which runs on a fiercely anti-immigrant platform, now has 14 percent to 18 percent of the population’s support.

Jewish and international groups groups have condemned Golden Dawn as racist and anti-Semitic.

Rise of Greece’s Golden Dawn: A presage of doom


The undisguised extremism promoted by Golden Dawn is a chilling watershed in Greece’s postwar democracy. Fascist gangs are turning Athens into a city of shifting front lines, seizing on crimes and local protests to promote their own movement, by claiming to be the defenders of recession-ravaged Greece.

The People’s Association – Golden Dawn — usually referred to simply as Golden Dawn — is a right-wing extremist political organization in Greece. It is led by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, and has grown considerably since its inception to a widely known Greek political party with nationwide support.

Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party is gaining popularity in the midst of the country’s deepening financial crisis. The group has been implicated in torture cases, and for inciting a wave of racial violence sweeping the country.

An opinion poll published by KAPA Research in October showed that support for the extremist political group had grown from 7.5 percent of the population in June to 10.4 percent currently.

The Golden Dawn emerged from political obscurity into the mainstream in May after winning 7 percent of the vote in the Greek parliamentary elections. Since then, the country has reportedly witnessed an upsurge in racial violence connected to the right-wing group.

The party entered the international spotlight after some of its members reportedly participated in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims. Its publication praises the Third Reich and often features photographs of Hitler and other Nazis.

Golden Dawn has manipulated a weak Greek state and disastrous austerity management by European bureaucrats to become, according to recent polls, the third-most popular political party in the country — a noxious omen for the eurozone and a worrying challenge and counterpoint to the very idea of the European Union itself, which received last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Three years ago, Greeks ignored Golden Dawn, seeing its members as neo-Nazi thugs waging war against migrants and giving it a miserable 0.29 percent of the vote. Last year, however, Golden Dawn — rebranded as an anti-austerity party — won nearly 7 percent and secured 18 of the 300 seats in Parliament. Its ascent has continued in opinion surveys despite its parliamentary deputies’ being filmed attacking immigrant vendors and demanding that all non-Greek children be kicked out of day-care centers and hospitals.

As the cash-strapped government struggles to offer its citizens basic services, Golden Dawn has set up parastate organizations to police the streets, donate to Greek-only blood banks and help unemployed Greeks find jobs. The party has also promised to cancel household debt for the unemployed and low-wage earners. “Soon we’ll be running this country,” said Ilias Panagiotaros, a beefy 38-year-old army-supply-shop owner who is now a Golden Dawn parliamentary deputy representing Athens.

Public Love from Fear

“The people love us,” said Panagiotaros, who is among the 18 Golden Dawn members elected to Parliament. Golden Dawn draws much of that love from fear. Greece is now the main entry point for at least 80 percent of the EU’s undocumented immigrants. Frontex, the European Union border-patrolling agency, estimates that 57,000 illegal immigrants slipped into Greece last year and more than 100,000 entered in 2010. Many travel through Turkey, often via a land border that Golden Dawn wants to plant with land mines. Some seek asylum, and because of EU rules, those who want to apply for refugee status must do so in their country of entry — in this case, Greece, which often takes years to review the applications. As Europe turns a blind eye to the immigration crisis, many impoverished foreigners find themselves trapped in an economically crippled country that can’t sustain them.

Some Greeks no longer want to be hospitable. In the past year, gangs of vigilantes, many sporting Golden Dawn’s black shirts, have beaten and stabbed hundreds of migrants, according to human-rights groups.

In June 2012, a number of them broke into the Piraeus home of Abouzeid Mubarak, 28, an Egyptian fisherman, bashing him with iron rods until he fell into a coma. “It was a hate that was inhuman,” said Mubarak, who is still recovering.

Ali Rahimi, a 27-year-old Afghan asylum seeker, was hanging around with friends outside his building in central Athens when more than a dozen Greeks approached. Several men set upon Rahimi, one with a knife. Panicked, he fled into his apartment and fought back, managing to push the men out the door. He found blood gushing from just above his heart, one of five stab wounds in his back and chest.

Rahimi survived and is staying put for now. But his friend, Reza Mohammed, who was also injured in the attack, is considering what was once unthinkable: moving back to Afghanistan, which he feels would be safer than Greece.

Parts of Athens feel like a war zone. Racist gangs cruise the streets at night in search of victims. Themis Skordeli, a member of the group that is accused of stabbing Rahimi, ran unsuccessfully for Parliament on the Golden Dawn ticket.

A few blocks down the street, a crowd was leaving a mosque after Friday prayer. At the mention of Golden Dawn, immigrant men began lifting their shirts to show their scars. A short, sullen-looking young man with a cut across his nose and freshly sutured cheekbone was pushed forward by the crowd. Just the night before, he said, he was beaten and cut with a knife by “fascists.”

“Go into the Omonia police station,” another man said. “You will see how violence is going on.” Several blocks away, I walked into just such a scene. As I stepped out of the elevator at the police station, I saw an officer screaming at a black man and backhanding him hard across the shoulder.

In Athens, Sayd Jafari owns a cafe frequented by fellow Afghans. It has been repeatedly ransacked by mobs of black-clad attackers wielding sticks, chains and knives and gesturing fascist salutes.

Like others who have been assaulted, Jafari is also contemplating returning home to Afghanistan. “There, maybe someone has a bomb hidden on his body that he detonates,” he said. “Here, you don’t see where the knife that kills you comes from.”

It’s now common to see police line up immigrants from South Asia and Africa in public squares and along streets in central Athens. Those without legal-residency permits are arrested and sent to detention centers to be deported.

Police claim they have detained nearly 42,000 people since August, though only about 3,400 were arrested for not having residency papers. They defended the crackdown, which was strongly denounced by human-rights groups, by comparing undocumented immigrants to the Dorian invaders who purportedly brought down the Mycenaeans in 1100 B.C.E.

The most recent example of fascism shown by Golden Dawn in its series of discriminating activities is when it said a visit to Greece by American Jewish Committee leader David Harris is meant to ensure further “Jewish influence over Greek political issues” and safeguard the interests of “international loan sharks.”

Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), led a Jewish delegation to the region to meet with several Greek leaders, including Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. During the meetings, Harris expressed his “concern and solidarity for Greece during the crisis.”

“The only solidarity of this gentleman is to his compatriots — the international loan sharks, who are humiliating the Greek people. His concern most likely is related to the inability of Greece to make the payments of the predatory interest rates of the vile loans,” Golden Dawn said in a statement, adding: “We do not need the crocodile tears of a Jew.”

Its leader, Michaloliakos, uses the “Heil Hitler” salute and has denied the existence of gas chambers at Nazi death camps during World War II. Another lawmaker read a passage from the anti-Semitic hoax “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” during a parliamentary session.

The attack on Harris and a separate article titled “Absolute Evil” that was published on the party’s Web site in January appeared to be a hardening of Golden Dawn’s anti-Semitic rhetoric, apparently in anger over pressure from Jewish groups to get the Greek government to rein in the party. The “Evil” statement said that blaming Golden Dawn for Greece’s woes constituted an attempt to divert attention from the real culprits for Greece’s financial crisis.

“They are none other than those who possess most of the international wealth. The people behind the international loan-sharks,” the statement said. “Everyone knows they belong to a certain race, which presents itself as a victim, while in reality it is the perpetrator. Everyone knows that they are none other than those pulling the strings behind the marionettes. They are the absolute evil for mankind.”

The second statement ended with a threat.

“The time will come when the nationalists of the Golden Dawn will take revenge like the horsemen of the storm, and all of them, being the absolute evil, will pay!”

Not content to proselytizing in their homeland, Golden Dawn has started to expand worldwide.

Barely a month after their electoral victories, Golden Dawn launched a widely criticized branch in Melbourne, Australia, home to one of the largest Greek populations outside of Athens. In October, several groups protested the opening of a Golden Dawn office in New York City, which had opened for the explicit purpose of building support for the party among Greek expatriate communities and collecting food and medicine to distribute in Greece — only for Greeks. And in Montreal, Golden Dawn held a Christmas food drive. The catch: It said it would give food only to Greek Christians.

Golden Dawn members in the United States have told CBC News they plan to open chapters shortly in Chicago, Connecticut and Toronto.

What’s at stake is the health of European democracy and the values and institutions on which it rests. But although the euro crisis touched off a scramble to halt a financial meltdown, European leaders have done virtually nothing to reverse the union’s dangerous political trends.

As recent polls show that its strength continues to grow, and its support runs as high as 50 percent among police officers, who routinely fail to investigate growing numbers of hate crimes.

Far-right ultranationalist groups are exploiting old enmities and new fears across the Continent. Although this is not the Europe of the 1930s, the disillusioned citizens of countries like Greece and Hungary have turned increasingly to simple answers, electing parties that blame familiar scapegoats — Jews, Gypsies, gays and foreigners — for their ills.

Maria Chandraki, 29, an unemployed beautician, hadn’t heard of Golden Dawn until the last election. “Their positions may be extreme,” she said, holding plastic bags of food she’d just received, “but the situation is extreme as well. So we need extreme measures.” She went on, “We can’t have so many nations and so many different sets of values and ideals under the same roof.”

Beneath the looming basilica of Athens’ largest church, middle-aged men and women in black Golden Dawn T-shirts were busy one bright September morning distributing food to needy Greeks. Kids ran across the courtyard, which was painted with the party’s unofficial platform: “Get foreigners out of Greece.” Clusters of fit, stoic young men in dark glasses ringed the perimeter.

Nikolaos Michos, a square-jawed Golden Dawn member of Parliament with the build and tattoos of a heavyweight boxer, leaned against a bloodmobile watching. He wore a black polo embossed with the party’s swastika-like logo. “We’re fighters and we’re not going to back down,” he said, referring to death threats from leftists and the burning of a Golden Dawn office. “But they’re not striking fear into us because every center they destroy, we’ll build new ones,” he added.

European leaders must not cede the battleground in the war of ideas. They should publicly denounce parties that espouse racist doctrines and spew hate-filled rhetoric and clearly define and defend the shared values of an increasingly integrated Europe.

To do so, they must develop a pan-European approach to monitor hate crimes and investigate right-wing extremist networks that operate across borders. And the European Union must ensure that all member-states, old and new, respect the same criteria that countries currently aspiring to join the European Union are required to meet, especially maintaining the “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities.” Otherwise, Europe faces the specter of more xenophobic violence and the unraveling of the liberal democratic order that has drawn so many persecuted people to seek asylum and opportunity on European shores.

Nikos Katapodis, 69, can see the crossroads where his family has lived since 1863. A bald, chain-smoking funeral-home owner, Katapodis described the Greek government with a string of expletives. The flood of immigrants over the last decade created ghettos in central Athens, he explained. Crime rates rose, property values dropped and bars appeared on second-floor windows. “It looks like a prison,” he said, nodding to the street. “Today it reminds me of the late 1940s,” he added. “You see people scrounging for food in the trash cans.”

Although he didn’t vote for Golden Dawn, he sees it as “the only party that is actually doing things for the Greek people” — a cross between the welfare state and the Mafia. If he needed an escort to walk down the street or help paying for his cancer medicine, said he’d call Golden Dawn. “They’re doing what the politicians should be doing,” he said. “There’s a hole, and they fill it.”

Authoritarian elements in the Greek government have a history of using far-right groups to outsource political violence against critics. Recent moves to rein in Golden Dawn came only after it grew too powerful to control and the state felt its own authority was challenged, explained Anastassia Tsoukala, a legal scholar. “They were bitten by their own snake,” she said. And Greece is not alone. Golden Dawn’s rise has parallels across Europe, and its significance should be of Continental concern. 

Hatef Mokhtar is editor-in-chief of The Oslo Times. This is his first piece for the Jewish Journal.

Thessaloniki Jews to mark 70th anniversary of Nazi deportations


The Jewish community of Thessaloniki in northern Greece will hold a series of events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the first deportations of the city’s Jews to Auschwitz.

On March 15, 1943, the Nazis sent the first convoy of some 4,000 Jews from Thessaloniki to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. By August, 49,000 out of the city’s pre-war population of 55,000 Jews had been deported. Fewer than 2,000 survived.

The events will include a march on March 16 from the city’s Liberty Square to the Old Railway Station where a memorial ceremony will be held. That will be followed by the main commemoration ceremony on March 17 at Thessaloniki’s Monastiriotes Synagogue, where Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is expected to speak.

The Jewish community will also inaugurate a photographic exhibit about the deportations and hold a concert at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, which was constructed on the site of a destroyed Jewish cemetery.

The Jewish community of Thessaloniki was one of the most important centers of Sephardic Jewry for 450 years following the expulsion from Spain. Known as the Flower of the Balkans, it was the center of Ladino culture in the region.

Following the deportations, Jewish property was looted, synagogues were destroyed, priceless Ladino libraries were shipped to Germany and Jewish cemetery headstones were used as construction materials.

Also March 17, the World Jewish Congress will hold a special meeting in Thessaloniki, headed by Ronald Lauder, as part of the commemorations. The gathering is part of the organization's efforts to support vulnerable Jewish communities, the World Jewish Congress said in a statement

Today, about 1,000 Jews live in the city and they are “adversely affected by the country’s deep economic problems and by the rise of the extremist Golden Dawn, a movement whose leaders openly deny the Holocaust,” according to the World Jewish Congress.

Greek police to investigate Golden Dawn threat to turn immigrants “into soap”


Greek police are investigating the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party after some of its members were filmed threatening to turn immigrants “into soap” and put them in “ovens.”

The investigation announced Wednesday was prompted by the broadcast Tuesday of a program on Britain's Channel 4 News that followed Golden Dawn candidates during last year’s elections. In the program, one of the candidates, Alexandros Plomeratis, makes clear Holocaust references in threatening the many immigrants who live in Athens. “We are ready to turn on the ovens,” he says. “We will turn them into soap but we may get a rash.” Plomaritis, who was not elected to parliament, also threatened to “make lamps from their skins.”

Following the broadcast, the Greek police’s new anti-racism task force said it had submitted the footage to an Athens prosecutor for review.

Golden Dawn said in a statement posted on its website that its members had been illegally filmed and that they had been “joking” with the reporters.

Golden Dawn swept into the Greek Parliament with 19 lawmakers in last year's elections, campaigning on an anti-austerity, anti-immigrant platform that preyed on the fears of Greeks who have seen the country flooded with immigrants amid a terrible recession. Greek and international Jewish groups repeatedly have condemned Golden Dawn as racist and anti-Semitic.

Rise of Golden Dawn: A presage of doom


The undisguised extremism promoted by Golden Dawn is a chilling watershed in Greece's post-war democracy. Fascist gangs are turning Athens into a city of shifting front lines, seizing on crimes and local protests to promote their own movement, by claiming to be the defenders of recession-ravaged Greece.

‘The People's Association – Golden Dawn,’ usually known simply as ‘Golden Dawn,’ is a right-wing extremist political organization in Greece. It is led by Nikolaos Michaloliakos and has grown considerably since its inception to a widely known Greek political party with nationwide support.

Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party is gaining popularity in the midst of the country’s deepening financial crisis. The group has been implicated in torture cases, and for inciting a wave of racial violence sweeping the country.

An opinion poll published by KAPA Research in October showed that support for the extremist political group had grown from 7.5 percent of the population in June to 10.4 percent currently.

The Golden Dawn emerged from political obscurity into the mainstream in May after winning 7 percent of the vote in the Greek parliamentary elections. Since then, the country has reportedly witnessed an upsurge in racial violence connected to the right-wing group.

The party entered the international spotlight after some of its members reportedly participated in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims. Its publication praises the Third Reich and often features photographs of Hitler and other Nazis.

Golden Dawn has manipulated a weak Greek state and disastrous austerity management by European bureaucrats to become, according to recent polls, the third most popular political party in the country — a noxious omen for the euro zone and a worrying challenge and counterpoint to the very idea of the E.U. itself, which received this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Three years ago, Greeks ignored Golden Dawn, seeing its members as neo-Nazi thugs waging war against migrants and giving it a miserable 0.29% of the vote. Last year, however, Golden Dawn — rebranded as an anti-austerity party — won nearly 7% and secured 18 of the 300 seats in Parliament. Its ascent has continued in opinion surveys despite its parliamentary deputies' being filmed attacking immigrant vendors and demanding that all non-Greek children be kicked out of day-care centres and hospitals.

As the cash-strapped government struggles to offer its citizens basic services, Golden Dawn has set up parastate organizations to police the streets, donate to Greek-only blood banks and help unemployed Greeks find jobs. The party has also promised to cancel household debt for the unemployed and low-wage earners. “Soon we'll be running this country,” says Ilias Panagiotaros, a beefy 38-year-old army-supply-shop owner who is now a Golden Dawn parliamentary deputy representing Athens.

Public Love from Fear

“The people love us.” says Ilias Panagiotaros. Golden Dawn draws much of that love from fear. Greece is now the main entry point for at least 80% of the EU's un-documented migrants. Frontex, the EU border-patrolling agency, estimates that 57,000 illegal immigrants slipped into Greece last year and more than 100,000 entered in 2010. Many travel through Turkey, often via a land border that Golden Dawn wants to plant with land mines. Some seek asylum, and because of EU rules, those who want to apply for refugee status must do so in their country of entry — in this case, Greece — which often takes years to review the applications. As Europe turns a blind eye to the immigration crisis, many impoverished foreigners find themselves trapped in an economically crippled country that can't sustain them.

Some Greeks no longer want to be hospitable. In the past year, gangs of vigilantes, many sporting Golden Dawn's black shirts, have beaten and stabbed hundreds of migrants, according to human-rights groups.

In June 2012, a number of them broke into the Piraeus home of Abouzeid Mubarak, 28, an Egyptian fisherman, bashing him with iron rods until he fell into a coma. “It was a hate that was inhuman,” says Mubarak, who is still recovering.

Ali Rahimi, a 27-year-old Afghan asylum seeker, was hanging around with friends outside his building in central Athens when more than a dozen Greeks approached. Several men set upon Mr. Rahimi, one with a knife. Panicked, he fled into his apartment and fought back, managing to push the men out the door. He found blood gushing from just above his heart, one of five stab wounds in his back and chest.

Mr. Rahimi survived and is staying put for now. But his friend, Reza Mohammed, who was also injured in the attack, is considering what was once unthinkable: moving back to Afghanistan, which he feels would be safer than Greece.

Parts of Athens feel like a war zone. Racist gangs cruise the streets at night in search of victims. Themis Skordeli, a member of the group that is accused of stabbing Mr. Rahimi, ran unsuccessfully for Parliament on the ticket of Golden Dawn.

A few blocks down the street, a crowd was leaving a mosque after Friday Prayer. At the mention of Golden Dawn, immigrant men began lifting their shirts to show their scars. A short, sullen-looking young man with a cut across his nose and freshly sutured cheek bone was pushed forward by the crowd. Just the night before, he said, he was beaten and cut with a knife by “fascists.”

“Go into the Omonia police station,” said another man. “You will see how violence is going on.” Several blocks away, I walked into just such a scene. As I stepped out of the elevator at the police station, I saw an officer screaming at a black man and backhanding him hard across the shoulder.

In Athens, Sayd Jafari owns a cafe frequented by fellow Afghans. It has been repeatedly ransacked by mobs of black-clad attackers wielding sticks, chains and knives and performing fascist salutes.

Like others who have been assaulted, Mr. Jafari is also contemplating returning home to Afghanistan. “There, maybe someone has a bomb hidden on his body that he detonates,” he says. “Here, you don’t see where the knife that kills you comes from.”

It's now common to see police lineup immigrants from South Asia and Africa in public squares and along streets in central Athens. Those without legal-residency permits are arrested and sent to detention centres to be deported.

Police claim they have detained nearly 42,000 people since August, though only about 3,400 were arrested for not having residency papers. They defended the crackdown, which was strongly denounced by human-rights groups, by comparing undocumented migrants to the Dorian invaders who purportedly brought down the Mycenaeans in 1100 B.C.

The most recent example of fascism shown by Golden Dawn in its series of discriminating activities is when it said a visit to Greece by American Jewish Committee leader David Harris is meant to ensure further “Jewish influence over Greek political issues” and safeguard the interests of “international loan sharks.”

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), is leading a Jewish delegation to the region to meet with several Greek leaders, including Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. During the meetings, Harris expressed his “concern and solidarity for Greece during the crisis.”

“The only solidarity of this gentleman is to his compatriots – the international loan sharks, who are humiliating the Greek people. His concern most likely is related to the inability of Greece to make the payments of the predatory interest rates of the vile loans,” Golden Dawn said in a statement, adding: “We do not need the crocodile tears of a Jew.”

Its leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, uses the Heil Hitler salute and has denied the existence of gas chambers at Nazi death camps during World War II. Another lawmaker read a passage from the anti-Semitic hoax “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

The attack on Harris and a separate article titled “Absolute Evil” that was published on the party's website Friday appeared to be a hardening of Golden Dawn's anti-Semitic rhetoric, apparently in anger over pressure from Jewish groups to get the Greek government to reign in the party. The “Evil” statement said that blaming Golden Dawn for Greece’s woes constituted an attempt to divert attention from the real culprits for Greece’s financial crisis.

“They are none other than those who possess most of the international wealth. The people behind the international loan-sharks,” the statement said. “Everyone knows they belong to a certain race, which presents itself as a victim, while in reality it is the perpetrator. Everyone knows that they are none other than those pulling the strings behind the marionettes. They are the absolute evil for mankind.”

The second statement ended with a threat.

“The time will come when the nationalists of the Golden Dawn will take revenge like the horsemen of the storm, and all of them, being the absolute evil, will pay!”

Not content to proselytizing in their homeland, Golden Dawn has started to expand worldwide.

Barely a month after their electoral victories, Golden Dawn launched a widely-criticized branch in Melbourne, Australia, home to one of the largest Greek populations outside of Athens. In October, several groups protested the opening of a Golden Dawn office in New York City, which had opened for the explicit purpose of building support for the party among Greek expatriate communities and collecting food and medicine to distribute in Greece – only for Greeks. And in Montreal, Golden Dawn is holding a Christmas food drive. The catch! They're only giving food out to Greek Christians.

Golden Dawn members in the United States have told CBC News they plan to open chapters shortly in Chicago, in Connecticut and in Toronto.

What’s at stake is the health of European democracy, and the values and institutions on which it rests. But while the euro crisis touched off a scramble to halt a financial meltdown, European leaders have done virtually nothing to reverse the union’s dangerous political trends.

As recent polls show that its strength continues to grow, and its support runs as high as 50 percent among police officers, who routinely fail to investigate growing numbers of hate crimes.

Far-right ultranationalist groups are exploiting old enmities and new fears across the Continent. Although this is not the Europe of the 1930s, the disillusioned citizens of countries like Greece and Hungary have turned increasingly to simple answers, electing parties that blame familiar scapegoats — Jews, Gypsies, gays and foreigners — for their ills.

Maria Chandraki, 29, an unemployed beautician, hadn’t heard of Golden Dawn until the last election. “Their positions may be extreme,” she said, holding plastic bags of food she’d just received. “But the situation is extreme as well. So we need extreme measures.” She went on, “We can’t have so many nations and so many different sets of values and ideals under the same roof.”

Beneath the looming basilica of Athens’ largest church, middle-aged men and women in black Golden Dawn T-shirts were busy one bright September morning distributing food to needy Greeks. Kids ran across the courtyard, which was painted with the party’s unofficial platform: “Get foreigners out of Greece.” Clusters of fit, stoic young men in dark glasses ringed the perimeter.

Nikolaos Michos, a square-jawed Golden Dawn Member of Parliament with the build and tattoos of a heavyweight boxer, leaned against a bloodmobile watching. He wore a black polo embossed with the party’s Swastika-like logo. “We’re fighters and we’re not going to back down,” he said, referring to death threats from leftists and the burning of a Golden Dawn office. “But they’re not striking fear into us because every centre they destroy, we’ll build new ones,” he added.

European leaders must not cede the battleground in the war of ideas. They should publicly denounce parties that espouse racist doctrines and spew hate-filled rhetoric and clearly define and defend the shared values of an increasingly integrated Europe.

To do so, they must develop a pan-European approach to monitor hate crimes and investigate right-wing extremist networks that operate across borders. And the European Union must ensure that all member-states, old and new, respect the same criteria that countries currently aspiring to join the European Union are required to meet, especially maintaining the “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities.” Otherwise, Europe faces the spectre of more xenophobic violence and the unravelling of the liberal democratic order that has drawn so many persecuted people to seek asylum and opportunity on European shores.

Nikos Katapodis, 69, can see the crossroads where his family has lived since 1863. A bald, chain-smoking funeral-home owner, Mr. Katapodis describes the Greek government with a string of expletives. The flood of immigrants over the last decade created ghettos in central Athens, he explains. Crime rates rose, property values dropped and bars appeared on second-floor windows. “It looks like a prison,” he said, nodding to the street. “Today it reminds me of the late 1940s,” he adds. “You see people scrounging for food in the trash cans.”

Although he didn’t vote for Golden Dawn, he sees it as “the only party that is actually doing things for the Greek people” — a cross between the welfare state and the Mafia. If he needed an escort to walk down the street or help paying for his cancer medicine, he’d call Golden Dawn. “They’re doing what the politicians should be doing,” he said. “There’s a hole, and they fill it.”

Authoritarian elements in the Greek government have a history of using far-right groups to outsource political violence against critics. Recent moves to rein in Golden Dawn came only after it grew too powerful to control and the state felt its own authority was challenged, explained Anastassia Tsoukala, a legal scholar. “They were bitten by their own snake,” she said. And Greece is not alone. Golden Dawn’s rise has parallels across Europe, and its significance should be of Continental concern.


 

Hatef Mokhtar is the editor-in-chief of The Oslo Times.

U.S. wins re-election to U.N. Human Rights Council


The United States succeeded on Monday in its bid for re-election to the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council, a Geneva-based watchdog that has been criticized by Washington and Israel for singling out the Jewish state for criticism.

The 193-nation U.N. General Assembly also elected 17 other countries for terms beginning in January. The United States won the most votes of the regional group “Western Europe and Others,” followed by Germany and Ireland.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice welcomed Washington's re-election, saying that the Human Rights Council “has delivered real results” since the United States first joined it in 2010 after running for a seat on it in 2009. She cited council action on Syria as a positive example of its work.

However, she criticized the rights council's “excessive and unbalanced focus on Israel.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed Rice's comments.

“We pledge to continue to work closely with the international community to address urgent and serious human rights concerns worldwide and to strengthen the (rights) council,” Clinton said in a statement.

The United States had boycotted the Human Rights Council until 2009, when the administration of President Barack Obama reversed U.S. policy and ran for a seat on the body in an effort to reform it from within.

Greece and Sweden failed to secure spots on the council in the “Western Europe and Others” category, the only regional group that had a competitive slate. Other regional groups had uncompetitive slates that assured victory for those in the running as there were enough seats for all candidates.

Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, and Sierra Leone were elected from Africa, and Japan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates from the Asia Group.

Estonia and Monte negro were elected from Eastern Europe, while Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela secured seats on behalf of the Latin America and Caribbean Group.

DUBIOUS RIGHTS RECORDS

New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized the vote, saying it fell far short of a bona fide election.

“To call the vote in the General Assembly an 'election' gives this process way too much credit,” said Peggy Hicks of Human Rights Watch. “Until there is real competition for seats in the Human Rights Council, its membership standards will remain more rhetoric than reality.”

Votes for seats on U.N. bodies, including the Security Council, often have uncontested regional slates.

Freedom House, a Washington-based rights watchdog, said that seven of the countries that secured seats on the council – Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, UAE, and Venezuela- are unqualified for membership on a body that requires members to uphold the highest standards regarding human rights.

Freedom House said that the qualifications of three other new members – Brazil, Kenya, and Sierra Leone – were questionable.

Earlier this year, Sudan had announced plans to run for a seat on the Human Rights Council but withdrew after it was criticized by rights groups. Khartoum instead secured a seat on the U.N. Economic and Social Council, one of the world body's principal organs, which coordinates economic and social issues.

Syria had attempted to run for a seat on the rights council last year but withdrew due to pressure from Western and Arab states. Syrian President Basher al-Assad's government, which has led a 20-month mil itary cam paign against an increasingly militarized opposition, plans to run for a rights council seat next year.

Rights advocates have successfully mounted similar campaigns against previous candidates for the Human Rights Council, including Belarus, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan and Iran.

Claims Conference steps up aid to Greek Holocaust survivors


The Claims Conference is tripling its aid to Greece’s Holocaust survivors in light of the country’s economic crisis and funding an education program on anti-Semitism due to the recent rise of a neo-Nazi party.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which administers Holocaust reparations from Germany, said Tuesday that it would give $272,000 for 2012 to the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece for social services to Nazi victims. The Claims Conference had provided $86,000 in 2011.

Some 5,000 Jews are living in Greece, including more than 500 Holocaust survivors who have seen their living conditions and social services deteriorate rapidly as the country struggles with the fifth year of a harsh recession.

Government pensions have been slashed, income from property rentals have fallen significantly and there have been steep tax hikes and price rises. At the same time, state social services and medical assistance has been significantly reduced.

“Today’s economic crisis has made these survivors more vulnerable than ever at a time in their lives when they most need aid,” Gregory Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, wrote in a report on the new assistance.

“The Claims Conference is taking dramatic and immediate action to help ease their situation as much as possible and to prevent a crisis from becoming a catastrophe for this vulnerable population.”

Greece’s prewar community of about 78,000, most of whom lived in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, was nearly wiped out entirely in the Holocaust.

The Claims Conference also said that with the rise of the Golden Dawn party—a fascist party with a Nazi swastika-like flag and Holocaust-denying leader—it also would fund an educational program on anti-Semitism for the first time in Greece.

Running on a populist, anti-immigrant platform, Golden Dawn won 18 seats in Greece’s 300-member parliament in elections earlier this month.

An allocation of nearly $120,000 will go to the Jewish Museum of Greece, which is establishing a program on anti-Semitism that includes a traveling classroom version of the museum’s exhibit.

“For survivors in Greece, already grappling with the catastrophic consequences of the government austerity plan, the emergence of this party adds another dimension to the upheaval that has already made their old age more difficult,” Schneider wrote.

Netanyahu urges action on Iran after meeting Putin


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday it was time to ramp up sanctions against Iran to try to curb its nuclear program after discussing the matter with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In his first public comments on the inconclusive round of talks in Moscow last week between world powers and Iran, Netanyahu repeated Israel’s three core demands.

“I believe two things must be done now: strengthening the sanctions and also boosting the demands,” Netanyahu said, without mentioning the possibility of Israeli military action should diplomacy fail.

The international community must call for the cessation of all uranium enrichment in Iran, the removal of all enriched uranium from the country and the dismantling of the Furdow underground nuclear facility, he added.

At the Moscow talks, Russia, the United States, China, Britain, France and Germany set no date for further political negotiations.

Last month, and again in the Russian capital, world powers asked Iran to close the Furdow facility where uranium is being enriched to 20-percent fissile purity, and to ship any stocks out of the country, demands that come close to those of Israel.

Israel wants all Iranian uranium enrichment to stop, but is uneasy about the West’s current focus on halting only higher-percentage enrichment close to a level needed to produce material for nuclear bombs.

OIL EMBARGO

European governments on Monday formally approved an embargo on Iranian oil to start on July 1. Debt-ridden Greece had pushed for a delay because it relies heavily on Iranian crude to meet its energy needs, but EU governments said the embargo would go ahead as planned.

“We had an opportunity to discuss the negotiations under way between the international community and Iran,” Netanyahu said of his meeting with Putin.

“We agree that nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran represents a grave danger, first of all to Israel, but also to the region and to the entire world,” he said.

Putin, in his own comments to reporters at Netanyahu’s residence, said they discussed Iran’s nuclear program and the situation in Syria “in great detail”. He did not elaborate.

Russia takes a softer tack than the Western nations and opposes any further sanctions against Iran. Putin has said Russia has no proof that Tehran, which denies it is seeking atomic weapons, intends to become a nuclear-armed power.

His trip to Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan is seen as an effort to increase Russia’s clout in the region at a time when the West and some Arab nations have criticized Moscow for opposing their efforts to force out Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The visit, officially billed as an opportunity to dedicate a memorial in central Israel to the Red Army’s battles against Nazi Germany in World War Two, began a day after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was declared the winner of Egypt’s presidential election.

The outcome of the poll in Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, has raised concerns in Israel.

On Syria, Russia has brushed aside U.S. and Arab calls to stop sending weapons to the government there, saying it supplies only defensive arms. It has also used its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to protect Syria.

Assad has helped Russia keep a foothold in the Middle East by buying billions of dollars worth of weapons and hosting a maintenance facility for the Russian navy, its only permanent warm-water port outside the former Soviet Union.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Andrew Osborn