After Elections, Greece's Jews Come to Terms With neo-Nazi Triumph

Golden Dawn party wins 7 percent of the country's popular vote - twice the minimum threshold level required to send representatives to parliament.

Greece's Jewish community on Monday sent its members a laconic, factual e-mail. Without any interpretive adornment, the message conveyed a few dry facts. In elections staged on Sunday, the Golden Dawn neo-Nazi party won 7 percent of the country's popular vote - a tally twice the minimum threshold level required to send representatives to parliament.

The update also included information about districts in which Jews live, and also biographies of the delegates that the far-right party will send to parliament. All told, Golden Dawn will have 21 parliament seats out of 300.

Nikolaos Michaloliakos - AFP - 8.5.12

The day after the elections, Greece's Jewish community is still trying to make sense of the results and new facts, and is cautious about drawing conclusions about the stunning gains notched by the militant, ultra-nationalist party which seeks to restore Greece's national pride and expel foreigners. Asked about the first, postelection step to be taken by his party, Nikolaos Michaloliakos - Golden Dawn's founder and chairman - responded: "All illegal immigration will be stopped. They [foreigners] will have to leave - they must leave."

The explosion of rage following the elections has left members of Greece's Jewish community - and many others - confused. It is not difficult to read signs of concern about the rise of extremism in the country. While fascist parties are not new on Greece's political landscape, the country's current economic crisis has stirred an unprecedented number of outraged citizens to turn to extremist politics.

Some 750,000 voters in Greece cast ballots for a party that expressly articulates neo-Nazi sentiments, and which publicly sings Nazi songs and openly bandies about Nazi symbols. David Saltiel, president of Greece's Central Board of Jewish Communities, issued a careful statement after the elections, saying that "the Jewish community is examining the situation."

Speaking from Salonika in a telephone conversation, Saltiel added that he was surprised by the number of votes Golden Dawn received. "In the last national elections, they didn't pass the threshold level, but in this election, voters banded together in protest against the country's two large parties, and that helped the small parties."

In the aftermath of the elections, it will be difficult for any of the parties to cobble together a coalition, and so a second round of balloting is likely. Saltiel does not find that scenario daunting. "Should there be another ballot, we hope the Greeks will think things through, and that the level of support for Dawn will decrease. In any event, I think the parliament will isolate the extreme right. We are examining the situation; the Greeks are not afraid, and democracy will continue."

Saltiel added: "Right now, Golden Dawn is not coming out against Jews; instead, it attacks immigrants. Still, there are right-wing extremists, and we need to assess the situation and see how Greece's democracy will deal with this. There is no reason for worry."

Greece's Jewish community is comprised of 5,000 people. Most are secular or traditional, and only a few go out in public with visible Jewish symbols. One who does is the Chabad emissary in Salonika, Yoel Kaplan. "As one who wears Hasidic clothing in the street I encounter some unpleasant words, but not acts," Kaplan says.

Verbal violence

When exit poll results were announced on Sunday, he says, "Golden Dawn supporters in Salonika took to the streets, and it was a mess. I don't flee the streets - when I need to go out, I go out. Mainly, the threat is dealing with verbal violence; that has no meaning, for me."

Kaplan insists that Golden Dawn's presence has been limited recently to street rallies, though he acknowledges that in the past two years, there have been arson incidents against synagogues in Corfu and elsewhere.

"Now, Golden Dawn members feel emboldened," he says, "and you can't ignore the neo-Nazi atmosphere that is heating up here. At one of their street rallies, somebody said to me something like, 'You Jews control everything here.' Yet, on the other hand, what they've taken on as their main agenda is attacking immigrants who come to Greece from African and Balkan states, and this is happening because the borders are open. They don't seem to have any current grudge against the Jews."

Nelly Kapon, a prominent figure in Salonika's Jewish community, believes the rise of the extreme right derives from rage felt by many citizens in Greece against illegal immigrants. Still, she is wary of Golden Dawn's intentions regarding the country's Jewish population. "The party is not against Jews now, but this is a Nazi party, and they don't try to hide that," she says.

Discussing the past activities and agendas of other right-wing parties in Greece, Kapon notes that Golden Dawn has a much more extremist, violent-sounding platform. "Golden Dawn is much more extremist, and now it has won 21 seats in the parliament," she says.