As a new immigrant from Greece to Israel, I could not have been happier when the Greece-Israel relationship started warming up about a year ago. In the wake of the break-down of relations between Israel and Turkey, Greece and Israel started to see each other as natural allies in the Middle East. But the embrace of neo-Nazis into the political mainstream, a truly disturbing development in the Greek political arena, forced me to recognize the gap that still exists between the countries and their political cultures, the lack of Greek sensitivity to anti-Semitism, as well as the need to constantly assess the sincerity of those who claim to be our friends.
Until three weeks ago George Karatzaferis, leader of the nationalist party LAOS (Popular Orthodox Rally) was part of the three party coalition government formed in November 2011. What is less well-known outside of Greece is that Karatzaferis is a politician infamous for his anti-Semitic outbursts and comments denying the Holocaust, someone who infamously proclaimed during Israel’s 2008 Cast Lead operation that "the Jew smells blood." Regarding the 9/11 attacks he has alleged that “4,000 Jews working in the Twin Towers did not go to work on the day of the attack," and he has referred to “all these tales of Auschwitz and Dachau" on live television.
Although Karatzaferis the demagogue is now out of government, two other LAOS MPs were invited to join the party of Antonis Samaras, the leader of the Nea Demokratia mainstream right-wing party and leader of the opposition, who is widely expected to become prime minister after the general elections due in late April 2012. One of these two MPs, Makis Voridis, resigned from the government when LAOS pulled out but the current Greek Prime Minister Papadimos himself opted not to accept Voridis' resignation and kept him on in his government.
As a Jew and an Israeli, I feel it is my duty and obligation to share with you Voridis’ background and political career. A former leading figure in Greece's neo-Nazi youth group, Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn), Voridis has a long history of Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, including physical threats to Jewish families and leading groups of thugs against immigrants and leftists. Over the last couple of weeks he has smoothed over his thuggish past by describing it as "right-wing activism". As a student at the elite Athens College high school, alma mater of current Prime Minister Papadimos, former Prime Minister Papandreou, Samaras and myself, Voridis formed the fascist student group “Free Students” that painted the walls with swastikas and saluted each other with using the Nazi-era greeting "Heil Hitler."
During school elections, Voridis would violently threaten not only the Jewish students who opposed his fascist group, but also their families. After graduation, Voridis formed a fascist group in the Law School of Athens and became active in neo-Nazi youth groups. In the 1990s, following the footsteps of his mentor, Jean Marie LePen, he formed the National Front, an anti-immigrant party. His party's motto was "Red card for immigrants." A few years ago, he joined LAOS and was elected to parliament. He soon became the darling of the Greek media, due to his extensive family connections, his debating skills and his charisma in front of the cameras.
Although less charismatic, the second of the two LAOS MPS, Adonis Georgiadis, also has a long history of anti-Semitism. This includes attacking Jews through his television show and being named as a prosecution witness against the leaders of the Greek Jewish community who are on trial for the defamation of Kostas Plevris, a self-proclaimed Nazi and anti-Semite whose book was described by the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece as a "defamatory, anti-Semitic book in which Jews are called 'subhuman' and are directly threatened with annihilation." Plevris himself went on trial for incitement, but was acquitted, and then he sued the leaders of the Jewish community. Plevris is also the father of Thanassis Plevris, another LAOS member of the parliament.
Samaras legitimized a neo-Nazi and an anti-Semite of the worst kind when he invited Voridis to join his party. Letters of protest by Jewish organizations received a lukewarm response from Samaras. Israel has not publicly protested, probably in an attempt not to “rock the boat" of its newly-found friendship with Greece. Perhaps it has done so through private channels.
The co-option of far right-wingers into a Greek government or its opposition is a dangerous precedent. As Israelis and Jews, we need to protest against any kind of neo-Nazi participation in the governments of friendly nations, just as we did when Kurt Waldheim was elected President of Austria, and when the party of Jörg Haider, the long-time leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, joined the government.
Bearing in mind the storms battering the Greek state and economy, and an underlying current of anti-Semitism that has deep roots in the country, my fear is that a dangerous nationalism is on the rise in Greece. The desire of politicians to appeal to populist conspiracies and racism in the lead up to the general elections in a month’s time and afterward will lead to neo-Nazis holding a balance of power and by then, it will be too late to stop them. The time to stop them is now.
Sabby Mionis was born in Athens and moved to Israel in 2006. Founder of Capital Management Advisors and active in Greek business life, he is a former president of Keren Hayesod (the United Israel Appeal) in Athens and now serves as on the UIA Executive and is co-founder of the Israel Center for Better Childhood.