The Greeks and Us

If one merely replaces the socioeconomic failures of Greece with Israel's diplomatic stupidity and constant rekindling of our local conflict, one gets a rather embarrassing picture.

Take a look at the Greeks, warn the economic experts. They were living at Europe's expense, wasted money as if there was no tomorrow, and now they're paying the price. They danced at night and slept during the day, like crickets. Compare them to those ants, the efficient, industrious Germans, who are productive and make do with little.

"More than the economic crisis is accelerating history, it is revealing the deep nature of nations," wrote essayist and historian Jacques Julliard this week in the left-wing French weekly Marianne. Or at least, it exposes the cliched way they are imagined.

The image of one society in the eyes of another says more about the world and about the problems of the observer than it does about the one being observed. That's why it's interesting to examine Greece's image in Israeli eyes.

Much of that image is based on the Hollywood idealization of the noble savage: The Greeks all live in picturesque houses on magical islands, drink ouzo and eat simple, healthy food. They like to live and let live, they grow mustaches, sing in the taverna, break plates, dance the Sirtaki (there's no such dance, really, but that's not important ) and scream "yasoo" happily.

The other part of the image looks like the negative opposite of the ideal, but in practice it completes it: The Greeks are lazy, and earn a lot but don't do anything until they retire at age 50. Their beaches and islands are indeed beautiful, but the cities are neglected, crowded and lower class. They resemble - what do they resemble, exactly? Ah, yes, Gaza.

Thus the whole complex of cliches exposes the self-image of the observer and his excellent opinion of himself. Whoever sees the Greeks this way thinks of himself as more "European" than them, more developed, efficient, sophisticated and smart, since, among other things, he maintains a splendid economy that isn't dependent on anyone.

But this observation, which ignores the fact that the Israeli economy is dependent on the United States no less than Greece's is dependent on Europe, misses the opportunity to use the Greek story to take an honest and courageous look in the mirror.

Greece's economic crisis is only part of the modern Greek nation's old, deep and profound rift. Among the waypoints that had enormous influence on the development of modern Greek society were, for example, Ottoman rule; the absorption of more than a million refugees from the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22 in cities that were not prepared for such an influx; islands that were constantly being shuffled between various colonial regimes; the Nazi conquest and the terrible famine and poverty that led to a depletion of resources; the civil war, the Regime of the Colonels, and more.

During all of these, nationalist and communist organizations, capitalists and the chauvinistic connection between nationalism, religion and the church, all played central roles.

The Greek composite indeed contains a corrupt system of government and a swollen bureaucracy, but it also has an amazing language and cultural heritage, a megalomaniacal affinity for ancient history, and an ambivalent attachment to Europe and the Balkans.

It is characterized by quick thinking, initiative, diligence and vigor, as evidenced by the impressive success of Greek businessmen and entrepreneurs in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and many European countries. How sad that from all this emerged a society that hasn't succeeded in electing for itself leaders who can rescue it from the noose that is tightening around it.

This week, after some embarrassing zigzags, Prime Minister George Papandreou resigned, and his successors will try to put together an emergency unity government. But if Papandreou, who enjoyed an enormous majority in parliament, wasn't successful in implementing crucial reforms, it isn't clear how his rivals will do better. Do they even want to? Are they working on behalf of Greece's citizens or are they fixated on keeping their seats for themselves until the next catastrophe?

If one merely replaces the socioeconomic failures of Greece with Israel's diplomatic stupidity and the constant rekindling of our local conflict, one gets a different picture - a rather embarrassing one, at that. Not a picture we enjoy seeing in the mirror. The reason that when we looked at the Greeks, we didn't really see them.

So take a truly good look at the Greeks.

קראו כתבה זו בעברית: בעקבות היוונים