Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is willing to work with Jewish groups to find ways to combat the anti-Semitism raging in his country, including investigating the past record of a new ultranationalist cabinet minister who is said to espouse strong anti-Jewish views, according to Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Foxman met with Samaras in Athens on Tuesday, a day after Makis Voridis, a longtime member of ultranationalist parties, was appointed health minister as part of a cabinet reshuffle.
“We expressed regret and concern, and said it undermines the standard that he set,” Foxman said, referring to praise Samaras had received from international Jewish groups for forcefully opposing the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. “He demurred and he said he doesn’t think [Voridis] is an anti-Semite, but that he will examine it. He said that it’s important sometimes to kick people out and sometimes to try to change them. It’s the beginning of a dialogue.”
Voridis, 49, considered a friend of French convicted racist and Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen, said in a 2008 interview that he doesn’t know whether the diary of Anne Frank or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were accurate documents. He had risen to prominence as the head of a group of students at Athens University that, fellow students recount, painted swastikas on the walls and greeted one another with “Heil Hitler.”
His appointment as health minister 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.
Foxman said he praised Samaras for his tough stance on Golden Dawn, setting a “high standard of decency and respect,” but that by appointing Voridis “you take him from the realm of a political party to somebody your personal imprimatur says he’s a person of value.” Foxman promised to provide documentation of Voridis’s questionable statements about Anne Frank and the Protocols of Elders of Zion, and Samaras pledged he would look into the matter.
“I think he took it seriously,” Foxman told The Times of Israel Thursday in Jerusalem. “To me the fact that he opened the door on the subject is important. What the end result will be, I don’t know.”
Samaras invited Foxman to Athens after an extensive ADL survey showed that 69 percent of Greeks harbor anti-Semitic views, making it Europe’s most anti-Semitic country.
“He very intensely argued that Greece is not an anti-Semitic country,” and the survey’s results are exaggerating the reality, Foxman said. But when Foxman told him that even if it wasn’t 69% but “only” 49% of the population who had anti-Semitic views, the government should still take the problem seriously, the prime minister acquiesced.
“The good news is that he reached out and agreed to deal with the subject,” Foxman said. “For a country that has the issues that he has – he has a lot of issues – to say, you know what, even though I don’t think [the level of anti-Semitism is as high as is claimed] let’s come and sit together. That’s a good start. Because in most countries, the response is denial. ‘It doesn’t exist, it’s not true.’ If you totally deny it, you don’t do anything about it.”
Samaras asked to be sent some ideas of how to tackle anti-Semitism, Foxman said. “He agreed that he would examine some initiatives that we would suggest to him, that we’ve done in other countries: training law enforcement, police, talking about setting up a task force on education, looking at textbooks. He said to me send me a menu of things you think we should consider and we will examine it seriously and get back to you.”
In December, the European Jewish Congress handed Samaras its “Jerusalem Navigator” award for his government’s efforts to fight Golden Dawn and outlaw Holocaust denial. In September, four Golden Dawn lawmakers were arrested on the suspicion of supporting criminal activity, including the murder of a left-wing musician, in what was described as the most significant crackdown on a political party in Greece since 1974.
Samaras’s appointment of Voridis nearly a year later is seen as step to pander 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 in last month’s elections for the European Parliament.
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, of Greece’s Jewish community, called it a “step in the right direction” but said the country’s Jews would like to see him and the other former LAOS members completely renounce their past views.
JTA contributed to this report.