ATHENS — Acknowledging that right-wing extremism is increasing in his country, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras vowed on Monday to continue fighting racism and anti-Semitism with all the tools available to a democratic state.
Samaras recently initiated several steps intended to crack down on the ascendant neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, but local Jews still worry it could make gains in the upcoming municipal and European Parliament elections, in which case, a community leader warned, “things will deteriorate for the Jews in Greece.
“This is not the Weimar Republic, this is not the ’30s. This is a strong democracy in a united Europe,” Samaras told European Jewish leaders in the Prime Minister’s Office in central Athens. “We are fighting the enemies of democracy, but while fighting against them our democratic principles will not allow us to become like them. And we will defeat racism and extremism but we will not compromise our own principles in the process.”
Samaras was speaking to delegates of the European Jewish Congress, which handed him 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.
A few days later, the Hellenic Parliament passed a bill that cut government funding for Golden Dawn, which has 18 lawmakers in the 300-seat chamber. The measure freezes funds for parties whose leadership is accused of involvement in a criminal group or terrorism. A bill outlawing Holocaust denial, put forward by Samaras’s New Democracy party, is currently pending.
“When we did what we had to do with Golden Dawn, we did it with the existing given laws in Greece and we didn’t have to artificially create something that would have been possibly illegal,” Samaras told the Jewish leaders. He also suggested that most Greeks are not neo-Nazis but that some are drawn to extremist parties due to their frustration over the country’s dire financial situation.
Every leader should be guided by a moral compass, Vivian Wineman, the chairman of the European Jewish Congress Council, said as he handed Samaras the award. “We see by your actions that you’re guided by such a moral compass, which also serves as a shining example of leadership, especially in times when extremists and neo-Nazis are trying to gain significant political positions in Europe once again. True leaders take a stand against this not merely by words but by actions.”
However, in the get-together EJC vice president Raya Kalenova described as “one of the best political meetings we ever had,” the Greek prime minister admitted that extremist parties appear to have become acceptable throughout the continent. “We are living through difficult times; extremism is unfortunately on the rise across Europe,” he said.
The European Jewish leaders, while thankful to Samaras for his actions, said the danger emanating from Golden Dawn has not been banished.
“We are pleased that in the birthplace of democracy the beginning of the fight back against extremists and neo-Nazis has taken place, but we should not underestimate the long battle,” EJC president Moshe Kantor stated. “This is merely the beginning. The situation in this country is very serious. The Golden Dawn remains one of the most popular political forces in Greece and this should worry us a lot.”
The president of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, Benjamin Albalas, called Golden Dawn an “extremely dangerous Neo-Nazi criminal party” and said anti-Semitism had recently “infected” Greek society.
“They have not stopped denying the Holocaust and to use on purpose the fake ‘Protocols of [the Elders of] Zion’ to accuse Jews, to scream loudly that for the [financial] crisis in Greece the Jewish bankers worldwide are to blame” and that Jews are responsible for “all tragedies and wars,” Albalas said. “Unfortunately, such messages have become quite popular in Greek society.”
The trial currently ongoing against the Golden Dawn parliamentarians, which includes party leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos and a dozen other party activists, aims at declaring the party a criminal organization. However, this effort has only a slim chance of success due to a lack of evidence, according to political and legal analysts. So far, the party has gained in the polls and is expected to become even more popular if the trial ends without a conviction.
Several Jewish residents of Athens told The Times of Israel of a general feeling of unease in the community over the party’s success in the 2012 elections, in which it garnered 7 percent of the vote. They also said they fear that Golden Dawn might actually gain strength and support in next spring’s elections. However, none of the people interviewed for this article said they had been the victim of anti-Semitic abuse or feel insecure in their city.
According to current polls, about 10% of eligible voters are considering casting their ballot for Golden Dawn. “If this is true, in the European [Parliament] and municipality elections, things will deteriorate for the Jews in Greece,” said Albalas, the leader of the Greek Jewish community.
Local elections will take place in Greece on May 18, 2014. Just a few days later, Greece — and the 27 other member states of the European Union — will elect a new European Parliament.
While the local Jewish community worries about the further ascent of Golden Dawn, the relations between Greece and the State of Israel have never been better, according to Israel’s ambassador in Athens, Arye Mekel. “We’ve seen a dramatic change in Greek public opinion. Until three years ago, you couldn’t find a pro-Israel article in a major Greek newspaper,” he said. “Today it’s almost impossible to find an anti-Israel article in a Greek newspaper.”