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A Tale of Two Nation-States

Benjamin Netanyahu, George Papandreou.

What made Greece, long a pro-Arab country with a history of anti-Semitism and a notoriously soft line on terrorism, stop political activists from sailing a flotilla to Gaza?  What led Greece to rush fire-fighting helicopters to the Mt. Carmel fire?  Why do many observers expect to see more Greek-Israeli cooperation not only in defense and diplomacy, but also in culture, tourism, business, and development of solar and water-saving technology? 

Relevant Links
Ethnic Cleansing  YouTube. Archival footage of Greek refugees fleeing Turkey, 1914-23.
Alliance Shifts  Elena Becatoros, Associated Press. As Israel’s relationship with Turkey, Greece’s traditional rival, has cooled, ties with Greece have blossomed.
Mutual Interests  Institute for Security and Defence Analysis. A Greek policy institute on the advantages of strengthening relations with Israel.

Part of the answer is that Greece would like to become less dependent on Arab oil by buying natural gas from Israel, and it is the obvious partner for a pipeline to bring Israeli natural gas to profitable European markets.

But the surprise is how much deeper the friendship could become, as a look at Greece's history and culture reveals a number of striking parallels with Israel.

Like Israel, modern Greece was created by romantic nationalists able first to imagine, and then to achieve, independence because of the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire.  Both countries were populated by victims of vicious and sometimes genocidal ethnic cleansings.

When Greece achieved independence in 1828, it was a tiny statelet with borders that ended just north of Athens.  The overwhelming majority of ethnic Greeks lived outside the Greek state, and historic Mt. Olympus and Constantinople, with hundreds of thousands of Greek residents, were outside its borders. 

Among the many promises made by the British government during World War I—when the Ottomans fought alongside Germany—were the establishment of a Jewish homeland (the Balfour Declaration), and a promise that the ethnically Greek areas of coastal Anatolia (also then outside the Greek state) would be given to Greece.  With the Ottoman Empire crumbling, the 1919 Paris Peace Conference authorized Greece to move into Smyrna.  Unwisely, the Greek army pressed past the Greek-populated areas into the interior of Anatolia, where the Turkish army decimated it.  

Massacres and ethnic cleansings of Anatolian Greeks had begun in 1914 but accelerated in 1919, and are remembered for their scale, brutality, and genocidal intent. The outcome of the Armenian massacres was even worse, since when the two campaigns began, Greek Christians had an independent state to flee to as the Armenians did not. But in both cases, no one intervened.  Instead, the world sent Ernest Hemingway to file moving reports about the ranks of starving Greek refugees trudging toward the border and safety.

Only after the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians and the 1,400,000 Greek Christians of Anatolia was largely complete did the great powers meet in the Swiss city of Lausanne, where they worked out partial compensation for the Greek victims.   The remaining Christians in Turkey were obliged to move to Greece, and the 300,000 Muslims in Greece (except for those of Thrace) were required to depart for Turkey, with their homes converted to housing for Greek refugees.  A Greek Christian community was allowed to remain in Istanbul in 1923, but it was driven out during the Cyprus crises.

One result was that well over a quarter of the population of the Greek state, which numbered a mere four-and-a-half million people, was suddenly made up of refugees.  Only in the Jewish state have refugees comprised a larger proportion of the population.

Even after this enormous ethnic cleansing, large Greek communities remained in the Soviet Union, Egypt, French Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere.  The Greek law of return was designed to provide citizenship for ethnic Greeks who might need it.  They have needed it often—in large events, like the Nasser-era policies that forced a substantial Greek community out of Egypt, and small but dramatic ones, like the 1993 Greek Army operation that rescued ethnic Greeks from war-torn Abkhazia.

The challenges of integrating these recurring waves of refugees have been enormous.  As in Israel, they arrived stripped of their property to a country with little demand for their skills, speaking mutually unintelligible variants of Greek or entirely foreign languages.

Greece has never been perfect; it has been violent and, despite decades of European Union-funded prosperity, has not figured out how to build an economy.  And yet it has offered something valuable to its citizens.  Whether they are the descendants of refugees driven from their distant homes or of peasants exploited by arrogant overlords, all Greeks are now members of a national community.  As citizens, they have a voice in their own government and the right to national self-determination and self-defense.

If Greeks often seem unreasonably prickly or stiff-necked to EU officials, their Balkan neighbors, or Turkey, it is because the memory of not having had these rights is so vivid.  But the lives of nations are not static.  The Muslim citizens of eastern Thrace no longer live as peasant farmers.  The young move to Thessalonica and Athens where they join a growing community of illegal immigrant workers from poor countries including Egypt, Pakistan, and Albania.  Some Muslim Albanians agitate for the right of return that Greece law gives to ethnically Greek Christians.  They descend from the large community of ethnic Albanians expelled by Greek partisans late in World War II following their widespread collaboration with Italian and German occupation forces. 

These developments raise the question of what it means to be Greek, a particularly challenging issue because until recently, Greek ethnicity, membership in the Greek Orthodox Church, and the right to Greek nationality have meant more or less the same thing.

Most Greeks continue to regard Greek culture, history, language, and Christianity as inseparable from Greek nationality, even if they personally enter a church only to attend weddings and funerals.  The memory of centuries of Ottoman rule during which Greek culture and literature declined, the repair of the roof on a church was technically illegal, and even those Greeks with great wealth and privileges had no rights makes nationhood precious.

This, then, is the deep commonality that prime ministers Papandreou and Netanyahu have discovered and set out to cultivate: the idea that in a large and diverse world, the right to exist of two small, distinctive nation states, one Greek and one Jewish, is eminently worth defending.

Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian.  She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.

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Lea de Lange on July 15, 2011 at 9:09 am (Reply)
An entertaining and instructive article. Those facts are not very well know among Israelis who still connect "Greece" to Chanuka and what the Jevanim, the Greek did to the tiny nation of the Maccabees. The present day Greek have little in common with those idol worshippers of yesteryear, and this article shows how, yes, it is not so surprising that Netanyahu and Papandreou could have become quite friendly with each other. Look at Netanyahu, the Jew, much shorter than the Greek standing next to him. Genetically little changed.
We must not become overly sentimentally carried away though. Am levadat yishkon/this nation (of Jews) shall live apart...The best Israel can expect and hope for is peace from and with all nations. Including Greece.
Allen Z. Hertz on July 15, 2011 at 9:54 am (Reply)
Glad to see this recognition of the parallels between the 19th-century birth of modern Greece and the 20th-century birth of modern Israel. Firstly, the Jews and the Greeks are both aboriginal to their ancestral homelands. Secondly, both Peoples mostly lived in Diaspora. Thirdly, at the outbreak of their respective wars of independence neither People was then the majority of the local population within the boundaries of what is today the territorial extent of Greece and Israel. Fourthly, the national rebirth of the two Peoples was each the focus of a political doctrine focusing on aboriginal rights -- in the case of the Greeks the phil-Hellene movement; in the case of the Jews Zionism. And finally, both Peoples received significant international support because of foreign recognition of their aboriginal rights to their ancestral homelands.
simeon on July 15, 2011 at 10:36 am (Reply)
why no discussion of Greek Orthodox theology and its views of the Jewish people and Judaism?
Madel on July 15, 2011 at 12:42 pm (Reply)
The similarities between Israel and Greece are nominal in the recent bonding of the two nations. What prompted the new warmth was and always will be the temperature of Israel's relationship with Turkey. My enemy's enemy can easily become my friend under the right circumstances.
Ellen on July 15, 2011 at 3:07 pm (Reply)
Madel is quite right. The current Greek friendship with Israel is born more of desperation than any genuine friendship. The Greek church in the Middle East has a long history of antiSemitic agitation and among the Arab Christians in Palestine and Lebanon, it was notable for its support for panArabism and antiZionism, much more than the Catholics or other smaller Christian sects.

George Papandreou personally may have established a bond with Bibi personally because both spent formative years in the US as children and young men, and both had fathers who were professors. Greek Americans have always been much more supportive of Israel and Jews than Greeks in Greece, and I am quite sure much of the current rapprochement between Greece and Israel is being driven by the good relations between Greek-American businessmen and American Jewish businessmen.

In any case, Greece is nearly bankrupt. Turkey is a rising power for the time being, and a potential counterweight to Arab dictatorships. This alone dictates that Israel pursue some sort of friendly relationship with Turkey, and hope for the Erdogan political trend to wane.
Margie on July 16, 2011 at 2:12 am (Reply)
Upbeat and instructive article. I do like people who see things from a positive angle.

Not only were Greece & Israel both successful in saving their countries & their population from the negative Ottoman empire in our era but both bear the immense distinction of their earlier civilisations being the basis for the morality of our western culture.
David on July 17, 2011 at 4:57 am (Reply)
This doesn't stand the test of reasonable scrutiny. If the two countries have so much in common historically, why was Greece to hostile for Israel for the last decades. History didn't change in the last two years. Ms. Applebaum could have backed up her dubuious contention by citing Greek opinion leaders who have stated this view, but I don't suspect there are many. Indeed, I believe that opinion polls show that ordinary Greeks remain unfriendly to Israel (
The final paragraph stating that the two coutnries share cocnerns that "the right to exist of two small, distinctive nation states, one Greek and one Jewish, is eminently worth defending" has no basis at all. No one -- not even Turkey -- is denying Greece's right to exist nor is Greece under any diplomatic and military pressure.
saltiel on July 17, 2011 at 9:18 am (Reply)
Two abvious similarities in friendship :

1. Our flags are almost the same, white-blue stripes
2. Names of week days, from Monday to Thursday, plus Saturday ( sabado ) are the same " Second,third,forth,fifth and of course Shabbat.
Elliott on July 17, 2011 at 1:24 pm (Reply)
Diana Appelbaum has opened up an important yet little known, too often neglected subject, although we may quibble over details. Just how Ataturk ethnically cleansed Anatolia of most of its Greek population is a story that was crying to be told to a new generation that has been subject to the "politically correct" notion that Muslims can do no wrong to anybody. Unfortunately, she left out one significant point. Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer, won the Nobel Peace Prize [given by his own govt] for ostensibly making peace between Greece and Turkey circa 1923. After the Turks had driven out the Greeks in 1922, Nansen persuaded Ataturk to let the Greeks expel the Turks in Greek Thrace [western Thrace] in exchange. So the ethnic cleansing of 1.5 million Greeks from Smyrna and elsewhere in Anatolia was compensated for by the expulsion of 400,000 Turks from Thrace. Hemingway describes the events in stories in In Our Time and in his reports for that Toronto paper that he worked for. Indeed, they are worth reading by even those who don't usually like Hemingway. In sum, the "world" gave moral approval to ethnic cleansing and population exchange in 1922-23. This approval was crowned by the Nobel Peace Prize.

On one point I disagree with Mrs Appelbaum. According to the biography of Ataturk by Lord Kinross, the Greek army was winning the war in Anatolia until the Supreme Allied Command [probably dominated at the time by Britain] told the Greeks to stop advancing [ca. 1920]. A cease fire was installed and the Greeks lost their momentum. The cease fire also gave Ataturk's Turks a chance to rebuild and rearm their forces so that they were able to break the truce in 1922 and drive the Greek army and ethnic Greek civilians out of Smyrna. The story is very reminiscent of how the West and UN treated Israel when it was winning wars against the Arabs.
Elliott on July 18, 2011 at 3:29 pm (Reply)
David, in fact Turkey shows its hostility to Greece to this day. Turkey is trying to appropriate to itself parts of the Greek maritime economic zone. There oil and/or natural gas deposits between some of the Greek islands. Yet Turkey not only disputes Greece's rights to its maritime economic zone, to sea areas between the Greek islands, but it sends warships to harass Greek efforts in those areas. Recently, Turkish warships tried to disrupt Italian ships that were laying an undersea pipeline within Greece's maritime economic zone for gas coming from Israel's offshore gas fields. So David, don't tell me that Greece is not under "military pressure."

As to Turkish public opinion, I was speaking to a Turkish Jew who now lives in Israel over the weekend. He and his wife had visited Turkey not long ago. He understands Turkish of course. The Turks in the marketplace were talking about how much they hate Israel and Jews. They only like the Israelis' money. Otherwise they hate Jew, whether Israelis or not. This mood in Turkish public opinion was always there but has gotten only worse since Erdogan, the stealth Islamist who dreams of a renewed Ottoman Empire, took power in late 2002. On the other hand, the pre-Erdogan govts at least kept order most of the time and gave relative protection to the local Jews. But Erdogan incites against Jews and Israel.

Compounding the problem is that Pres. Obama has been flattering Turkey and Erdogan, on the Armenian genocide issue too.
Manelis Angelakis on July 19, 2011 at 11:19 am (Reply)
I am more inclined to agree with Ms Applebaum.

I think that the article is more about common experience and interest rather than current feeling. The article starts off referencing well known Greek Antisemitism.

I believe that our two countries' relationship has a lot more going for it other than the current (I don't think the clock will turn back anytime soon) situation with Turkey.

Greek feelings towards Israel and the Jews are slowly improving, with the caveat that we Greeks tend to have a short memory and a tendency to be fickle...
Allen on July 27, 2011 at 11:56 am (Reply)
So it seems to me that like many relationships in history, this is a friendship of convenience ! Sadly, humanity often decides who to befriend and who to abandon or attack based on "convenience". Justification or rationalization comes next.... Sadly, moral principles rarely rule mankind. As an American Jew and a Zionist I am happy to see Greek/Israeli relations thaw, but I have to question when the winds will change.
Kyle on July 31, 2011 at 5:32 pm (Reply)
The Greeks would better read the comments to realize that no good deed goes unpunished. We should be more appreciative of all the support Greece has given Israel.

Simeon, if we choose to talk about their theology, we might as well discuss such rabbinical views of goyim as Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira’s (among others) “Torat Ha'Melech”.

Manelis, making blanket statements about “well known Greek anti-Semitism” does not give credence to the conclusion that the Greek people are anti-Semites. I assume you’re Greek and you should have known better. My wife is Greek-American Jew and does not share your opinion. There are bad apples in every barrel.

Ellen, I find it hard to figure out your definition of genuine friendship in foreign affairs. Credit where credit’s due, the Greek government saved Israel from another public relations disaster. There was no violent confrontation this time. Greece successfully enforced maritime law in the area, offering to transfer the flotilla's humanitarian cargo under Greek auspices, via Ashdod or El-Arish.

The Greek people have much more serious problems than our skepticism.
Raymond in DC on November 28, 2011 at 6:16 pm (Reply)
"The young [Muslim citizens of eastern Thrace] move to Thessalonica and Athens where they join . . . illegal immigrant workers from poor countries . . . ." How ironic, as Thessalonica (aka Salonika) was for centuries a majority-Jewish settlement, the center of seaborne trade in the eastern Mediterranean, and a cultural center so vibrant it was deemed a second Jerusalem. Almost all the Jews are now gone. First, much of that trade was taken over by Greeks. Then, a major fire destroyed much of the town almost 100 years ago. Finally, the Nazis killed most of its Jewish residents (most of the survivors moved to Israel). Today it's increasingly Muslim.

Ellen writes that Turkey is a "rising power" and a "potential counterweight to Arab dictatorships;" this "dictates that Israel pursue some sort of friendly relationship with Turkey, and hope for the Erdogan political trend to wane." Turkey's economic growth is based on debt-fueled consumer spending. Its trade deficit is close to $100 billion this year; most imports are consumer, not capital, goods. Not surprisingly, Turkey's currency and stock markets are under pressure. However interested Israel is in friendly relations with Turkey, if Turkey isn't interested, it won't come to pass. And, given the demographic shifts in Turkey, favoring conservative or fundamentalist voters, Erdogan or someone like him will be around a while.

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