Greece has introduced a new law to crack down on racism and anti-Semitism following charges that the country’s media and government have fostered a climate that engenders anti-Semitism.
Greeks found guilty of discriminating against religious or ethnic groups would face up to a year in prison under legislation presented last week by the Greek government following a rise in racist and anti-Semitic incidents.
The legislation is expected to come up for a vote before the end of the year.
“The law will help reduce anti-Semitic incidents in Greece,” said Moissis Costantini, president of the Central Jewish Board of Greece, an umbrella organization representing Greek Jews. “We are in touch with the government and, before the legislation is voted into law, we will suggest any amendments if needed.”
Aside from cemetery desecrations, Greece hasn’t seen the type of serious anti-Semitic acts — such as physical attacks on Jews — that have occurred in some parts of Europe since the Palestinian intifada began three years ago.
However, the media and intelligentsia have been fiercely anti-Israel, and some critics say they often cross the line into outright anti-Semitism. One prominent composer, for example, recently caused a stir with a speech in which he proclaimed, in front of government officials, that Jews are “the root of all evil.”
In addition, many critics charged that a recent exhibit at an Athens art gallery glorified Palestinian suicide bombers. The exhibit featured an embroidery montage showing an Arab woman in a bomb belt destroying an Israeli supermarket.
The stakes escalated late in the week when Greece announced that it would establish a national day of remembrance for Greek Jews who died in the Holocaust.
The country’s Interior Ministry said it would submit legislation to Parliament making Jan. 27 — the day prisoners were liberated from Auschwitz — a “Day of Remembrance of Greek Jewish Holocaust Victims.”
More than 90 percent of Greece’s 80,000 Jews perished in Nazi death camps or during the German occupation of Greece in World War II.
Friday’s announcement came a day after the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a travel advisory urging Jews to avoid visiting Greece for the 2004 Olympics because of the alleged anti-Semitic climate.
“Failing a dramatic change in attitude and policy, the current atmosphere of hate and vilification can only escalate and could also poison the environment leading up to the 2004 Olympic Games,” the center’s associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, said in the statement.
The Greek and Israeli governments and the Greek Jewish community harshly denounced the advisory.
“The Simon Wiesenthal Center is a private organization and does not represent the Government of Israel,” the Israeli Embassy in Athens said in a statement.
Israel “maintains excellent and friendly relations” with Greece, the statement continued.
The Jewish Board issued a statement saying that it “disagrees completely and expresses its sorrow regarding the ‘travel advisory.’ “
The group said the advisory was based on “isolated incidents” of anti-Semitism “and creates an impression that is far from reality.”
Foreign Minister George Papandreou and the deputy interior minister, Nikos Bistis, have been driving the effort to rid Greece of its growing image as an anti-Semitic country.
Two weeks ago, the Jewish Board met with Bistis to discuss creating a national Holocaust remembrance day in Greece.
Greece is the only European country that does not have a day of Holocaust remembrance, the group told Bistis.
Both Bistis and Greek’s minister of culture, Vangelis Venizelos, promised a Greek Holocaust day.
This is not the first time Bistis has come to the assistance of Greek Jews: He has prominently condemned anti-Semitic incidents, even when other members of the government have hesitated.
The most recent example was after the twin synagogue bombings in Istanbul on Saturday.
“This is what happens when the entire Jewish people is being indiscriminately blamed,” Bistis said.
After composer Mikis Theodorakis called Jews “the root of all evil,” the reactions of Israel and world Jewry stirred the Greek government to action.
Papandreou wrote to his counterpart in Israel, Silvan Shalom, asking for help in building a coalition of Greek Jews, Greek non-Jews and Jews worldwide to fight anti-Semitism in Greece.
Papandreou also sent a letter to the World Jewish Congress saying that if there is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, then Europe must tackle the problem actively.
“Attempts at moral relativism achieve little more than reinforcing anti-Semitism today and diminish the uniqueness of the Holocaust,” he wrote.
Papandreou called Saturday’s attack in Istanbul “horrifying,” saying it constituted “not only an attack on the Jewry of Istanbul; it symbolizes an attack on every innocent citizen in the world.”
Meanwhile, Bistis talked to members of Greece’s Parliament to line up support for the crackdown on anti- Semitism.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.