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Around the Jewish World Jews, Greeks in South Africa Working to Build Stronger Ties

December 11, 2003
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Even as observers warn of a growing trend of anti-Semitism in Greece, a South African Jew is trying to build stronger ties between the Jewish and Greek communities in South Africa.

Ronnie Mink, chairman of Yad Vashem in South Africa, believes there is potential for a better relationship between the roughly 50,000 Jews in Johannesburg and their 40,000 Greek “brothers.”

As white minority groups in post-apartheid South Africa, the two communities share similar interests.

Rampant crime and instability have spurred members of both communities to emigrate. The number of Jews in South Africa fell to about 80,000 today from about 125,000 in the 1970s. The number of Greeks has fallen to 70,000 from about 250,000 as community members have left for Greece, the United States and other places.

The relationship between Greeks and Jews historically has been reasonably good, with strong business connections, but the two communities have remained apart socially.

Greek and Jewish anti-apartheid activists, such as legendary human rights lawyers George Bizos and Arthur Chaskalson, now president of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, worked together closely to defend dissidents such as Nelson Mandela.

Now Mink is joining with Greek Orthodox church leader George Vizos to try to strengthen ties between the two minority communities.

Several months ago, Vizos saw “The Song of Life,” a documentary about the island of Zakynthos in the Ionian Sea. The film describes an incident during the German occupation of Greece in World War II, when inhabitants saved the island’s 275-member Jewish community from the Nazis.

German soldiers arrived and ordered Mayor Loucas Karrer and Archbishop Chrysostomos Demetriou to provide a list of the Jews. The next day they handed the officer a list containing only two names — their own.

Jews also were hidden during the night in Greek homes and other places, and not a single Jew was betrayed.

In the film, Karrer’s wife is asked if the mayor’s defiance was an act of heroism or duty.

“It was an act of duty to fellow humanity,” she replies.

Vizos talked about the film with his Jewish business partner, Steven Rosen, who put him in touch with the South African Jewish community.

They organized a memorial evening together in October in called Tribute to Zakynthos, which took place under the umbrella of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the Zakynthian Association of South Africa and Yad Vashem. It was held at Johannesburg’s Jewish community center, Beyachad, and was packed with prominent members of both communities as well as officials of the Greek and Israeli governments.

The pastor of Vizos’ church, Father Ioannis Tsaftaridis, was born in Zakynthos and is chairman of the Zakynthos Association.

“The overwhelming majority of European nations, without any hesitation, accepted the German expansion, shutting their eyes to the atrocities committed by the front-line soldiers, slaughtering innocent Jews,” Tsaftaridis said in an interview. “The small island of Zakynthos taught all of them a lesson in humanity.”

Several recent incidents have raised the specter of anti-Semitism in Greece, including a speech by prominent Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, in which he called Jews “the root of all evil,” and an art exhibit that critics felt glorified Palestinian suicide bombers.

But Mink told JTA that he doesn’t think such incidents are representative.

“Despite talk of anti-Semitism in Greece, I have found only warmth and brotherliness from Greeks,” Mink said.

Dionissios Gouskos, a member of the Greek Parliament from Zakynthos, said islanders saw it as their duty to protect their Jewish compatriots — protecting not only Jews, but their own humanity.

Gouskos was the only speaker at the October dinner to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Aware that many South African Jews are conservative and right-wing, he chose his words carefully.

“All Greeks believe your nation, every bit as old as ours, has the right to live as a nation in its own land in peace and honor,” he said. “They believe, too, the Palestinians have the right to the same self-respect in their own state.”

Some Jews in the audience remained silent; others applauded.

Discussions are under way to organize other Greek-Jewish functions next year, including an event for Greek and Jewish youth. Vizos and Mink want to establish a committee to foster more ties.

Vizos says he is proud the Greek government has introduced legislation to crack down on racism and anti-Semitism. The legislation, which is expected to come up for a vote before year’s end, would impose penalties of up to a year in prison for people guilty of discriminating against religious or ethnic groups.

Greece also announced recently that it would establish Jan. 27 — the day inmates were liberated from Auschwitz — as a national day of remembrance for Greek Jews who died in the Holocaust.

Vizos denied that there was anti-Semitism in South Africa’s Greek community.

“We are too close to the Jews,” he said, for anti-Semitism to develop. “Greeks are generally more in sympathy with the Palestinians, but they like the Jews.”

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