I thank you for this honour. An honour for me personally and for my country in particular.
I bow in the face of history. I am ashamed that humanity experienced the crime, industrial in its scale, of German Nazism. A crime unique in history. The genocide of a people whose only so-called “crime” was that they were different from other nations that, in fact, appeared much later in history.
German Nazi crimes against the Jews, as well as against the gypsies and people with special needs, were crimes of extreme barbarity in a war of unparalleled inhumanity, unique in history. Anyone who tries to compare these crimes with other crimes and draw parallels with other regimes ends up -perhaps intentionally- presenting uniqueness as normality. In this way, he levels historical differences and trivializes the Nazi regime to the level of a common criminal, along with Germany that supported this regime.
From this perspective, we in no way accept the reduction of the Nazi crimes to a more general category of political crime.
Unlike many in Europe today, I continue to regard the Holocaust as a uniquely inhuman crime. As the most extreme form of barbarity, though some people regard barbarity as a trivialised form of crimes against humanity. I regard it as an abhorrent and unparalleled crime against humanity.
This historical realisation has its significance when one wants to come to grips with the West’s relations with Israel and, more specifically, the relations of Europeans and the European Union with the Jews and their state, Israel.
Each of us needs to respond to a fundamental question: do the Jews have a right to live in a secure, democratic state? The answer is simple, and one word: Yes, they do! Moreover, the rest of us have the obligation to defend this right. This historical and fundamental right does not mean that the state of Israel has the right, even for a second, to ignore the rights of others. But it does not mean that even when the state of Israel makes mistakes, as all of the democratic states in the world do, criticism should take the form of polemic. It cannot be an excuse for denying the state of Israel the right to exist. Or, in the name of this criticism, for one to go so far as to deny the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Because when I hear people say that “the Jews are doing what was done to them”, when I hear them equate Israel with the Nazi crimes, I do not hear “normal” criticism. What I hear is an ex post attempt to acquit those who committed the crime of the Holocaust.
Are there aspects of Israeli policy that are for good reason the subject of discussion and reflection in the EU and in the rest of the West? I would say yes. But I would add that, when we are talking about Israel and aspects of its policy that we do not like, we should have a context and not forget the reality on the ground.
In Europe, there exist stances that are no different from “traditional”/classic anti-Semitism. But most criticism is well intentioned. And elements of this criticism are often correct. But as a rule, critics tend to forget two fundamental elements: on the one hand, History and the Holocaust and, on the other hand, the fact that Israel is the only Democracy in the Middle East.
There are some who question how democratic Israel is, pointing to its use of violence -just or not- against the Palestinians. But this won’t be the first time in history that a democracy may not conduct itself in its external relations in the way that the odd observer or commentator might like. One only needs to remember the Athenian Democracy. The way it conducted itself towards the Melians when they chose not to join the Athenian League. It was extreme. Profoundly undemocratic. But no one forgot, even for a second -even today- that Athens was a solid democracy that made errors. Even major errors. An no one questioned, even for a second, the special role of Athenian democracy in the history of Humanity.
The Israeli Ambassador to Athens once came to speak at the university I was teaching, the University of Piraeus. He was to address a colleague’s class on the Middle East. I took a poster from a group that was against the ambassador’s presence and asked my graduate students to find the errors in the poster. They found 14 spelling and grammatical errors. But not the political one: the poster criticized the “Jewish ambassador”. But the Israeli Ambassador in Athens at that time was Muslim!
One can draw certain conclusions from the two examples I mentioned:
First, that one doesn’t need to agree with everything Israel does, but one should acknowledge a key fact: that it is a state with rules, a functioning democracy. A democracy in which no one is above the law – neither conscript nor president.
Second, there is often an inaccurate picture and many prejudices regarding the state of Israel. These have to be remedied with patience and persistence. Understanding that what is self-evident to the Jews is not so to everyone else. That any historical right must be won many times over. Nothing is self-evident with regard to what is right and what is unjust. The Jewish people, aware of what they have suffered through history, often believe that it is self-evident that they are right and that everyone else needs to understand this all at once. But that is not how it is. Not only because they aren’t always right, but also because, in today’s Western world, there are many, many cases of doublespeak, hypocrisy and double standards.
We always have to remember that the history of most western states and peoples goes back only a few centuries, not thousand years like ours; that, as a result, they do not have the same sense of history as do our peoples and of the importance of historical events. They weren’t often on the verge of extinction. They did not experience genocide. They haven’t experienced the breadth of events and the depth of historical time. The marks of history, the commitments it entails, its magnificence. But our two peoples have a long, heroic, glorious history full of sorrows and injustices. And this is something that links our two countries in a unique way.
Third, it is indeed possible that even a country that has suffered so much injustice through history can commit an injustice. And this possibility must be fought off.
Israel is the homeland of a people who have suffered much through history, and it has the right to defend itself against a potential repetition of history. But it must always do so democratically, capitalizing on the democratic conscience of its people, its institutions and its values.
Fourth, and to me most important, Israel has to see itself not just in terms of History. Because its history, like ours, has produced so many events that often, rather than being “consumed”, can drown us. I often say this, and allow me to repeat it: History must not be our prison. It must function as our school. And this means that our historical rights are certainly important, but today, more than ever, our future survival and security are at stake. Our securing a good, creative, peaceful future. A historical right is no guarantee of a secure future. And we can build this together. Along with the other peoples of the region.
It is no coincidence that Greece is one of the most secure holiday and investment destinations for Jews around the world. Greece is a country where anti-Semitism is now waning at a relatively fast rate.
Today there needs to be as much cooperation as possible in order to stabilize the world and, in particular, the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. In this context, Greece has taken a number of initiatives in the region. One important initiative is the “Rhodes Conference”. Eight countries from Southeast Europe, 12 Arab countries and two international Arab organizations are participating in this initiative. Our goal is to develop and implement a positive agenda. To create networks of cooperation that will lead to the shaping of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean. Our goal is to overcome the perception that the Eastern Mediterranean is a region consistently producing crises and wars.
Equally important are the cooperation forms we are creating to promote friendship between the states of the Eastern Mediterranean region, such as, in particular, Greece and Cyprus’s trilateral cooperation forms with Israel, Egypt, Jordan and other countries of the region. The most developed cooperation forms are those with Israel and Egypt. These extend to all levels, from the Presidents and Prime Ministers of our states to cooperation between specialized departments of our institutions, and from foreign policy to energy, transport, defence, security and stability, tourism and economy. These cooperation forms are not directed against anyone. They promote a positive agenda. They create networks of cooperation, networks of stability in the region.
These cooperation forms are a response to the doublespeak and hypocrisy that exist in today’s global politics.
Cooperation with these countries, as Israel, is being extended into the field of European Policy. Greece thinks it is wrong of certain circles to try to have the European Union conduct itself towards Israel as if Israel were just one of the many countries of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. And this is because Israel, beyond any weaknesses or mistakes, is a democratic state with a deep belief in western principles and values. Don’t forget, moreover, that Judaism, like ancient Greek civilization, is the wellspring of the Enlightenment, the modern western way of life and European culture.
There are many in the West who do not like the fact -I have to be honest- that the civilizations of our peoples, Jews and Greeks, their religious aspects, our institutional achievements, mark their very physiognomy. That is why we witness the paradox and contradiction of their honouring and appreciating us, while experiencing, at the same time, a certain kind of hostility towards us.
We do not support our friendship with the Jewish people and the state of Israel because we or you are infallible or faultless; because we don’t have critical observations to make of each other -often stern, sometimes “acute” and other times “very polite”. What we do not accept, however, is for some people to coddle authoritarian, fascist, extremist regimes, but having only criticism, even polemic, for us and you. In other words, for them to be consistently unjust, often deliberately unjust. Not only because they don’t understand historical time, but also because they criticize us and exercise their foreign policy with an eye on their own domestic politics.
Last but not least, I am the last person who has a right to give advice to third parties. But as a friend I want to state my opinion. I believe deep in my soul that now is a good time for Israel to resolve any problems it has in its neighbourhood. Not to put it off to a foggy tomorrow. And this is because the historical trend is now for Israel’s powerful friends to be showing signs of decline. Because in the future, the weak West Bank may find itself under the control of extremist groups. Because the global balance of power is changing, and because the Nazi crimes are not in peoples’ memories as was the case with the first post-war generations. Because the impasses many Palestinians find themselves in may lead to hard clashes. And also, because I see the partiality of many European leaderships.
It is today, when Israel is strong, when it has strong powers on its side, that it needs to resolve the Palestinian problem and contribute to the founding of a Palestinian state on terms of friendship and peace. I am deeply convinced that the solution to problems, when possible of course, must not be put off. The strongest party must take the initiative and promote just and lasting solutions. Because later on, the solutions will be promoted by third parties, and they may not be just and may lack perspective. The world, as everybody here knows, is changing and we need to intervene in the way it changes.
In this context, I have often proposed to our western partners that we contribute to safeguarding the security of Israel through NATO and the EU. I know that Israel has the capacity of self-defence, of safeguarding its own security with its own forces. But this will likely become more and more difficult in a changing world. Moreover, all of those who want to have a say -from afar- on the Middle East should at long last say how they will contribute in a just and right direction. Only through one-sided “condemnations”? Through doublespeak and hypocrisy?
If they want Israel to promote the two-state solution in the Middle East -the right solution, in my opinion- then they should decide to no longer be part of the protest and instead be part of the solution. The same holds for the EU. Let it develop its relations with Israel, in the form of relations of peace and development, security and stability, and not of condemnations for the domestic audience in certain member states.
In other words, if the West wants to stop its doublespeak and hypocrisy, let it decide to make public what contribution it will make and how it will participate in the resolution of the Middle East problem. Let it stop wagging its finger at third parties and engage with specific initiatives.
Israel’s security, stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, safeguarding the rights of the Palestinians, promoting peace in the Middle East, fighting doublespeak and double standards in international politics, all of these, are goals that are worth fighting for, and this evening honours me greatly for my stance based on principles and values.
Thank you very much for being here with us today./IBNA