Inside the homes of Golden Dawn’s women


By Harry van Versendaal

As she waits for her son, a Golden Dawn party MP, to come out of jail, Dafni wipes a collection of rifles sitting on a weapons rack in their family home. Behind her, sunlight streams through a swastika-shaped grille on the window.

The disturbingly comic scene in Norwegian filmmaker Havard Bustnes’s “Golden Dawn Girls,” which made its Greek debut at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival earlier this month, encapsulates a familiar question: Are people like Dafni genuinely evil or just plain naive?

The film follows three women after the legal crackdown on the far-right Golden Dawn in 2013, which led to the arrest of many of its senior members, including party leader Nikos Michaloliakos. With many of the men behind bars pending trial on charges of running a criminal organization, women had to step in and energize the campaign for the next election.

Dafni, a former submarine engineer and hospital director who describes herself as a disaffected ex-member of socialist PASOK, has a strong penchant for conspiracy theories. Jenny is the politically active dynamic wife of MP Giorgos Germenis, a former black-metal bassist and baker. But it is Bustnes’s encounters with Ourania, the enigmatic daughter of the party’s leader, which are the most intriguing. When confronted with an old photo of Michaloliakos giving the Nazi salute in front of a swastika flag, the 26-year-old psychology student with a soft spot for dogs and Disney movies responds in a way that appears to strip her of the benefit of the doubt. “I support everything about my father.”

Domestic audiences will not find much new in the documentary, a collection of interviews and archive footage of the party’s bigoted rhetoric and attacks on migrants, but they are rewarded by some distressingly candid remarks as Bustnes leaves the cameras rolling after his subjects believe shooting is over.

The director discussed the experience of shooting in an email interview with Kathimerini English Edition.
Do you think that these women are animated by pure conviction, in that they truly believe in Nazi ideology, or by personal affiliation?

I think they are convinced of the ideology. They feel like they are in a war, and they believe in all these conspiracy theories. They think that a small group of Jews rule the world and are trying to destroy the so-called Greek DNA to take control of the resources in Greece. For me this is very scary and hard to understand. These are old ideas from the Second World War; how is it possible to believe in them today?

But I also think they would like to live a more normal life outside politics. Ourania wanted to move to England to study psychology, and I don’t think she likes her role as an infamous person. I think they feel obligated to support the men, and even more so when the men were arrested.

Do they have full knowledge of the party’s darkest side, including the orchestrated attacks on migrants and Communist Party-affiliated workers?

I don’t know exactly what they know or don’t know. When I asked them about the attacks on migrants, they denied that Golden Dawn is violent. As you see in the film, Jenny says they only smashed tables and didn’t beat immigrants. This is typical of how they talk about concrete evidence that shows that Golden Dawn is a violent group. In their minds, it is always somebody else’s fault. They say it is the media which lie, and that they are innocent. Dafni even says that the videos of Golden Dawn members with guns circulating on the internet are the product of manipulation.

Did you feel these women are genuinely evil?

That’s a big question. What does it mean to be evil? From their point of view, Greece is at war, and they believe Golden Dawn is fighting for the good. There are so many conspiracy theories that they believe in, which explains how they act. So I don’t think it is about evilness but about knowledge and their corrupt worldview. If you read the wrong books and are exposed to the conspiracy theories that Golden Dawn promotes, you can end up believing in the evil politics of the neo-Nazis. And if you believe you are in a war, this could justify evil acts and violence.

How easy was it for you to gain access?

Our access was based on another film producer Christian Falch made about black metal. One of the characters in that film was Germenis, and it was his wife that helped us to gain access to Golden Dawn. She introduced us first to Dafni and later to Ourania. This was a long process that was of course difficult, but I think the fact that we are from Norway made it easier.

Did you ever feel worried about your safety and that of your crew?

We were warned that Golden Dawn have attacked journalists. At the first Golden Dawn rally we filmed, I borrowed a black-metal T-shirt from the producer to blend in. We experienced one situation at Syntagma [Square, in central Athens] where a tear gas grenade exploded some meters away from the photographer, and we had to drag him away to safety.

At some points in the film you seem to try to come across as naive in a bid to get them to lower their defenses. Did the strategy work?

I think it worked, because they did open up. When I play naive they show more of who they really are. Of course, it was a balance between how much we could confront them and how naive I could pretend to be. I decided to be more and more confrontational, but I waited until the last day before I asked Ourania what she thought about my political standpoints. Then she said that she always knew I was a leftist.

Do you see the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece as part of a bigger European pattern, or as a development that is specific to Greece and its financial crisis?

I do see this as a part of a bigger European pattern. When you have an economic crisis and high unemployment in a country, the far-right rises. Unfortunately we are seeing this in many European countries at the moment. I think all the European countries have to assume a bigger responsibility and solve the economic crisis together. We cannot say that this is a local problem. We have to help each other.

It seems to me that the strongest moments of the film are your encounters with the Golden Dawn chief’s daughter, Ourania. Do you think you ever managed to get to the core of her personality?

It is always difficult to say what is the core of a personality. I think the film makes you understand her better, but I think she is a complex character that is difficult to understand. I think it was hard for her to grow up in this party as the child of Michaloliakos, and I think Greek media have treated her badly, writing about her being fat and ugly. At the same time, of course, she is responsible for supporting a violent party.


The journey and the sacrifice

A child is fighting in the breadline at the port of Mytilene island.

By Harry van Versendaal

Odyssey, tragedy, deadlock. The three words that sum up each of the chapters in Nikos Pilos’s 17-minute black-and-white documentary trilogy “Dying for Europe,” which makes its Greek debut at the ongoing Thessaloniki festival, have been routinely used by international media to describe Europe’s refugee crisis.

However, there is nothing cliche about the crisis itself. And this powerful and emotive film lays bare the harrowing reality of displacement in a way that inevitably makes the mind cling to the project title’s eerie, literal interpretation. When the boat carrying Youssef Hamo and his family sinks off the eastern Aegean island of Kos, the 56-year-old Syrian refugee has to grapple with the loss of his wife, son and daughter, while another son is missing.

Shot over a period of eight months, the short chronicles the perilous journey of the wretched masses, the tragedy of loss, and the eventual closure of the so-called Balkan route that left thousands of people stranded on Greek soil.

Yet although human suffering is the dominant element in the whirling vortex of Europe’s refugee crisis, it is not the only one. Kathimerini English Edition caught up with the award-winning photojournalist for a discussion on the personal and professional challenges that come into play in documenting a theme where ethical, humanitarian, political and aesthetic issues intersect.

Born in Athens in 1967, Pilos has over the past three decades documented conflicts, natural disasters, poverty and cultural shifts across the globe, including the overthrow of Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the breakdown of former Yugoslavia and the Iraq war.

His work has featured in major media publications including The New York Times, Time, The Financial Times, and The Guardian. It has also brought him numerous awards, most recently second place in the 2017 World Press Photo Digital Storytelling Contest’s Short Form category for his film “Trapped,” on the shutdown of the Balkan refugee route to Northern Europe.

Although coverage of the refugee crisis has brought Pilos closer to home, the stakes, he says, are nothing less than the very survival of European values.

What compelled you to explore this subject? How long did the project take and what was its goal? What does it add to an issue that has been so widely discussed already?

I was driven by the fact that members of my family and close circle have emigrated and I still have relatives in America. I have been interested in this subject since the 1980s, when thousands of refugees from Eastern Europe came to Greece looking for a better life. I dare say we did not treat them in the best possible manner.

The project was shot over a period of eight months and addresses the question: What does someone need to sacrifice to reach Europe? The answer is given by the survivor Youssef as he describes his family’s deadly journey from the Turkish coast to Kos frame by frame. The narrative closes with the fence placed on the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, effectively closing the Balkan route and the path of thousands of refugees to Europe. Trapped behind the barbed wire, they unwittingly become the symbol of a modern version of isolationism, nationalist fervor and xenophobia.

Even though the timeline follows that of the Balkan route, it describes the overall collapse of united Europe’s values.

What kind of psychological impact can such a project have? How easy is it to compartmentalize it and not take it home with you?

Of course there is a lot of psychological pressure in situations like this, pressure that freelancers like myself have to deal with on their own or only with the help of their close environment, unlike people who work for major agencies that give them all the help and support they need in the field and later. When you’ve been doing this for years, there are no compartments. You just learn to cope.

Is it possible not to become personally involved in this kind of work?

Learning how not to become personally involved is a lengthy process that comes automatically as time goes on and you mature professionally. It is also the factor that helps you limit the psychological pressure and allows you to record the events around you objectively.

Which moment or scene has had the biggest impact on you?

There are so many but in this particular project what really shocked me was the stoicism of one of our documentary’s protagonists, Youssef, toward the loss of his family in the Kos wreck.

How do you respond to criticism regarding graphic images like those of the Kos wreck? Are there instances when the victim, their families or viewers need to be protected? Can constant exposure to such images lead to compassion fatigue in the public?

To begin with, let me say that I disagree entirely with the term graphic images. If you look at the global coverage, it was images such as these that influenced public opinion and changed the course of events on a number of issues. I can cite many examples, starting with the photograph of the toddler Aylan on the beach of Bodrum. Or a Greek one from in the inter-war years in Thessaloniki showing the mother of a tobacco worker mourning over her son’s body lying on a door, killed by a police officer during a tobacco workers’ protest, a photograph that inspired one of the greatest pieces of modern Greek poetry, Yiannis Ritsos’s “Epitaphios.” Or the world-famous photograph of the young girl running away from a napalm bomb in Vietnam that helped change the course of the war. Or that from Biafra of a vulture waiting for life to leave a bloated half-dead boy so it can devour him, which galvanized the United Nations into action. Or the photograph by Robert Capa of a democratic army soldier dropping dead from a bullet in the Spanish Civil War. And hundreds more.

I want to stress that this conversation started in the mid-1990s when businessmen replaced traditional media publishers. This resulted in content being more or less determined by advertisers who did not want to see such material next to their ads.

Naturally such images need to be published with caution, but I do not believe that they weaken the message. The message can be so strong that the US government prohibited the publication of images of dead American soldiers in the last Gulf war. It took three before The New York Times, I believe, flouted the ban and directly opposed the Bush administration.

There are, of course, many cases where the victims and their relatives need to be protected. I will agree that there is no reason to publicize the photograph of a car crash victim, but I would not say the same of the photograph showing [slain rapper] Pavlos Fyssas in his girlfriend’s arms shortly before he died. This was a historic event and not only should it have been published, but the photograph should serve as the main image in any march against fascism, refreshing the memories of older members of society and teaching the young ones.

In the case of the Kos shipwreck, the material was published with the surviving father’s approval.

Do you find yourself facing moral quandaries in this line of work? Is it odd to present such an ugly subject in such a “beautiful” way?

I started out in the 1980s, at a time when the media had full access to all social and political developments. There were no privacy laws, so, perforce, you had to set the limits on what was morally acceptable and what was not. It’s still a constant process.

What we are looking at here is not a spectacle but reality, and each individual has the choice whether to watch or ignore it. As for the artistic aspect, this is a matter of each photographer’s style.

Were you inspired by a particular project for this film and why did you opt for black-and-white?

Filming in black-and-white was intended as a response to the ephemeral. Images of the refugee crisis that were shown time and time again on news bulletins and others that were buried in the miscellaneous file serve as the threads of a narrative that has escaped the confines of a classical news feature and aims at sending a powerful political message to united Europe, a notion founded on the principles of open borders and democracy.

What do you do that is different to other photographers? What are the dividing lines between photojournalism and other related forms like documentary filmmaking?

I don’t think I do anything different to my colleagues. Technology is giving us new means of expression and it is only natural to use them – this is what evolution is about, after all.

I also don’t see that there are any differences between photojournalism and documentary filmmaking. It is the same narrative in a different medium. As a photojournalist you are looking for a moment and as a documentary filmmaker you want an entire scene to tell the story. Photography and documentary film are arts that were created to reach out to a broad audience and this is precisely what photojournalism and documentary filmmaking do.

Can they bring change or are they simply preaching to the converted? Is the onslaught of fake news a defeat for documentaries?

I don’t believe that viewers have had an overdose of tough images.

The difficulty of a photograph changing something in the present doesn’t have to do with who takes it but with the fact that mainstream media, mainly, are losing their credibility and therefore have shrinking influence. In the age of social media, of course, a message can reach a lot of people in a lot of different ways.

I also don’t believe that fake news influences or is a blow to documentaries. After all, it is as easy to expose a fake photograph as it is to manipulate an image with digital technology. Also, most fake news is exposed for what it is within a very short period of time.

Outsiders looking in


By Harry van Versendaal

It’s late winter 2016, at a makeshift cemetery for Muslim migrants on Lesvos, less than 10 nautical miles off the Turkish coast. An imam in a white hazmat suit reads a prayer as a 3-year-old girl who died of meningitis shortly after landing on the eastern Aegean island is laid to rest. A red excavator is on standby to cover her grave after the end of the short ritual.

“Logic has disappeared from this world,” says Dimitris, a local man, as he prunes the olive trees in his property right next to the burial site.

Europe’s refugee crisis has produced a rich, if uneven, crop of documentaries that promise to go beyond the voluminous albeit often superficial media coverage. “Citizen Xenos,” an independent full feature shot by promising 28-year-old Athens-based director Lucas Paleocrassas, may be short on data or sweeping revelations, but is big in directness and unprocessed emotion.

“We wanted to veer off the cliche themes that have recurred in so many other films about the issue,” Paleocrassas told Kathimerini English Edition about his movie which will screen at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Whether it’s the refugee family trying to put down roots on the island, the elderly woman and her granddaughter seeking family reunification in Germany, the Syrian-born activist catering for vulnerable newcomers, the teenage victim of jihadi persecution, or even the globe-trotting Dutch mercenary working as a security manager at a migrant facility, the existential condition remains the same: All feel unwanted outsiders, “xenoi.”

“The refugee crisis is the setting, but I want to focus on the characters. I am interested in the alienation of these people, in what they are going through, in how they grapple with the challenges of relocation and social integration,” Paleocrassas said.

Apart from exposing the refugee drama, the director hopes that such intimate, first-hand testimonies have the power to challenge people’s ingrained misconceptions about the situation.

“The testimonies are just too direct. It’s just not possible to stick to your sweet little narrative,” Paleocrassas said.

An estimated 1 million people fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries wrecked by war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa have poured into Greece in recent years in hope of moving to Northern Europe. More than 50,000 migrants and refugees remain stranded on the Aegean islands after the Europeans took action to halt the flow.

While shooting on Lesvos, the main entry point to Europe for migrants, the filmmaker spent considerable time at the notorious reception and processing center at Moria.

“Moria-by-night was a dystopian spectacle,” he says of the so-called hotspot which has reportedly degenerated into a breeding ground for criminal activity including human smuggling, drug trafficking and prostitution.

Paleocrassas witnessed the limitations of a dysfunctional state apparatus but also the commitment and generosity of small humanitarian groups and volunteers seeking to fill in the gaps. With the official structures of debt-wracked Greece bursting at the seams, refugees have often relied on the kindness of strangers.

With time, he also saw compassion fatigue set in. “In the beginning, people were handing out food, clothes and medical aid. They housed people in spare bedrooms. But as the problems remain unsolved, their patience is wearing thin. These days, you can see people guarding their chicken coops with rifles,” he said.

Produced by Valia Charalampidou, the film was made with help from Wemakeit, a Swiss-based crowdfunding platform. Shot mostly over 2015 and 2016, it ends with footage of trapped refugees at the now-defunct camp near the village of Idomeni on Greece’s northern border following the shutdown of the so-called Balkan route. The sprawling tent city became a symbol of human suffering and policy failure.

“How can you imagine they will smile when they see the white man in Europe?” asks the Dutch security officer struggling to impose some order on the chaos. “The wolf will come one time, and he will bite you.”

Organizers unveil Greek movies for TDF


By Harry van Versendaal

A paraplegic punk rocker wants to climb to the top of Mount Olympus, a man grapples with his father’s ailing health after returning to live with his parents, a former rebel returns home after his abduction as a child by members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

These are snippets from three Greek films (53 feature-length and 25 shorts) which will be showcased at the 20th edition of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, which runs March 2-11.

Local filmmakers shine a light on politics, human rights, migration, the financial crisis and personal stories at this year’s 10-day event.

Following a work accident, director Christos Kapatos is forced to move back in with his parents. In “Antonis’ Voice,” he documents the process of readjustment which is made more complex by the condition of his father, who has suffered a series of strokes.

Shot by Stratis Chatzielenoudas, “Back to the Top” chronicles the never-give-up attitude of Leonidas, a wheelchair-bound punk band drummer in his early 30s who sets out to conquer the 2,917-meter peak of Mount Olympus with the help of a bunch of good friends.

An ex-commander in warlord Joseph Kony’s LRA returns home 16 years after rebels took him from his home in “No Place for a Rebel,” by Ariadne Asimakopoulos and Maartje Wegdam. The film follows Opono Opondo as he struggles to readapt to civil society amid skepticism from the locals.

Global perspective

Speaking to Kathimerini English Edition, festival director Orestis Andreadakis hailed the progress made by local documentarists over the past 20 years.

“They no longer focus merely on the obvious issues relating to Greece and its immediate woes. They travel more and explore themes in other parts of the world,” said Andreadakis, who took over the helm of the festival in 2016.

“There’s still a lot of work to do, but they’re on a good path,” he said.

The festival gets under way on March 2 with “Faces Places,” an Oscar-nominated French documentary co-directed by Belgium-born New French Wave pioneer Agnes Varda and enigmatic French muralist JR.

Organizers have also prepared a tribute to the seismic political and social events of 1968 and given carte blanche to American independent filmmaker Sara Driver.

Thessaloniki Doc Fest turns 20 amid fake news onslaught

"Faces Places"  JR; from Cohen Media Group

By Harry van Versendaal

Nominated for this year’s Academy Award for best documentary feature, “Faces Places” by 89-year-old French New Wave pioneer Agnes Varda and French guerrilla “photograffeur” JR will open the 20th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which starts on March 2.

The film (its original title is “Visages, Villages”) follows the unlikely duo as they roam the French countryside in a van equipped with a photo booth and large-format printer, chatting with people and taking their pictures before plastering epic-size portraits on multiple surfaces including houses, barns, boulders and shipping containers. Their encounters with locals – factory workers, retired miners, waitresses and so on – generate charming musings about the ups and downs of the modern world.

The tribute to Varda’s cinematic legacy is one of the treats prepared by organizers as the non-fiction event celebrates its 20th birthday.

“We pay tribute to the festival’s 20-year presence in a city which has been well educated in the documentary genre,” festival director Orestis Andreadakis told Kathimerini English Edition.

Andreadakis, who was installed in the festival’s driving seat two years ago, also commended the work of his predecessor and founder of TDF Dimitri Eipides.

“In only a short period of time, Eipides succeeded in making this one of the top-10 festivals in the world,” he said of the event which returns with a fresh crop of hard-hitting productions on social justice, culture, the environment and personal stories.

Organizers have already revealed some of this year’s highlights to be screened at the flagship Olympion and Pavlos Zannas cinemas on Aristotelous Square and the red-brick and steel complex on the docks.

Four years after his harrowing “Return to Homs,” Berlin-based filmmaker Talal Derki is back with another Sundance winner, “Of Fathers and Sons,” which chronicles the Jihadi radicalization of a family in his conflict-wracked homeland, while award-winning US journalist and filmmaker Jon Alpert follows the lives of three Cuban families over the course of more than four decades in “Cuba and the Cameraman.”

Seasoned American documentarist Joe Berlinger meets with historians and scholars as he exposes Ankara’s campaign to downplay the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces in “Intent to Destroy,” while in “Cyborgs Among Us” Barcelona-born Rafel Duran Torrent explores the implications of merging man and machine in a bid to expand human capabilities.

Sara Driver

Organizers have this year given carte blanche to American independent filmmaker Sara Driver, who gets to pick 11 films (10 documentaries and one fiction film). Meanwhile, the festival will screen her latest work, “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” a profile of the poet, musician and graffiti prodigy in late-1970s New York.

Also, the festival will host a special section on the seismic events of 1968. Organizers have scrambled together a rare selection of films that cast light on lesser-documented events, including the student demonstrations in Belgrade and Japan. It will be the first Greek screenings of the films.

“These are extremely rare films, which draw on stunning archive material that sheds light on that extraordinary year. It was very hard to track them down and bring them here,” Andreadakis said.

“Our aim was to redefine 1968, beyond the events of May,” he said in reference to France’s student and worker uprisings. “This year was not just about the events of May,” he added.

Amid the proliferation of fake news, alternative facts and social-media driven echo chambers, platforms like TDF are faced with a quasi-existential question. Asked whether the spread of fake news, widely associated with Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign, signaled a defeat for the promise of documentary to create more-active, better-informed citizens, Andreadakis sounded pragmatic, albeit committed to the cause.

“If that were the case, then art too ought to have made us better people,” Andreadakis said.

“We are fortunate that there are many serious documentaries out there to combat the trend. Films can arm people by showing them what fake news is all about and how they can better protect themselves against it,” he said.

“Things would be much grimmer without documentaries.”

Rekindling family history can trigger empathy for refugees, study shows


By Harry van Versendaal

Descendants of refugees are more likely to back measures in support of incoming asylum-seekers if they are reminded of their forefathers’ experience, according to a new study which suggests that leveraging past experience can be an effective way of increasing empathy and reducing out-group discrimination.

“Our study shows that perspective-taking, in other words making someone see the world through the eyes of an out-group, actually does work and that it works better – and more cheaply – when we are able to harness history and family background,” said Elias Dinas, political scientist at the European University Institute (EUI) currently on leave from Oxford University, who conducted the survey with Vasiliki Fouka of Stanford University.

The survey was carried out in Greece’s northern Macedonia region, which received the largest numbers of Greek Orthodox refugees from Asia Minor after the defeat of Greek troops in August 1922 and the compulsory exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. About 1.3 million displaced people resettled in Greece at the time, amounting to nearly 25 percent of the country’s 5 million population.

The study was based on a sample of 1,928 people, of whom 927 were found to have a forced relocation background.

The researchers arrived at the conclusion that descendants of Asia Minor refugees were overall more likely to display positive attitudes toward today’s refugees from war-torn Syria, than non-descendants were.

More specifically, when researchers mentioned the parallels between the two historical events, Greek refugee descendants were up to 8 percent more likely than other Greeks to support more binding measures, such as donating money to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) or contacting their local MP to take action to help refugees.

Furthermore, when prompted with the similarity between 1923 and the current situation, Asia Minor descendants were 8 percent more likely to admit that refugees had left their countries to escape war than to claim that they had traveled to Europe in search of economic opportunity or to milk the continent’s welfare states.

The mention of the Asia Minor catastrophe, as it is known in Greece, was found to trigger no measurable effect among respondents without a refugee background.

Another key finding was that out-group bias among people who did not directly have a family background of forced relocation dropped as the share of 1923 refugees in their community increased.

More than 1.5 million refugees have streamed into Europe since 2015 fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Asia. The influx has angered sections of society and galvanized the far-right – Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn party has 18 lawmakers in the 300-seat Parliament – a trend that has left policy makers scrambling to find remedies.

The findings of the survey suggest that intervention campaigns that highlight Europe’s tormented past could have a significant impact on public opinion, not only regarding descendants of forced migrants, but their neighbors too.

“We know that Europe’s population is already the product of extensive refugee flows. We use this fact to see how a very subtle and cheap intervention could help in fostering perspective-taking,” Fouka said, adding that the study found effects of similar magnitude to those reported by expensive large-scale interventions.

The idea is that governments and other institutions that want to fight xenophobia and promote integration schemes such as the incorporation of refugee children in Greek schools could build on these findings and invest in cultivating perspective-taking by reminding people that their ancestors also experienced similar challenges.

“This, we think, is a cost-effective way of mitigating the problem,” Dinas said, adding that researchers were investigating whether the conclusions could be utilized in communities outside Greece.

“It is possible that we would get the same results if instead of targeting the descendants of 1923 refugees, we targeted those of Finnish refugees from the USSR after the end of the Second World War or Sudeten Germans,” said Dinas in reference to the 3 million ethnic Germans expelled from then-Czechoslovakia after the war.

Uprooting anti-Semitism in Greece, starting in the classroom


By Harry van Versendaal

Experts are urging authorities to take active measures to combat anti-Semitism in Greece after a recent study confirmed the high levels of hatred toward Jews in the country – believed to be the highest in Europe.

Αnti-Semitism, which is shown to thrive at both ends of the ideological spectrum, is believed to be particularly strong in Greece as a result of a deep-rooted sense of collective victimhood nurtured by an overly ethnocentric education system.

“Unfortunately, the findings confirm older surveys showing that Greece has rates of anti-Semitism matching those recorded in countries that neighbor Israel rather than ones in the European Union,” Elias Dinas, political scientist at the University of Oxford, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Conducted by a team of researchers based in Greece and the UK, the 50-page report brings together the findings of two opinion polls conducted in 2014 and 2015. It was published earlier this month by the Thessaloniki branch of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a political think tank affiliated with the German Green Party.

Of the 1,000 Greeks polled, 65 percent said “Jews exploit the Holocaust to receive better treatment at global decision-making centers.” A similar percentage agreed with the statement that “Israel treats Palestinians exactly the same way that the Nazis treated the Jews” – a view seen as relativizing the Holocaust by placing it in the context of other acts of wholesale violence.

Just over 90 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “Jews have a major influence in the business world.” About 21 percent said Jews should be prohibited from buying land.

More than 37 percent said they have zero level of trust in Jews. Overall, those polled said they trust Jews less than they trust the Orthodox Church, homosexuals, migrants or the European Union. Jewish people were said to be more reliable only when compared to the Greek Parliament, Turks and Americans.

The results echo the findings of an infamous 2014 survey by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which indicated that 68 percent of Greeks “harbor anti-Semitic attitudes” – on a par with Saudi Arabia and more so than Iran.

Valid criticism

Experts found anti-Jewish sentiment to be as strong on the far left of the political scale as on the right. But whereas anti-Semitism among the hard-right is mostly associated with denial or minimization of the Holocaust, hostility from the left is less straightforward and often animated by solidarity with the Palestinians.

“It is true that harder facets of anti-Semitism are more evident on the right, but the left is no stranger to conspiracy theory-driven anti-Semitic attitudes,” said Dinas.

Critics, mostly on the left, complain that the term “anti-Semitism” is often misused to stigmatize legitimate criticism of Israeli settlement policies. However, the report suggests that condemnations of Israel often cross the boundary from valid criticism into territory of denigration that can be considered anti-Semitic. Instances of anti-Semitism can include denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination; using symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (for example claims that the Jews killed Christ or the classic anti-Semitic charge, known as the blood libel, that Jews use Christian blood for religious rituals) to characterize Israel or Israelis; drawing comparisons between contemporary Israeli policy and that of the Nazis; or holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

“It is sometimes helpful to keep in mind that Israel is the only democracy in the region and even if it’s fair to criticize it over for example its settlements policy, any comparisons to Nazi Germany or other autocratic regimes are clearly misplaced,” Dinas said.

Jewish monuments and graves are frequently desecrated across Greece. In the latest such incident, a memorial commemorating nearly 1,500 Jews from Kavala, northern Greece, who perished in Nazi death camps was vandalized late March. It was the second attack since it was erected last year.

Anti-Semitic comments are frequently aired by the country’s political class. MPs of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn – which is the third political force in Greece despite its leadership being on trial on charges of running a criminal organization – have openly denied the Holocaust, even in Parliament. Jew-bashing is also common in the mainstream. Panos Kammenos, defense minister and head of the junior coalition partner Independent Greeks, has claimed that “Jews don’t pay taxes.” Conservative MPs Adonis Georgiadis and Thanos Plevris – both of whom defected to New Democracy from the ultranationalist LAOS – have in the past made anti-Semitic remarks, even though they have recently tried to distance themselves from their past sins. Anti-Semitic remarks, mostly in connection to Greece’s economic crisis, have also come from figures on the left-wing populist fringe such as Panayiotis Lafazanis and Rachel Makri.

Politicians aside, the Orthodox Church and the media have also played a role in spreading the seeds of hatred toward Jews. Senior clergymen of the Orthodox Church, which has not officially absolved the Jews for the death of Christ, often make anti-Semitic remarks. Newspapers regularly feature anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, as well as cartoons with anti-Semitic themes or caricatures.

Underdog culture

Typically, most of the problems seem to begin in the classroom.

“It is school that hits people in their impressionable years, particularly as the secularization process is gradually eclipsing the role of the Church,” Dinas said.

More than other institutions, experts say, Greek schools foster a feeling of victimhood, and serve for the socialization and reproduction of an underdog culture which is identified as the fundamental source of Greek anti-Semitism.

“There is this shared conviction that Greeks have been treated more unfairly and suffered more pain than any other people,” Dinas said.

“This creates a feeling of inferiority, envy and competition,” he said.

According to the poll, about 70 percent believe that Greek people have suffered a genocide that is worse or similar to that suffered by the Jews.

It is estimated that 6 million Jews died in Nazi death camps in the Second World War. Greece’s Jewish population, which stood at 73,000 before the war, is currently estimated at 5,000.

“As long as Greek society develops a competitive stance to the Jewish experience and seeks the role of the absolute victim of history and of the great powers that be, the harder it will be to deal with the phenomenon of anti-Semitism,” the report said.

Back to school

The Holocaust and human rights education are all but absent from the Greek school curriculum. In self-fulfilling fashion, 34 percent said they do not want the Holocaust to be taught in schools, the survey showed. Experts found a positive correlation between hatred of Jews and education.

“The results show that while general knowledge does not in the least influence anti-Semitic trends, specific [knowledge] about the Jews appears to drastically reduce levels of anti-Semitism,” the report said. Simply put, the more one knows about the subject, the less likely one is to harbor anti-Semitic prejudices.

So while experts propose a number of measures to fight anti-Semitism, including stricter policing of Jewish monuments, a more stringent code of ethics for politicians and the media, and tougher law enforcement, the findings suggest that the safest bet is to kill anti-Semitism at birth: Update textbooks, retrain teachers, organize school trips to former Nazi concentration camps.

“It is important for the government to recognize the existence of the problem and face it head on,” Leon Saltiel, a historian at the University of Macedonia and one of the authors of the report, told the newspaper.

“Measures to promote education, tolerance, respect and mutual understanding are the only way to build the strong foundations of a democratic and prosperous nation,” he said.

The report “Anti-Semitism in Greece Today: Manifestations, Causes and Tackling of the Phenomenon” was written by researchers Giorgos Antoniou, Spyros Kosmidis, Elias Dinas and Leon Saltiel.

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