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Three Bottles of Wine: Greece, Israel, and Me

In the Aeneid of Virgil, the character Laocoön warns his compatriots about the Trojan Horse left at the gates of the city. “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” — an aphorism that has entered the cultural encyclopedia to mean “beware of accepting tainted offerings,” which makes eminent sense. A similar scruple, however, applies to those who return or reject gifts, an act no less problematic if the gifts happen to be innocent, as we shall see in what follows.

Relations between Israel and Greece have grown particularly strained over the last few years. The absurd accusation of Greek national hero Mikis Theodorakis, composer of many oratorios and most famously of the score for the film Zorba the Greek, to the effect that the “small nation [of Israel] is at the root of evil” is by no means an anomaly but representative of much current Greek sentiment. The Jewish cemetery in Ioannina in NW Greece was vandalized three times in 2009. There have been several desecrations of Holocaust memorials. Greece’s major daily Eleftherotypia, among others, vilifies Israeli soldiers, portraying them as Nazi Sturmbanngruppen.

Such incidents continue to proliferate. On January 5 and again on January 16, 2010, the 17th-century Etz Hayim synagogue in Xania, the capital of the island of Crete, was torched, causing widespread damage and destroying a library of 2,500 books. That there are only ten Jews living on Crete, among a population of 650,000 (according to the 2005 census), renders this — I am tempted to say, cretinous — auto-da-fé rather puzzling.

The present state of affairs troubles me profoundly since I have a personal connection to the country. I have lived in Greece intermittently for a little over five years altogether, including a six-month sojourn in Xania, where my first son was born. Indeed, I have long considered Greece as my second home and have often entertained the idea of purchasing a house on one of the islands. A Hellenist by temperament, I have written a book, The Anatomy of Arcadia, about this extraordinary country and made many good friends there. I did not personally encounter specific instances of anti-Semitism, although people were often surprised to discover that I was an evraios. “But you look Greek” was a response I often received. I couldn’t help thinking, somewhat amusedly, of James Joyce’s phrase from Ulysses, “Jewgreek is greekjew.”

I have not revisited the country since 9/11, at which time I was staying on the island of Tilos in the southern Aegean. Greeks were not especially preoccupied with Jews or Israel then, but with Muslims and Turkey. Greece has never forgotten the four-hundred-year occupation it suffered under the Ottoman Turks, the 1922 massacre in Smyrna, and the Cypriot partition. On several occasions it was on the verge of war with Turkey over oil rights in the northern Aegean, and I remember vividly when I was summering on the island of Lesbos, just across from the Troad, the Turkish fighter jets daily buzzing the coastal farm I’d rented and the Greek army laying mines in my backyard. On 9/11, I recall one Tiliotis saying, as we watched the TV replay of the collapsing towers and heard the name Osama bin Laden repeated over and over, “We have another bloody sultan on our hands.” September 11 seemed to be a wake-up call for Greece as it was for many other nations.

No longer. Much has changed in the last nine years. Greece has moved distinctly to the left, social unrest has grown epidemic, the economy is in shambles, and the fear of a revitalized Islam has set in, as it has in many European countries. This latter menace has led not to a stand of principled resistance, as one might have assumed, but to gestures of trembling appeasement, a strong identification with the Palestinian cause, and a consequent denunciation of the Jewish state as the putative mischief-maker in the region. The moral retreat before the threat of Islam following upon 9/11 has culminated in much of the Western world adopting Islam’s enemy as its own. And now even Greece, a nation that labored under the Islamic yoke for centuries, has turned its sights on Israel.

The moment of epiphany for me came when I learned of a rather unsavory episode involving leftist PASOK deputy and current Vice President Theodoros Pangalos that occurred at the end of 2008. Pangalos had received a Christmas gift of three bottles of Golan wine from the Israeli embassy in Athens. He quickly returned the offending vintage, accompanied by a letter stating: “I have been taught since I was very young not to steal and not to accept products of theft. So I cannot possibly accept this gift and must return it back to you. As you know, your country occupies illegally the Golan Heights who belong to Syria, according to the international law and numerous decisions of the international community.”

The VP, however, was as historically and politically illiterate as he was socially uncouth. In his representative act of refusing a gift, he made no mention of the rich cultural contribution of the indigenous Jewish communities to Greek life, dating back to the second century BCE. As for the Golan, he also ignored the years of indiscriminate shelling endured by Israelis from Syrian gun emplacements on the commanding heights; nor did he note the Syrian-Israeli hostilities of 1967 and 1973, which concluded in the Israeli annexation of the territory. The Golan is Israeli in virtue of the doctrine of the right of conquest, i.e., in wars where the victorious party is not the aggressor. (I don’t see Alsace-Lorraine or Gdansk — Danzig — being returned to Germany anytime soon, or Italy restoring the South Tyrol to Austria.)

Pangalos is equally ignorant of diplomatic history, although in this respect he differs little from many observers, politicians, and commentators in the West. Here are the essential facts and the timeline he should have known:

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, dividing in advance the spoils of war, provided for Britain’s solemn commitment to establish a “national home for the Jews” while recognizing that Lebanon and Syria would become part of the French Mandate. The Balfour Declaration of November 1917, as the Reverend James Parkes writes in his authoritative Whose Land: A History of the Peoples of Palestine, “established a unit called Palestine on the political map” while recognizing “that there existed already a historic Jewish right.” These protocols were incorporated in the League of Nations Covenant of June 1919, in particular Article 22, which certified the mandates system. The San Remo Peace Conference of April 1920 subsequently instructed Great Britain in binding terms to prepare Palestine to become the “national home for the Jewish people.” The special status of the Palestine region, with respect to plenary Jewish settlement, was further underwritten in Article 95 of the Treaty of Sèvres signed in August 1920, which officially recognized the granting of the mandates of Palestine and Mesopotamia to Britain by the Allied Supreme Council at the end of the war.

The crucial issue that Pangalos and others like him have forgotten or suppressed is that the Golan at that time was part of British mandated territory, entailing the lawful commitment to create a “Jewish national home.”

Now we get to the nitty-gritty. The legal obligations specified by the various treaties and mandates, as attorney Howard Grief points out in an indispensable book on the subject, were soon infringed by the British, who transferred the greater portion of the Golan Heights, clearly intended as part of the future Jewish state, to the French Mandate of Syria in a private trade-off arrangement known as the Franco-British Boundary Agreement, first broached in December 1920 and amended in February 1922 to consolidate the transfer. This act was effectively in contravention of preexistent legal documents, rendering the Golan transfer contestable, if not illicit in the framework of international jurisprudence. The critical point is that the cession violated the agreed cartographic distributions of the original treaties, consigning the relevant dispensations of the League of Nations Covenant, San Remo, and Sèvres to the rubbish bin. It also made a mockery of Britain’s legal responsibility to uphold the prior border conventions.

This blizzard of technicalities may seem bewildering at first, but such details are necessary to prosecute the case that the Golan was never legally a part of the French Mandate or, following a second “transfer,” could it then be regarded under the force of international law as part of the Syrian nation. Considering the entire bordereau of juridical instruments cited above and the sorry spectacle of British gerrymandering, as well as the results of future conflicts, the Golan would belong to Israel not only by “right of conquest” but via the doctrine of estoppel and in light of international law, understood as invariant over time and validated by Article 80 of the UN charter. Interestingly, recent archaeological finds reveal a historical Jewish presence on the Heights, indicating a Jewish allodium going back to the reign of Herod. The Hebrew scripture takes us back even further: the Golan is the biblical Bashon mentioned in Numbers and Deuteronomy and in several of the prophetic books. One way or another, Golan wine is totally legit.

Pangalos may have been taught as a child not to steal, but he was not taught as a student or a political place-seeker how to read official documents or examine the historical records, a feat of intellectual diligence obviously beyond his capacity. There is no excuse for such callowness among government ministers and members of the diplomatic community — or, for that matter, among many on the Israeli left who wish to “return” the Golan to Syria in exchange for an illusory peace, shadowed by Syrian artillery.

The conclusion to this tale is depressing across the board. For Israel, there is yet another antagonistic state in the eastern Mediterranean that it must deal with. For me, it looks like I must renounce my second home, since I cannot in good conscience return to a country increasingly in the grip of anti-Semitic fever. As for the vice president of Greece, he will remain ignorant not only of history and proper manners but of the superb quality of Golan wine.

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