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.”