A Tale of Two Nation-States

(First published in Jewish Ideas Daily, Jul. 15, 2011 )

What made Greece, long a pro-Arab country with a history of anti-Semitism and a notoriously soft line on terrorism, stop political activists from sailing a flotilla to Gaza? What led Greece to rush fire-fighting helicopters to the Mt. Carmel fire? Why do many observers expect to see more Greek-Israeli cooperation not only in defense and diplomacy, but also in culture, tourism, business, and development of solar and water-saving technology?

Part of the answer is that Greece would like to become less dependent on Arab oil by buying natural gas from Israel, and it is the obvious partner for a pipeline to bring Israeli natural gas to profitable European markets.

But the surprise is how much deeper the friendship could become, as a look at Greece’s history and culture reveals a number of striking parallels with Israel.

Like Israel, modern Greece was created by romantic nationalists able first to imagine, and then to achieve, independence because of the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire. Both countries were populated by victims of vicious and sometimes genocidal ethnic cleansings.

When Greece achieved independence in 1828, it was a tiny statelet with borders that ended just north of Athens. The overwhelming majority of ethnic Greeks lived outside the Greek state, and historic Mt. Olympus and Constantinople, with hundreds of thousands of Greek residents, were outside its borders.

Among the many promises made by the British government during World War I—when the Ottomans fought alongside Germany—were the establishment of a Jewish homeland (the Balfour Declaration), and a promise that the ethnically Greek areas of coastal Anatolia (also then outside the Greek state) would be given to Greece. With the Ottoman Empire crumbling, the 1919 Paris Peace Conference authorized Greece to move into Smyrna. Unwisely, the Greek army pressed past the Greek-populated areas into the interior of Anatolia, where the Turkish army decimated it.

Massacres and ethnic cleansings of Anatolian Greeks had begun in 1914 but accelerated in 1919, and are remembered for their scale, brutality, and genocidal intent. The outcome of the Armenian massacres was even worse, since when the two campaigns began, Greek Christians had an independent state to flee to as the Armenians did not. But in both cases, no one intervened. Instead, the world sent Ernest Hemingway to file moving reports about the ranks of starving Greek refugees trudging toward the border and safety.

Only after the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians and the 1,400,000 Greek Christians of Anatolia was largely complete did the great powers meet in the Swiss city of Lausanne, where they worked out partial compensation for the Greek victims. The remaining Christians in Turkey were obliged to move to Greece, and the 300,000 Muslims in Greece (except for those of Thrace) were required to depart for Turkey, with their homes converted to housing for Greek refugees. A Greek Christian community was allowed to remain in Istanbul in 1923, but it was driven out during the Cyprus crises.

One result was that well over a quarter of the population of the Greek state, which numbered a mere four-and-a-half million people, was suddenly made up of refugees. Only in the Jewish state have refugees comprised a larger proportion of the population.

Even after this enormous ethnic cleansing, large Greek communities remained in the Soviet Union, Egypt, French Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere. The Greek law of return was designed to provide citizenship for ethnic Greeks who might need it. They have needed it often—in large events, like the Nasser-era policies that forced a substantial Greek community out of Egypt, and small but dramatic ones, like the 1993 Greek Army operation that rescued ethnic Greeks from war-torn Abkhazia.

The challenges of integrating these recurring waves of refugees have been enormous. As in Israel, they arrived stripped of their property to a country with little demand for their skills, speaking mutually unintelligible variants of Greek or entirely foreign languages.

Greece has never been perfect; it has been violent and, despite decades of European Union-funded prosperity, has not figured out how to build an economy. And yet it has offered something valuable to its citizens. Whether they are the descendants of refugees driven from their distant homes or of peasants exploited by arrogant overlords, all Greeks are now members of a national community. As citizens, they have a voice in their own government and the right to national self-determination and self-defense.

If Greeks often seem unreasonably prickly or stiff-necked to EU officials, their Balkan neighbors, or Turkey, it is because the memory of not having had these rights is so vivid. But the lives of nations are not static. The Muslim citizens of eastern Thrace no longer live as peasant farmers. The young move to Thessalonica and Athens where they join a growing community of illegal immigrant workers from poor countries including Egypt, Pakistan, and Albania. Some Muslim Albanians agitate for the right of return that Greece law gives to ethnically Greek Christians. They descend from the large community of ethnic Albanians expelled by Greek partisans late in World War II following their widespread collaboration with Italian and German occupation forces.

These developments raise the question of what it means to be Greek, a particularly challenging issue because until recently, Greek ethnicity, membership in the Greek Orthodox Church, and the right to Greek nationality have meant more or less the same thing.

Most Greeks continue to regard Greek culture, history, language, and Christianity as inseparable from Greek nationality, even if they personally enter a church only to attend weddings and funerals. The memory of centuries of Ottoman rule during which Greek culture and literature declined, the repair of the roof on a church was technically illegal, and even those Greeks with great wealth and privileges had no rights makes nationhood precious.

This, then, is the deep commonality that prime ministers Papandreou and Netanyahu have discovered and set out to cultivate: the idea that in a large and diverse world, the right to exist of two small, distinctive nation states, one Greek and one Jewish, is eminently worth defending.

Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian. She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.