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Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos' speech in the American Jewish Committee’s annual Global Forum
Robert Elman and David Harris,
Allow me to tell you that, as I feel it, I am among this fantastic gathering, and I have the feeling that I am among members of my family.
It is not an exaggeration if I tell you that I don’t come from Athens but all the way down from Jerusalem. I was there three days ago, and I have taken with me the cordiality and friendship of the people of Israel.
Distinguished President and Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, Dear friend, distinguished Minister of Justice and negotiator for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Tzipi Livni, Distinguished members and guests of the American Jewish Committee, it is with profound sentiments of respect and friendship that I address this Assembly today.
It is my honor to address great personalities of the American society who bear weighty names. Names that are messengers of success stories. Names of people who have played and continue to play a vital role in the economic, scientific, cultural, social and political life of this great nation, the USA, a great friend and ally of Greece.
Greece and the USA stood together, fighting for the same values of democracy, freedom and respect for human dignity. We owe to the United States and President Truman the reconstruction of Greece after the Nazi occupation and our civil war, which devastated our country.
I seize this opportunity here today, in Washington, to extend a message to our great friend and ally, the United States of America. Despite the ups and downs, changes and shifts, in regional and global strategic developments, Greece was, is and will always remain the most reliable, solid and consistent factor of stability in the whole neighborhood of southeastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.
As recent history has proved, a stronghold of our common values, namely democracy, peace, stability and security. Values that more than ever our world is in need of, in these turbulent times.
We also acknowledge the great achievements of the Jewish community of the United States, when, after the Second World War, they sheltered thousands of victims of the Nazi persecution.
A community counting among its members survivors of the Holocaust, real martyrs of the most heinous crime ever committed in the history of mankind. They found here a new Promised Land, and they played a crucial role in America’s greatness.
I am here today representing a nation and a people who share values and principles with the Jewish people, inspired by our common cultural and historical background. Two ancient peoples who, for more than 3000 years, have been meeting each other all around the world, wherever commerce, letters, arts and sciences develop, wherever civilizations are created. It is true to say that we have gone through many adventures and sacrifices across the centuries.
We know how to adapt wherever life takes us, enriching at the same time the nations and societies we are integrating in. The USA is the best example of that.
Exactly a year ago, I was invited to address this forum. Unfortunately, the early elections prevented me from coming. Then I promised to my good friend David Harris that I would come, but what brought me here is not the commitment, it is my heart.
I come as a messenger of friendship and solidarity. My visit coincides with events that provoke and challenge us. And I refer to the return of the spectre of anti-Semitism in Europe. As if some Europeans have forgotten. This is the moment to raise our voices, to stand together and to give a definite end to a threat that undermines the edifice of peace and democracy we have built all together.
It insults our civilization. In last Sunday’s edition of the Greek newspaper “TO VIMA”, David Harris stressed about the emergence of anti-Semitism in Europe: “History teaches that anti-Semitism might start with the Jews, but finally threatens the prosperity of countries.”
As you, I am sure, already know, because of its economic problems, Greece is facing serious social challenges that have bred political forces that disgrace our democratic and humanistic traditions. Let me state from this forum, in the most determined and compelling manner, that Greece will never allow hate to grow and spread. Hate will be confronted and stopped.
But at the same time, the social factors that have allowed this to happen, as in other European countries, must be successfully addressed. Ignorance, despair, anger, disillusion with the political system are some of them. I am certain that as the crisis passes, the haters will pass too.
We have to admit that the economic crisis produced a very dangerous phenomenon. Alien to the democratic culture of the Greek people. No one should ever believe that the country which gave birth to democracy and respect for the human being, which has become the best example of resistance against Nazism, would ever tolerate and allow the revival of hatred and racism. For that the guarantee is the determination of the government and the strong will of the people.
I’m an old and good friend of the Jewish people. My memory goes back to my very first steps in diplomacy and in politics, when I worked for the recognition of the State of Israel and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Greece, when Prime Minister Samaras was Minister for Foreign Affairs, under the Prime Ministership of Konstantinos Mitsotakis.
I recall that I was the Mayor of Athens to host the first Yad Vashem ceremony in the Athens City Hall, as an official act back in 1995. I can tell you I have lived moments that I will never forget. I have met martyrs, victims of the holocaust, and I still remember their words. I have also met Greeks who helped Jews in WWII, and I also remember their strong message: “Your generation should not permit this to happen again.”
I was also the first Mayor of an EU capital city to officially visit Jerusalem and sign a Protocol of cooperation, in 1999.
During all these years, I was happy to see the relations between Greece and Israel get deeper and stronger. Just two days ago, I paid an official visit to Israel, where we prepared the very first high level meeting between our two governments, which will take place three months from now. We expect that during this meeting we will sign at least 20 agreements that will create a network of cooperation between Greece and Israel.
It will be a great moment for our two nations. It is the fruit of concrete, coherent, sustained and well-prepared action, expressing the strong will of the two countries to collaborate closely together for the benefit and prosperity of our peoples.
The bonds are strong, the prospects are great, the efforts must be hard. We have to be inspired by the exemplary cooperation that you have achieved here in the USA with the Greek-American and the Cypriot-American communities.
Cooperation that will inaugurate a new period and give Jews and Greeks an even more powerful and influential role, which will take us well into the future. It is true to say that this development came late. But it came at the most appropriate moment, because it is exactly now, more than ever, that the United States, in its dynamic global role, needs our legacy, our common values, ideas, ideals and principles, to be put to the service of our common perspective for a cohesive, democratic and peaceful world.
Our neighbourhood is in crisis again. The threat is global. Secretary Kerry’s new initiative for the Middle East peace process has our full support.
Greece, as it has repeatedly done in the past, is ready to assist and facilitate every effort for peace.
Let’s hope that reason will prevail. It is exactly in this spirit that our bilateral relations with Israel are developing. But at the same time, being in the same geographical area, with Cyprus in the middle, a Cyprus which will hopefully be united and free from foreign occupation, we are adopting plans for cooperation to develop our energy resources, aiming at the creation of a more prosperous landscape for the whole neighborhood.
Allow me to remind you and stress once again that such strategy is in no way hostile to any other country of the region. On the contrary, it is only a better guarantee of peace and prosperity for all neighboring states.
Referring to Cyprus, I would like to remind you that the Cyprus Federation of America and the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York were proud to march last Sunday, June 2, with their members, in New York’s “Celebrate Israel Parade,” and take pride in expressing their solidarity with the people of Israel and the Democratic values we share.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Greece and Israel are the most stable and mature democracies in the region. We are the most democratic countries in the area. We share a passion for protecting and advancing freedom. We are bound by the challenges of our future to work together against terrorism and against the factors that are making it grow.
We are both unique in our regions: we are small in number but great in history, culture, the quality of our human resources and capabilities. We have the support of our Diasporas, and we now have to build on our friendship and common interests.
Greece is still going through a hard period, and in saying this I am not revealing anything you don’t know… But as Winston Churchill said, “If you're going through hell, keep going”.
And then he also said that: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”.
And that’s how we see things in Greece. We are working hard, through policies that we are implementing through sheer determination. Some of them should have been applied even without a crisis: the restructuring of the administration, privatizations, measures to open closed professions and to facilitate business and private investment.
Others are imposed by harsh necessity. But still, things are going much better.
The impressive cuts of the deficit and the creation of a surplus in the balance of payments expected this year give rise to great hope, and we can see a ray of light at the end of the tunnel.
The sacrifices of our people will ultimately bring results first and foremost for our people.
The World Bank recently stated that Greece is one of the 12 most improving economies in the world. Who could have imagined this, 12 months ago? A year ago, Greece was considered a safe bet for all those who invested in doom.
Now, according to the Financial Times, at least, ‘Funds bet that Greece will thrive and survive.’
The upgrading of Greece’s credit rating by Fitch and Standard and Poors, the numerous positive articles and statements, confirm a positive climate.
The competitiveness of our economy has drastically improved. Private and Public Funds around the world have expressed an interest in investing in strategic projects in Greece. I warmly invite all of you to visit and invest in Greece. Now is the moment.
We are at the beginning of a long process of regenerating the Greek economy. We will not relent in our pace. We will continue the application of the necessary measures, structural reforms and privatizations, but we will also redouble our efforts to alleviate the sufferings of the more vulnerable population groups, and especially the young unemployed.
But this early stage is also an opportunity. Opportunity is there for investors who first spot the new trend and invest in the renewed prospects of our economy.
Investors, who will, above all, appreciate the unique comparative advantages of our country: Geo-strategic location at the South Eastern Gateway of Europe, Energy Reserves, the longest coastline in the Mediterranean Region, the largest merchant fleet in the world, ideal climate, prime culinary culture and trained human capital.
Greece has unique national wealth. We would be very glad to welcome American, Israeli and Greek joint ventures that can be profitable in many fields, including defense industry, agricultural projects and of course energy.
Allow me to make a special reference to tourism. Last year, 400 thousand Israelis visited Greece, and this year we are expecting even more. One is certain – PM Netanyahu promised to visit.
And you know why? Because Israelis in Greece feel at home. It’s a country that has opened its arms, its heart to our Israeli friends. And above all it’s a safe country.
We do not forget that during the dire times of the great crime of the Holocaust, the Greek people protected the Jews living in Greece. Hundreds of families hid Jewish friends and compatriots in their houses, defying any peril of their lives.
We also do not forget that after the war it was the newly created State of Israel that first sent rescue teams to help the Greek victims of the earthquakes in Cephalonia and Zante.
It is true that Jews do not forget.
Last March, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras delivered an historic speech in Thessaloniki, at the largest Synagogue in Greece. He was addressing a memorial ceremony marking the first deportations of Greek Jews from Nazi-occupied Thessaloniki to the Auschwitz death camp.
And I assure you that the phrase he invoked, “Never Again!” is the compass of our democratic and anti-racism policy. At this point, I would like to share with you some thoughts that came to me in Jerusalem last week, which I wrote inspired, shocked and moved from what I lived there, after having visited the Holocaust museum, in the visitors’ book at Yad Vashem:
“Revisiting this monument to the martyrdom of millions, the commotion is even greater than last time. This is because, unfortunately, the attitudes that permitted this unspeakable crime to happen are surfacing again around the world. Man is a forgetful being. This sometimes permits him to go on, but oblivion cannot overtake all things. Oblivion of the martyrs, oblivion of the Holocaust, is not only unforgivable; it is a most dangerous thing that will degrade our humanity. The horror is too much, the honor due to the victims too great, our duty to prevent anything like this from happening again too heavy. We shall always remember.”
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Our peoples, as I mentioned before, have laid the foundations of what is today Western Civilization. As Leo Strauss said, Athens and Jerusalem are the two sources of our civilization: as he puts it: These great cities represent the two forces—reason and revelation—that gave life to the West.”
During the critical years to come I believe, along with Sir Winston Churchill, again, that the empires of the future are the empires of the mind. And in this future our great peoples have an important role to play.
And we firmly believe they should do it hand in hand. The historical friendship between Americans, Greeks and Israelis, as I have already described, is deeply rooted. But I am certain our past is not as strong a uniting factor as our future will be. And we will build it together.
And this new period will last and endure while our relations will deepen, strengthen in the years and decades to come. A period of dream and power, solidarity and unity!
Baruh ha shem.
God bless you all.