The Present: The conference
A friendship was renewed in the heat of early September between the Byzantine ruins at Mount Taygetos and Ancient Sparta.
“Sparta-Israel Conference: Renewing an Ancient Friendship” was attended by members of B’nai B’rith’s “Philon” lodge of Athens, B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, the Municipality of Sparta and the Greek-Israeli Cooperation Institute. The main objectives of the September 4-6 conference were analyzing “historical and cultural aspects of the ancient friendship between the Spartan kings and the high priests of Israel” and “promoting future cooperation between Greece and Israel on development, tourism and cultural issues.”
Ostensibly, Sparta, where there are no known Jewish inhabitants, is an odd choice for an Israel- or Jewish-centered conference. Especially as, “in Sparta, last week there was [graffiti] on a wall, ‘Death to the Jews,’” said B’nai B’rith Athens vice president Rita Gabbay in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. However, she appraised most of the antisemitism as nonthreatening and the work of conspiracy theorists. “But we no longer pay attention to such things. There will always be antisemitism in Greece. You can’t help [it], but we don’t stop because [of it].”
Gabbay also emphasized the historical significance of Sparta, not only to Greece, but also to the Jews. “I don’t know why Israelis never come to Sparta,” she said. “Why not [come to] where the Jews in ancient times were one with the Greeks, where they were working together, where they were appreciated as technicians.”
Antisemitism wasn’t the only struggle event organizers confronted. “I don’t want to tell you all the difficulties we had,” Gabbay said as she lamented about the problems they had gaining funds for the initiative until they found a sympathetic ear within the Greek post office, the Hellenic Post.
But their troubles continued in trying to get support and sponsorship from the Greek government. Understanding the importance of getting the state involved, the B’nai B’rith of Athens reached out to the Culture Ministry and to Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos.
“We had a very unpleasant experience with the Ministry of Culture. [It] was supposed to give us archeologists who would speak at the conference about ancient Sparta,” Gabbay said, later explaining the ministry changed its mind without any explanation. The ministry did not immediately respond to inquiries from The Jerusalem Post.
Pavlopoulos also promised to support the conference, but canceled at the last moment, according to Gabbay. However, the spokeswoman of the press office of the presidency responded by saying the office was approached about the conference but the president never promised support. “There was never a positive response to the request,” she said.
Another main organizer of the event, Greek-Israeli Cooperation Institute president Angelos Kolokouris, corroborated Gabbay’s story. However, he did not see the president’s decision as a mystery.
“I think it was a misunderstanding,” Kolokouris said about the entire scenario during an interview with the Post. “The chief of staff of the president’s office had promised me... ‘When you get ready, then the president will come,’” Kolokouris said. After Kolokouris invited the president, he was told the chief of staff was on vacation. Kolokouris theorizes that while the chief of staff was on vacation, the people in the president’s office made an executive decision about the conference. Not hearing much in the press or from their own sources, they decided the event was no longer worth the president’s time.
“I don’t think it was bias, I think it was ineffectiveness,” Kolokouris said about the scenario, yet he still believed the president should have kept to his word.
Other government representatives did support the conference, including the mayor of Sparta, the deputy governor of the Peloponnese region and a delegation from the Ministry of Defense.
The Past: The letters
A far more ancient dispute arose during the conference – the letters from First and Second Maccabees, non-canonical Jewish books written in the Hasmonean period. This correspondence between Jews and Sparta was used as the inspiration for the conference in the hope of creating a narrative that can serve as a basis for future Israeli and Greek cooperation. However, the letters’ authenticity was and still is disputed.
“Most of the scholars believe that the letters are not authentic because it’s very strange for a chief priest of Israel to just write about friendship and brotherhood,” said Special Secretary for Religious and Cultural Diplomacy Dr. Efstathios C. Lianos Liantis during an interview with the Post.
Dr. Noah Hacham lectured on the academic dispute at length and started by explaining the earliest Jewish reference to the relationship. “In the Bible, there is no hint that there were any contacts between the Spartans and the Israelites or the Judeans,” Hacham said.
However, we know that the author of Second Maccabees, who lived sometime between the mid-second century BCE and 124 BCE, knew of a friendship between the two parties because when the high priest Jason was deposed, he fled to Sparta. “This author expected Spartans as well as Jews to have knowledge of this tradition, and that because of it, the Spartans would assure an exiled Jewish leader a positive reception,” explained Hacham.
Hacham then discussed the letters themselves. “It has been found in a document concerning the Spartans and the Judeans that they are brothers and that they are of the descendants of Abraham. And now that we know these things, you will do well to write us concerning your peace,” he said, quoting King Areus of Sparta in a letter to High priest Onias II from the Second Book of Maccabees.
“At first blush, these texts appear almost fantastic. Is the patriarch Abraham indeed the common patriarch of Jews and Spartans?” Hacham asked.
“No Spartan would have expressed himself in that manner,” Hacham said, quoting Eric Gruen, one of the most influential scholars who believes the letters were a Jewish invention. Gruen does not understand what benefit a Spartan king could expect from garnering favor with a “militarily impotent satrapy” like Judea.
When asked about the authenticity of the letters, Hacham answered, “They are authentic. Basically, Areus sent a letter to the Jewish people, probably motivated by his campaign against the Macedonian king. This was the first stage of the relationship between Sparta and Judea.”
Hacham was siding with one of the many positions he presented, that of Ory Amitay, who believed that the king, “in an attempt to consolidate a broad coalition against the Macedonians, cooperated not only with Athens and with the Ptolemaic kingdom, but also appealed to smaller groups liable to be of assistance to him, including the Judeans.”
Even though the letters’ authenticity is debated, the very existence of ancient Jewish-Greek relations seems legitimate, and even remarkable.
The Jews had a presence in Laconia, or Sparta, “since the second century and maybe before,” Dr. Anna Lambropoulou, director of the Institute of Historical Studies at the National Institutes for Research, told the Post after her lecture. She recounted a fascinating story of the Jewish expulsion from Laconia in the 10th century. When the Jews were expelled, the people of the city demanded the return “of their compatriots” and soon after Jews were able to return.
Yet, this example does not erase other atrocities, such as the Holocaust, from Jewish-Greek history, a topic largely left out of the event’s lectures, as event organizers did not want to focus on Greek’s negative past. It is estimated that some 90% of Jews of Greece were killed during World War II. “We wanted to concentrate and put our resources more in articulating the areas of cooperation,” Kolokouris said. “I thought it [the letters] was an opportunity to have a cultural basis,” for the event and future connections.
Greek-Israeli relations have not always been perfect. The “early relationship with the PLO was vexing,” said B’nai B’rith International executive vice president and CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin, speaking of Greece’s support of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1980s, which affected Greek-Israeli diplomacy. “Greece was among the last of the EU countries to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel.”
But Mariaschin continued to say the “Israeli-Greek relationship has created many opportunities that didn’t exist before... and that comfort level of the two countries allows that dialogue over the Israeli-Palestinian issue.”
The future: Better together
While disagreements and discrepancies have occasionally spotted Jewish-Greek relations, everyone who attended the conference appeared to be on the same page, agreeing that the future of the two countries would be better together.
Between 100 and 200 people attended the conference. Event organizers did not widely advertise in order to reach a bigger audience because of security concerns, according to Kolokouris.
There were various sessions discussing how Israel and Greece have worked together and continue to work in the fields of hi-tech, energy, defense and tourism. Israel, Cyprus and Greece are all part of the “Energy Triangle,” a natural gas extraction plan between the three countries. There is also a trilateral gas pipeline project in the works and defense coordination between the countries. Greek attendees spoke of future hi-tech and start-up relations.
“Forty-five percent [of] GDP in Israel is consolidated in hi-tech... in Greece, I asked, and the answer is 0.8%,” Kolokouris said, explaining his hope that Greece could learn from Israel’s start-up success.
Mariaschin also spoke of the aid B’nai B’rith gave Greek organizations during the recent fires in July.
“I don’t think there is any limit to what can be done,” Mariaschin said, “It all depends on creativity.”
The writer was a guest of B’nai B’rith.