WJC Web Talks: IHRA Chair, Ambassador Lazaris, presents Greek Presidency’s vision and priorities

IHRA Chair, Ambassador Lazaris, presents Greek Presidency's vision and priorities

On the 22nd of April, 2021, Ambassador Chris J. Lazaris, Chair of the Greek Presidency of the IHRA 2021 and Special Envoy of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Combating Antisemitism and Safeguarding the Memory of the Holocaust, joined Mr. Leon Saltiel, Representative at UN Geneva and UNESCO for the World Jewish Congress and member of the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece and of the Greek delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), in a Web Talk hosted by the WJC, so as to discuss Greece’s assumption of the IHRA Presidency and her program and priorities for the upcoming year. In the context of a very interesting discussion, Ambassador Lazaris answered Mr. Saltiel’s key questions as follows:

LEON SALTIEL: Ambassador Lazaris, could you please offer us a brief of the vision of the Greek Presidency of IHRA for 2021 – 22 and its important milestones?

AMBASSADOR LAZARIS: Greece and Greek Israelites were among the hardest hit by the Nazi onslaught in Europe during World War II. The Holocaust, the appalling loss of life and the suffering it entailed still haunt the Greeks’ collective memory to this day; to remember what was done, so that such horrors are never repeated again, Greece believes that the Holocaust should be studied by everyone. In fact, we cannot admit unconcerned that the world we live in, becomes better by definition, and that Genocides will never happen again. Therefore, Greece has instituted special scholastic programmes, to teach the Holocaust to the younger generations. These programmes have been proved among the most innovative and successful in Europe. Greece sees the Holocaust experience under a dynamic angle, as a warning, a lesson for the present and the future and considers that education is the most powerful weapon in the fight against Holocaust denial and distortion. Education is even good ammunition for the self-defence of Democracies, against any resurgence of forces and self- professed “ideologies” seeking to undermine our common human values and, eventually, our freedom.

About the milestones, I would say that the Plenary in Athens in June as well as the Thessaloniki plenary in November are the most important milestones of this Presidency. The first plenary will take place via teleconference; the second one will most hopefully take place via physical presence. It is obvious that Thessaloniki was not chosen by accident. Thessaloniki was the only city in Europe, where Jews were the majority of the total population for centuries. Their population suffered the largest number of victims within the Jewish community in Greece.

LEON SALTIEL: You spoke a lot about the role of education, something that the World Jewish Congress is very much involved in, especially through our partnership with UNESCO, Could you discuss a bit more on the role and significance of education and the plans of the Greek presidency in this regard?

AMBASSADOR LAZARIS: It is unfortunately a fact that in certain countries in Europe and elsewhere, the majority of the population are not fully conscious of the fact that millions of Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Therefore, the central purpose should be, not only to combat oblivion but also find creative ways to achieve that. Moreover, it is our commitment to teach the memory of the Holocaust in every part of our society. That’s the only way to strengthen every individual’s reflection on why such tragic events can never be allowed to happen ever again.

It goes without saying that in advancing our objectives in Education, we are in close cooperation with our Ministry of Education, which with sensitivity, methodically and with so much care has accomplished an exemplary work to disseminate the Holocaust teaching to as many parts as possible of our youth and society as a whole. Regarding pedagogical approaches related to teaching the Holocaust, and issues related to Greek Judaism and relevant actions, our advisor, according to the Memorandum of Cooperation between Greece and the Jewish Museum of Greece signed back in 2014, is, of course, the latter.

History can be cruel if we don’t pay close attention to it. Safeguarding the historical record is critical to countering distortion – it is much harder to distort history when facts and evidence are abundant. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis underlined, with the occasion of the Greek Presidency of IHRA, that “As the years pass, it is our duty to tell the story, to preserve the memories, to learn the lessons, to never, never forget”.

LEON SALTIEL: What do you see as the biggest challenges today in the fight against Antisemitism and safeguarding the memory of the Holocaust and where do you think the Greek Presidency can have a positive effect?

AMBASSADOR LAZARIS: Greece is by now one of the older members of the European family, and regrettably, Europe has been a breeding ground for hatred of Jews. Europe has been the scene of an unprecedented attempt to murder all European Jews, thus to extinguish their culture due to decisions and actions taken by some of the most criminal figures in world History. So fundamentally, there’s a strong European dimension in the Holocaust and its aftermath. Entire communities and cultures that had developed over hundreds of years were destroyed with huge consequences for the evolution of Europe and all its citizens. So much Europe centered history about the Holocaust! This history must be studied and taught. So, IHRA should unite governments and experts in Europe and elsewhere, to strengthen the Holocaust Remembence. Europe cannot proceed to a promising future without looking face to face at its past. For Europe and every other region of the earth, its past is its foundation and it must be looked at with sincerity and clear understanding. That’s the only way to build a new vision and forge an even more genuine European integration.

Therefore, Greece can exercise leadership and influence policy makers especially in Europe. Greece is feeling confident for this Presidency because it has done a big deal during the last decade for fighting Antisemitism, for preserving the memory of the Holocaust. Therefore, its efforts can serve as an example for other governments internationally. In this context, I should point out that the goals of the Greek Presidency of the IHRA gain momentum from the fact that Greece has all the support it needs from its partners within the EU but also by Israel. It should be emphasized that the bilateral ties between Greece and Israel are stronger than ever, inspiring stability and peace in the wider region of the Eastern Mediterranean. Our two countries have so much in common, prominent cultures, big and influential Diasporas, passion for learning, strong traditions.

Last but not least, the Greek Government is determined to promote “Education and Awakening around the Holocaust” not only because this is a moral responsibility but also because teaching the memory of the Holocaust gives us the possibility to strengthen our society’s critical thinking and forge responsible political attitudes.

LEON SALTIEL: In addition to being the President of IHRA, you are also the Coordinator for Combatting Antisemitism and Preserving the memory of the Holocaust for Greece. Greece is home to a prominent Jewish Community that was lost in high numbers during the Holocaust. In the last years, the Greek government has taken a lot of measures in both of these fronts. Could you talk to us about what you do domestically, your achievements so far and what’s more to be done?

AMBASSADOR LAZARIS: Indeed, about 60.000 Greek Israelites perished in the Holocaust and together with them a dynamic and most creative part of the Greek society.

Greece has amended the Criminal Code in 2014, which sanctions, among others, acts or behaviors leading to discrimination, hatred or violence, and also trivialization or malicious denial of the commission or the seriousness of crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, the Holocaust and Nazi crimes, recognized by decisions of international courts or the Hellenic Parliament. At the same time, the sentences imposed for the above offences are strengthened in comparison with the past providing for imprisonment sentences between three months and three years and a fine of 5,000 to 20,000 €.

Nevertheless, I should stress that, although acts against Jewish religious sites are being sporadically noticed in Greece, there have been no violent attacks against members of the Jewish community or their property. Regarding Historical sites, my country shares unquestionably IHRA’s goals to protect them as they play a crucial role in educating current and future generations about the causes of the Holocaust and incite reflection about its consequences.

In this context it should also be emphasized that a wide variety of actions have been undertaken by the Ministry of Education so far, such as: cooperation with Jewish cultural and historical Institutions both in Greece and abroad, students’ contests on the topic of the Holocaust, teachers’ Seminars on Holocaust education, joint Seminars for Christian and Muslim Theologians etc. Furthermore, Greece actively participates in international organizations and international meetings on the Holocaust, the Ministry of Education cooperates with foreign organizations such as Centropa, the Memorial de la Shoah, The Olga Lengyel Institute of New York and the Holocaust Museum in Washington. I should mention as well that a permanent Greek exhibit at the Auschwitz Museum is in the process within the framework of a relevant Greek-Polish Agreement.

LEON SALTIEL: Finally Mr. Ambassador, Greece was the first country to adopt both the IHRA’s Definitions on Antisemitism and on Holocaust Denial and Distortion. Could you tell us about your plans to further disseminate and integrate them in Greece?

AMBASSADOR LAZARIS: Indeed, Antisemitism, denial and distortion are absolutely alarming tools of propaganda. Distortion in particular, can allow for more violent and more dangerous forms of Holocaust denial and Antisemitism to take place. So, on 8 November 2019, the Prime Minister officially announced the adoption by Greece of the IHRA Working Definition on Antisemitism as well as the Working Definition of Holocaust Denial and Distortion. A Special Envoy for Combating Antisemitism and Safeguarding the Memory of the Holocaust was appointed, also acting as the Head of the Greek Delegation to the IHRA, which I have had the honor and the privilege to preside over the last few months. This year, Greece exercises the Chairmanship of the IHRA and in this context, the Government will promote a network of academic, educational and cultural activities focusing on the role of education and social media in preserving Holocaust Remembrance and on promoting the 2000-year old history of Greek Jews. Several events are organized throughout Greece every year on January 27, on the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Holocaust monuments have been raised in Athens and Thessaloniki, including a monument to the old Jewish cemetery on the grounds of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. Teaching of the Holocaust is included in school textbooks, while special training seminars on the subject are held for educators met with so much care and creativity.