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Politics

IHRA Chair Ambassador Chris Lazaris on Greece and Holocaust Remembrance

November 13, 2021
By George Hatziioannou

ATHENS – There was no way Greece would be absent from the 34-nation International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), founded in 1998 by Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson. At the crossroads of three continents with Cyprus on the southeastern tip of the European Union, Greece is particularly sensitive to genocides and holocausts around the world, because she suffered herself very bloody atrocities and genocides.

Holding the Presidency of the IHRA from April 2021 until March 2022, with chairman the Ambassador Christodoulos J. Lazaris, Greece and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in particular with the assistance of other ministries, especially the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, in an exemplary manner participates actively in this global initiative against Antisemitism, Holocaust Denial and Distortion, racial hatred wherever it comes from, and contributes in a number of ways so that the memory of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust is never forgotten, never shamed. Remembrance is not only a tribute to the victims; remembrance has a profound moral dimension absolutely indispensable for educating future generations to prevent such atrocities from ever again happening.

The Greek Presidency of the IHRA also coincides with a spectacular progress in the cooperation of the Greek-American and the Jewish-American Diaspora in order to face the threat against all countries in the sensitive area of ​​the Eastern Mediterranean by an ever more aggressive Turkey which also neglects human rights. The National Herald spoke with Ambassador Lazaris about the Greek initiatives on this paramount issue. Lazaris is also participating in the Summit of European Countries for Libya and was elected by the government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis to take over as Ambassador of Greece to Ankara, as of December 2021, at the most critical moment in Greek-Turkish relations.

The National Herald: Greece has assumed the Presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance since April 1, 2021. What are the priorities of the Greek Presidency?

Ambassador Christodoulos J. Lazaris: Indeed, we assumed the Presidency since April 2021, for twelve months, as a result of our deep commitment to combating Antisemitism and keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. This commitment has two main objectives. First and foremost, no discrimination to Jews or any other people of any faith, any national background, and second a fairer and more open society. IHRA was initiated in 1998 and unites governments and experts to strengthen, advance and promote Holocaust education, research, and remembrance. Today, IHRA’s membership consists of 34 member countries, including the United States.

The central theme of the Greek Presidency is “Teaching and learning about the Holocaust: Education for a world without genocide ever again,” supplemented by the theme of “Combating Holocaust Denial and Distortion on the Internet.”

For Greece, the Holocaust experience is both a warning and a lesson for the present and the future. Education about the Holocaust is not only a moral duty towards victims and survivors but also a sound path to solidify critical thinking, to forge responsible political attitudes, and protect human rights and democracy in each individual country and the world as a whole.

We should emphasize that the Greek Presidency of the IHRA coincides with the bicentennial of the start of the Greek War of Independence. This celebration offers a great opportunity to showcase the fact that modern Greece was built on humanitarian ideas and fundamental freedoms and that Greek society will remain vigilant in the fight against racism and Antisemitism. We also should not forget that Greece had the experience of neonazism during the recent economic crisis as well as the conviction of the neonazi leaders of Golden Dawn a year ago, no less – a landmark judicial decision met with jubilation internationally- indicative of Greece’s determination to defeat the politics of hate.

ΤΝΗ: Is Antisemitism a big issue in contemporary societies? Has the pandemic aggravated the problem worldwide?

CL: Antisemitism is a global problem and is resurgent in many places around the world during the last decade. According to the Eurobarometer, every second European considers Antisemitism as a problem, while nine out of ten Jews think that it has increased in the country where they live. In the U.S., surveys presented recently by the Pew Research Center and the Anti-Defamation League reveal that concerns about Antisemitism have risen among American Jews.

During the course of the pandemic, we have seen a significant rise of conspiracy myths, with an increase in online and offline hate speech targeting Jews in particular. The convergence of anti-vaccine advocacy and antisemitic views is very worrying. Jews have been completely unjustifiably blamed for creating the virus so as to control populations or to make profit out of the development of vaccines. In addition, pandemic measures have often been compared to policies that led to the genocide of the Jewish people, which is a form of Holocaust distortion that trivializes the experiences of Holocaust victims and survivors. As many people have been spending much more time online during the pandemic due to lockdowns, social media and the internet have made it easier for extremists to propagate such extreme views and for people to be exposed to them.

Fortunately, on the other hand, the resurgence of Antisemitism has also led to rising awareness. In June 2021, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan resolution condemning the global surge of Antisemitism. And recently, the European Commission presented its first ever EU strategy on combating Antisemitism and fostering Jewish life in Europe.

TNH: How do younger generations perceive the Holocaust today? More than 70 years have passed since the Holocaust and possibly the memory is not as intact as it should be.

CL: As the years pass, as fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain alive to share their experience, we are afraid of the decline in the interest about the Holocaust and its consequences. A survey of Millennials and Gen Zers in all 50 U.S. states, presented in 2020 by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, found that almost two-thirds of millennials and Gen Zers did not know that 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. Almost half of the sample of the survey could not name a single concentration camp or ghetto out of the 40,000 established in Europe during World War II. Similarly, in a CNN/ComRes poll, conducted in Europe in 2018, a third of respondents said they knew just a little or nothing at all about the Holocaust.

This is extremely concerning. And it is the main reason why education is at the epicenter of the Greek presidency of IHRA. A sound education about the Holocaust is absolutely crucial to ensure that future generations learn and reflect on how such atrocities will never happen again. To that end, creative initiatives within every level of society, like the school video competition “The Holocaust and the Greek Jews,” organized by the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs in co-operation with the Jewish Museum of Greece show an example to follow. But education is not confined only to the classroom. To promote Holocaust education inside and outside the classroom, we are working closely with the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, which has been organizing a number of seminars for teachers, university students, the clergy, and police officers. In such a way, every community, every working environment gets inoculated with understanding, acceptance, and historical awareness.

Most importantly, Holocaust education is not about the past; it is about the future. It is about empowering future generations to be well-informed and vigilant, to stand up and speak out against discrimination and all forms of prejudice.

TNH: Will the Greek Presidency leave any legacy for the IHRA, the fight against Antisemitism and other forms of discrimination? Do you plan any special events? If yes, would you have any particular objective in mind?

CL: As already mentioned, Holocaust education is the thread running throughout our tenure. We focus on teaching and learning about the Holocaust not only in the classroom, but also in everyday life and especially on the digital battlefield, placing particular emphasis on combating Holocaust denial and distortion on the internet.

In order to combat online Antisemitism and other forms of discrimination, governments, experts and the civil society need to come together and coordinate their efforts. Further research into Antisemitism online, digital regulation and platform transparency is required. Some of the issues that need to be addressed include the education of users and platform moderators on the diverse manifestations of Antisemitism, the prosecution of illegal hate speech, but also considering proactive measures against legal but harmful antisemitic content.  We need to enhance our understanding of Antisemitism online and use the digital tools to create awareness, to safeguard the historical record and to promote democratic values. This is the legacy that the Greek Presidency wishes to leave for the IHRA.

To this end, we are planning a dedicated international conference to be convened in March 2022 in the city of Ioannina, entitled “Combating Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial and Distortion on the Digital Battlefield,” with an emphasis on the use of Artificial Intelligence.

Apart from initiatives focused on the internet, several educational webinars have already been organized in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs. Also, in September, the Greek Presidency participated in the symposium “Combating Racism and Hate Speech: Lessons from the Holocaust,” hosted by the 2021 Athens Democracy Forum, which examined the rising incidence of hate speech and racism in today’s societies. Another key event planned for 2022 will be an international conference entitled “Holocaust and Genocides: We remember the past, in order to protect the future,” which will take place in the city of Kalamata, in cooperation with the Holy Metropolitan Church of Messinia and the kind assistance of the U.S. Embassy in Athens. The history of the Holocaust in Southeastern Europe, the role of women during the Holocaust as well as other genocides and crimes against humanity are included in the conference agenda.

TNH: In November, the second plenary of the IHRA will take place. What is at stake during that plenary? What are the main issues?

CL: The IHRA plenary meetings, convened twice a year by the country that holds the presidency, provide an opportunity  for the member countries, committees and working groups to exchange views on the latest developments on Holocaust education, research, and remembrance, adopt recommendations and make decisions. During the first plenary of the Greek Presidency, which took place in Athens in June,  the Republic of Cyprus was welcomed as a new Observer Country. The Plenary also supported my statement condemning the antisemitic violence and hate speech which surged in response to the escalation of violence in the Middle East in May 2021. Furthermore, the  IHRA’s expert Committee on the Genocide of the Roma was tasked with the drafting of Recommendations for Teaching and Learning about the Genocide of the Roma.

In November, the second plenary of the Greek Presidency will take place in Thessaloniki, a city with an immense Jewish presence until World War II. The November plenary will build upon the good work that was achieved during the first plenary. The agenda includes among other things: the enlargement of the IHRA; ongoing IHRA projects; the latest developments in museums and memorials about the Holocaust; education about the Roma and other genocides; as well as administrative and financial issues.

TNH: Does the Greek Presidency of the IHRA have the possibility to foster bilateral relations of Greece with Israel?

CL: The bilateral relations between Greece and Israel are stronger than ever. The ties between our people go back thousands of years. Athens, together with Corinth and Thessaloniki, were home to the first Israelite communities on European soil from the time of Alexander the Great. Greece and the Greek Jewish communities in particular, were among the hardest hit by the Nazi onslaught in Europe during World War II. The Holocaust and the appalling loss of life and suffering it entailed still haunt Greece’s collective memory to this day.

Keeping the memory alive and confronting Antisemitism is a goal that unites Greece and Israel and has a special resonance not only for Jews worldwide but also for every responsible citizen in Europe, the U.S. and beyond, who understands the dangers of Antisemitism, blind nationalism, and fragile democracy.

TNH: During the Greek Presidency did you work closely with Jewish civil society organizations from the U.S. and elsewhere? Did they support your Presidency?

CL: Jewish organizations from Israel, the U.S. and elsewhere play a capital role in promoting education and research about the Holocaust, raising awareness, conceptualize policies and events, and connect like-minded communities and individuals. The Greek Presidency has had the opportunity to cooperate with B’nai B’rith International, Yad Vashem, and the European Jewish Congress so far, in webinars and public events and so perceive the extraordinary efficiency, professionalism and positive spirit of these people. We appreciate the support by the Jewish civil society organizations in this collective effort to strengthen, advance, and promote Holocaust education, remembrance, and research worldwide and we are looking forward to a closer co-operation until the end of our Presidency and beyond.

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