I have stopped counting the times I hear Greek Americans ask: “Why can’t we be like the Jews?” or “Why can’t we have the same relationship the Jewish-Americans have with Israel?” Those questions are aired as a way of expressing frustration at the real or perceived lack of mobilization of Greek-Americans on the side of Greece and Cyprus. Very often those questions are voiced by leaders of the Greek-American organizations which engage in activities designed to shape U.S. foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and whose efforts are hampered by small memberships or members systematically neglecting to pay their dues.
The answer to those questions about Jews and Greeks is not hard. The Jews have had a history of constant persecution and faced the prospect of total annihilation during the Holocaust. The Greeks of the Ottoman Empire suffered ethnic cleansing and genocidal violence between 1914 and 1922 but as horrific as that was, it does not compare to what happened to the Jews of Europe during World War II. And Israel is in a more precarious position than Greece even though Greece is dealing with an increasingly belligerent Turkey, which also continues to occupy the northern part of Cyprus.
What is hard instead is to find creative ways to help Greek-American leaders who are anxiously trying to make Greek-Americans more aware and more active over the issues faced by the homeland. How can that message be conveyed in a way that evokes a greater sense of urgency and draws more support for those efforts? Surprisingly, an interesting suggestion comes from an unlikely source, the correspondence of two Greek-American surrealist and politically radical poets, Nicolas Calas and Nanos Valaoritis, in a book edited by Elena Koutrianou and published by Nefeli in Athens in 2021.
Neither of the two are household names among Greek-Americans – surrealist poetry appeals to only eclectic literary tastes. Yet Calas spent most of his life in New York, where he died in 1989, while Valaoritis, a descendant of Aristotelis Valaoritis, the great 19th century poet, spent twenty-five years as a professor of literature in San Francisco between 1967 and 1992.
Activism over issues of patriotism, let alone nationalism, are difficult for radicals like Calas and Valaoritis who pay homage instead to internationalism. But not always, apparently. In one of his letters, Valaoritis recounts that the French playwright Jean Genet, an anti-establishment intellectual whom he held in great esteem, helped him in his relationship to Greece when he said: “It was easy to be a renegade and refuse a large nation like France or America. But [in the case of] a small and persecuted country like Greece the ties are deeper because they concern our sense of wrong and injustice. It is not nationalism in the ordinary sense. It is a complicated love-hate passionate relationship.”
Genet’s words are insightful. Whether feels close or distant to the fate of the Hellenic homeland, one has to acknowledge that it has historically been the victim of injustice meted out by bigger more powerful countries. Greece had to deal with the mighty Ottoman Empire before 1922 and an assertive nationalist Tukey after that. It then confronted Mussolini’s Italy, which attacked Greece in 1940. And Cyprus was a victim first of Britain’s colonialism and then of Turkey’s actions in 1974.
Likewise, what Greece and Cyprus are demanding now is justice. Justice in respecting the boundaries in the Aegean, justice in respecting the rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and justice for Cyprus. Framing those demands in this way avoids self-righteous nationalist rhetoric and also wards off complacent and naïve views about Greece and Cyprus’ issues somehow being easily resolved.
Calling for justice for the homeland also has a respectable historical pedigree. There are many versions of ‘Justice for Cyprus’ committees in Greek America’s past. And later on, activism against the Greek dictatorship of 1967-1974 was undertaken by ‘Justice for Greece’ committees in several countries.
Perhaps more than anything else, calling for justice for Greece and Cyprus employs a concept that is currently relevant to the lives of so many Americans. Presently it is at the core of many social movements including those that focus on issues related to race, gender, inequality, and climate change. Justice is seen as the antidote to the inequality those issues have bred. The United Nations are even calling for social justice in the sphere of the digital economy. The concept also applies to Greece and Cyprus. And who knows, delivered skillfully it could resonate in the Greek-American heartland and help grow those small memberships or get those unpaid dues settled as well.
Alexander Kitroeff is Professor of History at Haverford College.