By Professor Asher Matathias
“You have received an article from www.haaretz.com: IAF Conducting Joint Exercise with Greek Air Force http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/iaf-conducting-joint-exercise-with-greek-air-force-1.292497#send-friend-popup” was the message sent by a dear friend, and a long-serving executive of the world-wide largest Jewish volunteer organization. Named “MINOAS 2010,” Greek and Israeli Air Forces are flying in the skies of the Aegean Seas through the weekend, holding out the possibility of new approaches and openings in further collaboration in other areas.
Alas, last evening’s annual conference of constituent organizations in the Federation of Hellenic Societies, convening in, Astoria, NY, did not bode well. Yielding to a temporary presiding officer, the much-respected Bill Stathakos, of the eponymous cultural center in which we were gathered, the session began on less than optimum prospects for productive dialogue. Immediately, the floor was taken by the departing Federation president, Demetrius Kalamaras, whose rambling apologia, first given at last week’s General Assembly, could have been photo-copied and distributed, sparing us all time and unnecessary emotional discomfort!
In the event, this hapless leader lost another opportunity to mend fences with his estranged public, insisting that the alienation is politically-motivated; belittling the substantial differences over tone and substance in his biennial leadership was the mere expression of normal conflict found in every “family” and not its toxic, dysfunctional variant. Emphasizing the gain in the treasury of $60,000, as result of last month’s yearly Greek Independence Parade, he failed to mention that the turnout of spectators was disappointing; several invited guests and notables vacated their honored places on the reviewing stand early, ostensibly exiting to fulfill prior commitments (can there be a more important rendezvous on this day?); and, while it is commendable that the event’s co-chairs were presidents of their respective Greek-American legal and medical societies, their presence and participation in subsequent, post-parade occasions, including tonight’s, has been conspicuously absent. Standing as a unique exhibit of gracelessness and pettiness, without disclosure or prior consultation, was the letter to NYC Comptroller John Liu, sent by Kalamaras, withdrawing support for an honorable distinction that was to be conferred, as part of a trio, upon Dinos Ralis on the occasion of the 189th anniversary of Greek independence!
Impatiently waiting for the president to end his monologue, the audience was ready for the barrage of criticisms that was to be levied, along with defensive protestations that the president was indeed involved, as his attendance in community functions attest; the latter typically expressed by the a member of the current leadership, Demetrios Demetriou. Moreover, a moving vocal endorsement to Kalamaras was given Bill Stathakos, proud of having attained his present position, after careful mentoring; indeed, being considered another “son,” along with the comparably-aged natural son he lost years ago.
My own remarks were brief and pointed, and without effect, given the present unwelcoming atmosphere. Still, I gamely rose to outline a more productive course of action for the new slate of officers to be elected on June 13, even as I severely chastised the president Kalamaras and his slate for perceived acts of commission and omission. Paraphrasing the devastating rhetorical question that undid the reelection bid of former President Jimmy Carter, by candidate Ronald Reagan, in 19880, I asked: “Are we better off (as a Federation) than we were two years ago (when president Demetrius Kalamaras assumed office)?” The answer is as depressingly obvious as it was in our malaise-ridden, inflation-suffering nation in 1980!
More than the self-inflicted wounds of an ill-equipped leader, by temperament and lack of vision, he lost moral compass that made his navigation lack firmness, causing him to easily and early lose our collective confidence. A dramatic example was the burning issue (no pun) of the twice-attempted arson of the historic Hania-Crete synagogue at the start of this year. Instead of the usual silence or indifference, I commended the president, then, for contacting me to fashion a suitable resolution of condemnation of the heinous acts, while voicing our solidarity and support for our besieged Jewish compatriots.
The comprehensive document, included references to other manifestations of recent anti-Semitism (continuing in to this day); the welcoming citation of personages (Christian Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Archbishop of America), and many Greek organizations, even the Greek government, late but finally not silent, all strongly standing tall with Greek Jews. It resolved that the Federation, too, would be siding with the others in assuaging the pain of Greek Jews, and urged the apprehension and prosecution of the culprits. It passed, as I awaited the Federation’s public relations person to call me and work out a proper Greek translation of our shared sentiments.
Have you received a telephone call? I am still waiting … even after repeated initiatives by me to reach the president, and arousing both the consternation and indignation of publisher Apostolos Zoupaniotis, who courageously wrote an editorial of embarrassment, even disgust, for the president’s betrayal, that ill-reflects on him, and the Federation. My plea to have the president leave office on a high note, extricating himself from the mud he placed his legacy as the first American-born leader (the next one will climb high for the bar this man set is very low), met his customary lack of articulation.
Instead, Mr. Stathakos raised his eyebrow to instruct me, patronizingly, that he fully understands why I am such a fervent protector of “my People’s” interests; that Greeks are not racists, and that many Greek Jews were saved by the heroic acts of Christian citizens. Such comments had the affect of undermining the very assertions he so artlessly tried to promote. In all my public utterances and writings I emphasize the debt owed to the Stamos clan (my own family’s saviors), as well as the acts of religious and civic leaders in harboring and facilitating the lives of Greek Jews during Holocaust. However, it is a matter of fact, graphically demonstrated by on-going attacks in sacred Jewish cemeteries (now in Rhodes), and not well-hidden in our proceedings that the contagion of anti-Semitism lives in our native land; how else to explain the highest loss, 87%, of any Nazi-occupied country?
The considerable deficiencies of our Federation can be viewed as grand chances for the succeeding administration to embark on a rebuilding program that can assure our common progress, even beyond our borders. It would help mightily were we to be mindful of a historical maxim: no nation, or people, prospered who persecute or attack Jews-Israel-America; conversely, every nation, or people, prospers materially and spiritually who cultivates this trio as friends! Consider, in my appearance last night, I was surrounded by some delegates who bombarded me with provocative declarations and questions, insisting that I accede to the primacy of everything Greek (culture, language, religion) — over Judaism, Israel, and America!
Such spasms of nationalist, even jingoism, do not need or deserve responses. Such smallness of thought points the long road still to traverse in our joint journey toward true (written with lower case “t”) acceptance, tolerance, and understanding. I am not sanguine that we can attain it in my lifetime, but, in Judaism, we are compelled to engage the process even if one does not see, much less enjoy the fruit of his labor(s). I shall persevere, for I am guided by worthy models, and I am grateful to the members, and leadership of the Association Nomou Magnisias “Argonauts,” for entrusting me the honor to represent them as delegate to the Federation. Let us begin an overdue dialogue, urging the utilization of the Internet, the modern means of communication and transmission; this piece is of the kind.
Sincerely, and with fraternal affection,
Prof. Asher J. Matathias
312 Longacre Avenue, Woodmere, NY 11598-2530