By Nick Larigakis
Recently, we have seen a proliferation of articles, commentaries (both in the Greek and Greek American media), blogs, etc, writing about the “Greek Lobby.” In most instances, the comments have been rather critical as to the influence of the “Lobby” in the United States.
But what truly constitutes the “Greek Lobby” or preferably the “Greek American Lobby?” Is it the Greek American restaurant owner in Astoria? Is it the presidents of the numerous Greek American organizations? Is it the clergy? Is it the Greek American entrepreneurs throughout the country? Is it the American Hellenic Institute or the Order of AHEPA? Or is it that person who has developed a special relationship with a Senator or Congressman?
As a practical matter, every American citizen has the right to lobby, however, I have always contended that the very term, “Greek Lobby” is a misnomer and does not accurately reflect the reality. Many simply use the term generically in referring to those, individuals and organizations, who advocate public policy issues regarding U.S. relations with Greece and Cyprus.
The invasion of Cyprus by Turkey in 1974 served as the catalyst to awaken the Greek American community and through the initiatives of the American Hellenic Institute (AHI), for the first time, questioned the policies of our government.
AHI has long since advocated, that in our attempts to influence, or “lobby,” effectively regarding issues affecting U.S. relations with Greece and Cyprus, we need to frame our arguments within the context of “what’s in the best interests of the United States.” After all, we are not an immigrant community any longer. And as such, we don’t have any major ethnic community issues that we are concerned with today-thankfully. There are no more signs in restaurant windows that proclaim “No Dogs or Greeks Allowed.”
Overwhelmingly, Greek Americans identify themselves as Americans of Greek descent. Our concerns are that of any American—employment opportunities, national security, affordable education, crime prevention, affordable and good healthcare, the welfare of our children and families, etc.
Having said this, I also believe that as Greek Americans, we should have a vested interest in advocating and promoting a strong U.S. relationship with Greece and Cyprus. This also serves the multifaceted national interests of the U.S., first and foremost. To this extent, we should be more vigilant as to the consequences of U.S. policy towards Greece and Cyprus, because it has the potential to affect us as Americans and the national security interests of the U.S.
How do we do this?
By becoming more knowledgeable about the issues and taking the time to be involved. As American citizens we are constitutionally entitled to petition our government through our representatives for any purpose.
However, as you look around the country at the persons who are the most active, the argument can be made that it’s still the same faces from 1974! Not many new faces have appeared. This needs to be changed! Greek Americans need to become more involved throughout the country at the grass roots level. And just as important, we need to be unified in our message. We can’t be delivering mixed messages to policy makers. The AHI 2009 Greek American Policy Statements are a good place to get this information, as it is reviewed and endorsed by nine national membership based Greek American organizations, including the largest—the Order of AHEPA.
Many people like to compare the Greek American lobbying efforts to that of the Jewish American community. There is no comparison. If you leave aside the organization, the vast amounts of money and other resources, in my opinion, a glaring difference, however, is the active involvement of the most influential Jewish Americans in the process.
After twenty-three years of working on these issues in Washington, my observation is that most prominent Greek Americans simply don’t get involved. Of course, there are a few exceptions.
While it’s easy to identify the leading Greek American business and professional personalities in our community, I submit that just as important is the active participation of all those who are not as well known. It’s those who employ hundreds and thousands of American workers in their grocery stores, restaurants, real estate companies, construction companies, investment firms, law offices, medical offices, etc. These persons are usually well respected, admired and are viewed as leaders in their local communities and congressional districts. These persons need to be more active.
Unfortunately, I believe that in some cases, Greek Americans frown upon “compromising” their relationship with a member of Congress by bringing up our issues. In one of my first encounters reaching out to identify a Greek American who I was told knew then Senate Majority Leader, George Mitchell of Maine, I asked this person to contact Senator Mitchell regarding a piece of legislation we were advocating at that time. His response shocked me. “You want me to compromise my relationship with the Senator over this?” Needless to say he wasn’t helpful. This mindset is still out there to some degree and needs to change.
While lobbying is uniquely American and is one of the most famous parts of our political system, it has its roots in one of the most fundamental principles inherited from Greek tradition—namely that in a democracy it is the responsibility of the citizen to be active in the life of the nation.
In the end, if we’re identified as a “Greek Lobby,” “Greek American Lobby” or simply an “American Lobby,” it’s not as important as it is to just be involved. It is absolutely incumbent on us as American citizens to become active in the life of our nation. All it takes is a little effort to make the commitment to be involved and to understand the issues as they affect us.
In the end, that’s what will make us more influential.
American Hellenic Institute