Chicago’s Greeks and Jews watching realignment in Mediterranean with shared interest, concern
A century ago, so many Greeks were arriving in Chicago that Hull House hired someone who spoke the language to learn their stories. Businesses run by Greeks were popping up west of the Loop in what is now Greektown and the UIC campus.
But the Jews found Chicago first, coming steadily from the 1840s onward.
What both groups have in common is a strong bond for their homelands – Greeks frequently sending money home to family members and buying land, Jews supporting the efforts to create a Jewish homeland in the Middle East and supporting Israel since its creation.
“We have two of the most significant diaspora groups in Chicago, both Jewish and Greek,” said Endy Zemenides, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council in Chicago.
The instability in the eastern Mediterranean recent years has brought Greek and Jewish communities in Chicago and across the U.S. together through an emerging trilateral alliance among the U.S., Greece and Israel.
“There is a need for an alliance. What is happening in the Middle East is affecting what is going on regionally and globally,” said professor Eytan Gilboa, director of the Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
Gilboa, a world-renowned expert on international communication and U.S. policy in the Middle East was in Chicago this week as part of “Today’s Middle East: Challenges, Leadership, Communication,” which is charged with tackling a range of topics ranging from Iran’s weapons program to the special ties Israel has with Greece and Poland. The program ends Sunday.
At one of the events Wednesday, titled, “Greece, Israel and the United States: An Emerging Trilateral Alliance in the Middle East,” co-sponsored by the Greek consulate and National Strategy Forum, a set of panelists discussed challenges in the Middle East and the importance of strong ties among the countries.
“This is a strategic relationship; this is a relationship that will last forever. This is where the Greek, Israeli, Cypriot, and U.S. partnership can make a difference,” said Zemenides, whose group is one of the most influential Greek organizations in the U.S.
Gilboa and Zemenides stressed the importance of communicating to Greek and Jewish communities about the emerging alliance in face of challenges.
“Greeks and Jews have worked together for centuries,” Zemenides said. “If they work together you can influence U.S. policy and can create stability in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Insecurities faced by Israel and Greece today stem from Turkish assertiveness in the Mediterranean, nuclear proliferation, Iran’s weapons program, piracy in the high seas, terrorism, the Arab Spring, energy security and economic crisis.
“If you look at the map there is geopolitical-strategic change taking place. You can then understand the reason for improved relations,” Gilboa said.
All these events have caused great instability: So how can the emerging trilateral alliance stabilize the region and ensure the interests of the U.S., Greece and Israel?
By increasing the economic, military and energy ties taking place today and in years to come.
In 2010 prime ministers from both countries visited the other as a way to signify stronger diplomatic relations.
Benjamin Netanyahu was the first Israeli prime minister to officially visit Greece. There he and his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou, discussed many topics such as an increase of military and economic ties.
This past April the U.S., Israel and Greece conducted joint military exercise in the Mediterranean named Noble Dina, simulating potential confrontations with Turkey.
On a less ominous note, Greece received a boost to its tourism sector last year thanks to 420,000 vacationing Israelis who took new non-stop flights from Israel to Greece. As Turkey and Israel’s relationship soured in 2009, Greece opened its doors to Israelis who normally vacation in Turkey.
On another front, energy cooperation among Israel, Greece and Cyprus has increased as well, with the discovery of natural gas off the shores of Israel and extending to Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon. The area known as the Levant Basin Province has enough natural gas for globalwide use for one year. Officials say they realize that the cooperation among Cyprus, Greece and Israel over the find increases the possibility of future confrontations with Turkey.
Though Greece is located outside the Levant Basin, it has shared national and economic interests with Cyprus.
The Greek-Israeli relationship was not always so cozy.
Before 1990, Greece was the only European member nation that did not have full diplomatic relations with Israel. Before then, Greece’s foreign policy was influenced by Arab states with whom it had important economic ties.
“We need an-on-the ground realistic assessment, we are on the outside looking in,” said Richard Friedman, president and chair of the National Strategy Forum, who moderated the event.
“We have honed in on the difficult issues and the people who have assembled in this room suggests to me that we have informed citizens,” Friedman said in his closing remarks to the 50 Greek and Jewish leaders in the audience.
“That is the whole purpose that we are all here. That is why we welcome Bar-Ilan University. What we are doing here is communicating.”
According to both Gilboa and Zemenides, economic constraints on countries have made alliances such as these attractive. Greece, Israel, the U.S. and even Cyprus have navies that make them Mediterranean powers. Combined, they can increase their influence.
“This alliance is fundamentally, culturally, historically, geo-strategically on the same page and it has to be encouraged,” Zemenides said. “We have to have stability in the eastern Mediterranean otherwise the world is in trouble.”
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