The budding special relationship between Israel and its two Hellenic regional neighbours, Greece and Cyprus, has largely gone unnoticed, especially here in Canada, but it carries profound geopolitical meaning that will only increase in the years ahead.
Israel, Greece and Cyprus share many common features, aside from their Eastern Mediterranean location. All three are home to ancient and vibrant cultures that helped shape Western civilization. All three won their independence after languishing under Ottoman rule, with British interludes in the cases of Israel and Cyprus.
Most importantly, all three are threatened by Islamist extremism and the irredentist ambitions of their neighbours – but recent developments promise to change that dynamic.
Over the past few years, massive natural gas deposits have been found within the territorial waters of Cyprus and Israel. A pipeline to send this gas to western Europe via Greece would ensure that all three countries become significant energy exporters.
In late August, I had the great privilege of participating in a 10-day tour of Israel, Greece and Cyprus, along with fellow young adults from the three countries’ Diaspora populations.
The trip – which was sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel and B’nai B’rith International on the Jewish side, along with the Greek Foreign Ministry and the Presidential Commissioner for Cypriots Overseas – aimed to boost the trilateral relationship between the three countries by mixing young members of all three diasporas (a Greek word, by the way) and helping them learn about each others’ homelands.
In Israel, our group visited staples like the Western Wall and the streets of Jaffa, but added new twists, such as a tour of the Jewish Agency headquarters and a rare private audience with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. In all three countries, we spoke with high-level diplomats and other officials about the future of the trilateral relationship.
For me personally, a key highlight was attending the 20th Conference of the World Federation of Cypriot Diasporas in Nicosia, where it was interesting to compare and contrast how our two communities interact with their Diaspora populations.
The trip also created a passionate cadre of young Jews, Greeks and Cypriots who are dedicated to fostering ties between our communities in the Diaspora, a vision that we are now working to implement in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and right here in Canada.
Indeed, in the United States, the Jewish and Hellenic communities have already worked closely together to push the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, which will provide robust support from Washington for the three countries’ shared objectives.
While Canada’s foreign policy footprint in the region is much smaller, there is no doubt that similar endeavours can – and should – be facilitated in Ottawa.
At the end of the day, the tour left me with great hope, not only for the three countries’ budding relationship, but also for regional peace more generally.
Judaism and Hellenism were once implacable ideological enemies, famously clashing head-to-head in the events commemorated by the holiday of Hanukkah. But today, Judaism and Hellenism have learned to co-exist, and even serve as twin bedrocks of stability in the Eastern Mediterranean.
If the Jewish-Hellenic divide – which once seemed intractable – can be bridged in such a way, then there is reason to believe that one day, no matter how distant, Jews and Arabs, or Greeks and Turks, will be able to put aside their own historical differences and unite to promote security and prosperity, as well.
Until then, we should remember that Western civilization is largely a synthesis of Jewish and Hellenic values. If Judaism or Hellenism falls, the West may fall with them.
But after our shared adventure last month, there is a contingent of Jewish, Greek and Cypriot youth who are now working together to ensure that our shared future remains bright.
Aidan Fishman is the former national director of B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights.