Last week, a Holocaust memorial in Thessaloniki, Greece was desecrated with antisemitic spray paint. The memorial features a large menorah, Star of David and symbolic gravestones. Twice in 2018 and again in 2019 the memorial was vandalized.
Before World War II, Thessaloniki was a thriving center of Jewish life. Indeed, for most of the 19th Century, Greece’s second largest city had a Jewish majority or plurality. The community grew significantly after to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 with the Alhambra Decree. It was often referred to as “la madre de Israel” (mother of Israel).
With Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, the Jews became full-fledged citizens of Greece. Within two decades, this meant nothing and the community essentially ceased to exist. In the spring and summer of 1943, the Nazis sent over 60,000 Greek Jews from Thessaloniki by rail to Auschwitz. Nearly one quarter of the 400 infamous experiments at Auschwitz were conducted on Greek Jews.
The small Jewish Community of Thessaloniki has worked closely over the years with the different governments in Athens and city leadership in Thessaloniki. Additionally, they have worked with the Baltimore-based Stavros Niarchos Foundation and Aristotle University for the construction of a Holocaust Museum of Greece.
Also last week, President Joe Biden signed into law the $1.7 trillion budget that will fund the federal government through September 2023. The bipartisan bill, after intense negotiations, contained numerous well reported initiatives from much needed reform of the Electoral Count Act to crucial support of Ukraine.
The budget further strengthens the US-Israel relationship. For example, $25 million will go to US-Israel anti-drone cooperation. The President has reaffirmed the strong bond between our two nations and the American commitment to Israel’s security.
With the meteoric rise in hate, the Department of Homeland Security will have additional resources including $305 million for the Non-Profit Security Grant Program which equips congregations, community centers and schools with fences, cameras and other security enhancements. This is a top priority for the indefatigable Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
One of the smallest line items in the budget is one which deserves much more attention this year. The Commission on the Preservation for America’s Heritage Abroad will have $819,000 to conduct their work in the face of rising antisemitic attacks in Europe.
With a fast-changing geopolitical landscape, in 1990, the Commission received its first appropriation from Congress. Its mandate was and is to work with governments across Europe and Eurasia to protect and preserve sites from the exact desecration that happened in Thessaloniki last week.
The Biden Administration deserves immense credit for standing against hate both at home and abroad. Multiple cabinet secretaries and senior Administration appointees have spoken out at public events over this last year. The President has made crystal clear his commitment to combatting antisemitism and Holocaust denial.
Yet, the important public diplomacy of the Commission is not keeping pace. Over the last year, the Commission website has not ever been updated. Indeed, the homepage images showcase important work, albeit done by the previous Chairman, Paul Packer, who was appointed by President Trump. The social media has not been updated in months. The last news item is from 2017.
President Biden made a bold choice in naming Starlet “Star” Jones Lugo as Chair of the Commission more than a year ago. With International Holocaust Remembrance Day fast approaching, Chairwoman Jones should consider how best to use her incredible talents engaging diverse global and utilizing the power of media.
Greece, the birthplace of democracy with a robust free press, would make strong sense for a much-needed reemergence of this important Commission.