Challenges and opportunities in Athens

Challenges and opportunities in Athens

A report on the mayors’ summit against antisemitism

Michael Wildes, second from left, is part of a panel at the mayors’ summit in Athens.
Michael Wildes, second from left, is part of a panel at the mayors’ summit in Athens.

The Mayor’s Summit Against Antisemitism, held in partnership with the Combat Antisemitism Movement, the Center for Jewish Impact, and the Jewish Federations of North America, met in Athens from November 30 to December 1.

I was privileged to participate as a featured guest speaker, along with other mayors, deputy mayors, and municipal officials from cities around the world. Participants included representatives of cities from across the United States — New York City; Albuquerque; Aventura, Florida; Beverly Hills; Fort Lauderdale; Jackson, Mississippi; and Richmond, Virginia. There also were representatives from across Europe — Vienna; Paris; Dortmund and Dresden, both in Germany, Athens and Thessaloniki, both in Greece; Bialystok, Poland; and Malmo, Sweden.

The perceived need for such an event on this international scale underscores what too many mayors have seen in our home cities — that instances of antisemitism are on the rise, and incidents of antisemitism, such as Holocaust denial or scapegoating over economic or social issues, remain pervasive in drastically different societies. While the commonality of this problem is concerning, an air of optimism was present nonetheless, stemming in fact from this same widescale recognition. That’s because it enables mayors around the world to think globally but act locally in a united front against antisemitism.

Athens is the birthplace of democracy, so its position as the conference host held both historical and contemporary significance. The city’s mayor, Kostas Bakoyannis, noted that Athens faces challenges from rising fascism and intolerance, just as many other cities do. He described how Greece’s extensive economic crisis — tracing back to its entry into the Eurozone in 2001 and escalating to out-of-control debts by 2009 that led to a series of international bailouts and austerity measures — allowed fascist movements to take root as Greeks searched for scapegoats, and how it required the courts to quell these uprisings. “Respect begins at home, and cities are the closest democratic institutions to the people,” Mr. Bakoyannis said. “The engine of evil is picking up the pace, and we must isolate those who are intolerant. The threat is always one election away, and we need to be extra vigilant when choices in leadership are afoot.”

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou traced that same sentiment back further, speaking of the centuries of presence of a Jewish community in Greece that were “interrupted,” as she put it, by the Holocaust. “This is a moral healing duty, to turn memory into action and prevent racism and hatred,” she said. Other Greek officials spoke of the need to bring Holocaust education into the digital era and increase ties to Israel as preventative methods of addressing rising antisemitism.

From left, Mayor Michael Wildes of Englewood, NYC’s Mayor Eric Adams, and Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis of Athens.

These comments call to mind an alarming trend of celebrities with large social media influence, people such as Kanye West and Kyrie Irving, spreading harmful rhetoric on Twitter, with conversations spilling over into broader media consumption. As antisemitism continues to evolve, it becomes even more clear how important Israel is as an insurance policy against the latest incarnations of hatred. Our integrated worldwide social media connections are tremendous in many ways, but they also present fertile grounds for those who seek to misuse them. Amidst these digital wars without frontiers, a physical home and safe haven for a people and a faith ensures that the Jewish community not only can endure any attacks that might come, but also can offer support and resistance to any people suffering from bigotry and intolerance anywhere. We should be proud of the accomplishments Israel has built for the global community, and we must be sure to continue to support its progress.

Mayors from around the globe also recognized the danger of celebrity-endorsed antisemitism to their communities, but it was our own neighbor, New York City’s Mayor Eric Adams, who spoke most poignantly on the perils of antisemitism if it is not just pervasive, but normalized, by circumstances such as these.

When he was Brooklyn borough president, Mayor Adams began a program called Breaking Bread and Building Bonds, an initiative to foster community unity and enhance cultural communication. The program consisted of 100 dinners across the borough. On each night for 10 nights, 10 people from different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, came together to talk, to eat, and “to lean into the discomfort of knowing something and someone new and appreciate what diversity has to offer.” By developing a better sense of one another, we diminish the distance between each other and create a more respectful and tolerant environment for all.

The need for mayors to be both reactive and proactive came up often at the conference. The European delegates spoke of the importance of Holocaust remembrance and the building of new Holocaust memorials and museums, such as the one that is being developed in Thessaloniki, Greece. Holocaust education also was of paramount importance to them. American mayors talked about the importance of bridging the gap between various constituents in their communities through team-building activities, and about assisting one another in times of crisis, as well as celebrating happy occasions with one another. The key to successful coexistence is made easier with the world’s mayors’ ability to solve national problems on a local level.

I had the honor to lead a panel at the conference, called “Intercommunal Challenges and Opportunities to Ensure Diversity.” As a four-term mayor, governing a city of great diversity, this is an issue I live every day. Though it is tremendously inclusive on most levels, our community still is divided. This requires me to work hard to encourage everyone to come together and celebrate community activities. In a municipality of many faiths, however, where residents pray on different days, even simple scheduling conflicts can prevent these initiatives.

Throughout my tenure as mayor, I have taken great pride and literally have gone to great lengths — by foot no less — in regularly walking across town on Shabbat to ensure that every resident feels the same respect by having their city officials support and participate in important matters in their lives, no matter the day of the week. With the onset of the Black Lives Matter movement, I marched in various social justice demonstrations for 18 consecutive Saturdays, shoulder to shoulder with my residents.

When the late civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis of Georgia visited Englewood in 2009, he signed a picture for me that said, “Keep the Faith. Keep Walking,” in recognition of how a small gesture can have a much larger meaning in the relationships among a community. I have always treasured this gift and the sentiment it bears.

In Englewood, I take great care in seeking out people to appoint or nominate to the various boards and commissions that help run our city. I care about their qualifications, to be sure, but I also want to ensure that these governing bodies reflect the makeup of the people whom they will serve. I was further proud to convene a cultural affairs committee, promoting even greater connectivity among leaders in the Black, Jewish, and Hispanic communities.

At the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, I initiated the virtual Coffee with the Mayor Zoom session, which took the place of the weekly in-person event I had held downtown to give residents a chance to share their thoughts. For nearly three years now, with only two cancellations, Coffee with the Mayor has continued as a regular Friday morning meeting. People know they can reach me and other community leaders there for updates on local happenings, and to discuss whatever matters are on their minds. These are a few of my own methods as I work to connect communities and heal the divisions that can lead to hatred if allowed to fester.

As Chanukah approaches, many of the mayors spoke of their excitement in publicly lighting a menorah and eating latkes and donuts with their residents, Jews and non-Jews alike, as a sign of reconciliation and fostering education in their home cities. Every mayor has his or her own methodology, each forming a link in a chain of the global endeavor we are undertaking.

Our host, Mayor Bakoyannis of Athens, provided one of the strongest links. The conference culminated in a public Christmas tree lighting in Athens’ main square. Each mayor from around the world was invited to give a personal greeting. Ultimately, this is the task at hand — to shed light wherever we can. Indeed, this conference laid the groundwork to connect our lights around the world.

Michael Wildes, an attorney, is the mayor of Englewood, the managing partner of Wildes & Weinberg PC, and the author of “Safe Haven in America: Battles to Open the Goden Door.”

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