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Jul 12, 2015 | 13:16 GMT

9 mins read

Athens and Jerusalem: City of Reason, City of Faith

Athens and Jerusalem: City of Reason, City of Faith
(LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

While his nation was making headlines for its potential exit from the European Union, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias traveled to Jerusalem on an official state visit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from July 7 to July 9. Stratfor has been following the emerging geopolitical relationship between Greece and Israel since 2010. To combat Turkey as it matures and projects more power into the Levant and the Aegean, Israel and Greece have an interest in maintaining closer ties. 

But geopolitics is not merely about nation-states colliding like billiard balls or analysts deriving simple, deterministic arguments from the locations of mountains. There is a deeper philosophical core to what Stratfor does. We recognize that love of one's own is one of the simplest yet most powerful realities of human existence and that the international political system, based as it is on the nation-state, is an outgrowth of that affection. The timing of Kotzias' visit to Israel is coincidental, but it nevertheless brings to mind an oft-made comparison between two ancient cities — Athens and Jerusalem. The juxtaposition of Athens and Jerusalem, of the unending, irreconcilable conflict between reason and revelation, offers a rare opportunity to access Stratfor's philosophical core directly.

The Cities' Foundations

To crudely oversimplify: the citizen of Jerusalem believes in humble obedience to revelation and the word of God, while the citizen of Athens begins with the Socratic notion that true knowledge begins when we admit that we know nothing. From a perspective of wonder, the citizen of Athens relies on human wisdom, not divine law, for the realization of the perfect society. Athens and Jerusalem were used as paradigmatic examples by Western philosophers in part because Western society as we know it was shaped by the Christian attempt at a synthesis between these two irreconcilable positions. In truth, Athens and Jerusalem are arbitrary cities, interchangeable examples to describe this basic, universal human disagreement about the source of justice. Pick whatever cities work best for your frame of reference — Lhasa and Beijing, or Mecca and Cairo. The point remains that one can either have faith in the ineffable or make do with the tangible.

For many philosophers, Athens and Jerusalem represent the two poles of human access to Truth. Tertullian, an early Christian writing from the Roman province of Carthage, is one of the first that we know of to think about the two ancient cities together when he asked in his On The Prescription of Heretics: "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" In modern times, Leo Strauss, a German-Jewish philosopher who escaped the Holocaust and eventually became a renowned professor at the University of Chicago, became the intellectual heir to Tertullian's Athens and Jerusalem, often using the contrast between the two in his writings and teachings.

In the wake of Kotzias' visit to Israel, there is now a great deal of irony in the phrase "Athens and Jerusalem" — for the two cities have in a sense flipped roles. Once Athens was the incubator of human wisdom, home to Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. Athens elevated the pre-eminence of the human mind as the only way to arrive at knowledge of the good. Jerusalem, on the other hand, was the city of the biblical prophets, all outrage and fury at the Israelites' wanton abrogation of the divine covenant through their constant idol worship and general depravity. Athens conceptualized the perfect society as a city-state ruled by a philosopher king; Jerusalem dreamed of the messianic age, when swords would be beaten into plowshares and justice would roll down like a mighty stream.

Athens was a city for Athenian citizens, and so Athenians fought and died for each other and for Athens — for their own. The Israelite kingdoms also fought and died for their own, but there was a key difference: they fought for their brethren because they believed God commanded it. "Honor thy father and mother" is a law — but so is "wipe out the name of Amalek from under heaven." Though the contexts are radically different now, the roles are somewhat reversed. Israel today exists for the love of its own; it is not ruled by the laws of the Bible. Greece, at least for a little while longer, is part of a treaty organization that attempts to obliterate the very concept of "own" — because at its foundation the European Union believed peace and prosperity for all was at hand.

Athens and Jerusalem represent the two poles of human access to Truth.

A More Messianic Union

What is the European Union at its core? In truth, it is a dream born more of Jerusalem than Athens. As George Friedman wrote in his book Flashpoints: The Coming Crisis in Europe, Europe is "the joy of joining men into a single brotherhood, overcoming the divisions of mere custom." The dream, or perhaps delusion, of the European Union was that the age of nationalism could be eclipsed — that a time of universal peace and prosperity would rise from the ashes of two of the most horrific human conflicts the world has ever seen. As Leo Strauss notes, Socrates did not believe that the rule of the best regime meant the cessation of war; on the contrary, the best city would inevitably go to war with other cities. The European Union, then, was not just a profoundly idealistic project. It based itself on an unreasonable faith in the idea of a greater "Europe" that did not actually exist, one that could subsume all prior divisions. It was founded on a messianic impulse, and Greece, like the rest of the European Union, quite literally bought what the union was selling.

But this vision is not the reality. Brussels' treatment of Greece has certainly at least made it clear to the Greeks that the European Union is simply a treaty organization: nothing more, nothing less.

Today, Greece stands on the precipice of that very treaty organization. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of the Balkan Wars in 1999, the political geography of Greece's region changed. For over 150 years, after winning nominal freedom from the Ottoman Empire, Greece was an important strategic ally for the United Kingdom as a bulwark against the Ottomans, then for the United States against the Soviets. But the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 diminished Greece's strategic value to Washington. By 1999, after the Balkan wars concluded, Greece mattered strategically even less.

But that was also the year Germany joined the European Monetary Union. Two years later, when it followed suit, Greece became one of many potential markets for German exports. Without the economic support of a great power patron, relegated to the bottom of the food chain in Europe, handicapped by a geography that restricts centralization or agricultural production, Greece turned to the promise of peace and prosperity that the European Union purported to offer.

Suddenly, Greece had access to credit lent at interest rates normally reserved for far wealthier states. Greece responded as most would when suddenly offered a line of credit. It took advantage, propping up a large public sector, maintaining high pension payments and financing the Olympic Games in 2004. Greece's debt ballooned, and now both sides — Germany and Greece — have reached their boiling points. Germany is unwilling to show weakness and risk other EU countries thinking they can simply restructure their debt away. Greece is unable to pay and unwilling to be ruled from Berlin or Brussels.

Israel may conceive of itself as the homeland of the Jews, and the rise of religious Zionism in Israel is undeniable. But the political Zionism of Israel's founders was not a messianic movement at its core. For thousands of years, Jews prayed facing the East and dreamed of Zion, declaring at various points throughout the annual holiday cycle that "next year should be in Jerusalem." But none of this faith brought about the state of Israel. Herzl's Zionism, Pinsker's Zionism, Ben-Gurion's Zionism — these were fundamentally Jewish men of Athens, men who believed that Jews would return to Israel not by virtue of divine fiat, but in Strauss' own words, by "political and military action." They sought the best regime with human resources — they did not obey and wait for a just reward.

Some Similarities

Greece and Israel actually have much in common. Both were birthplaces to ancient civilizations that ruled powerful empires in the Mediterranean and the Levant over 2,000 years ago. Both suffered the downfall of those political entities and a loss of any sense of independence for millennia, only to reconstitute themselves as nation-states in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Both have vibrant, large diaspora communities scattered around the world numbering in the millions. Both endure profound geographic challenges, and both have survived in large measure because of the generosity of powerful patrons who found them strategically useful. Israel's economy in the last two decades has fared far better than Greece's, but as recently as the 1980s, Israel was in economic crisis, and while the reforms undertaken have made Israel profitable by most standards, to get there the country has sacrificed much of the quasi-socialist core that characterized its founding.

In a sense, Greece and Israel are moving in opposite directions. Greece is rediscovering the limits of its "European-ness." From the Greek point of view, the profoundly idealistic dream that was the European Union, which I have described here as messianic, is defaulting on its promise. The Greeks are realizing that they are, at the end of the day, unalterably Greek. Israel, on the other hand, is discovering some of its religiosity. Gone is the secular kibbutz movement of its founders. Demographics indicate that the rise of the religious and the religious-nationalists in Israel will only continue. The notion that all of biblical Israel is divinely bestowed upon the Jews, rather than hard-fought and earned by individuals, is an idea seeping into the Israeli psyche.

On the occasion of their meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu welcomed the Greek foreign minister warmly. In the course of their meeting, he offered Kotzias no abstract ideals or quixotic dreams, but rather firm commitments to the true and tangible goals that Israel and Greece share. He spoke of seeking peace, stability and prosperity in the eastern Mediterranean, of fighting terrorism and of countering Iran's expanding influence in the region. It is a curious thing that a representative of Greece should travel to Jerusalem and find there such solidly Athenian wisdom.

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