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Muslims host synagogue inside Mosque

A view of the Al-Iman Mosque where the Jewish place of worship is housed.

Ted Regencia and Lindsay Minerva

After the Jewish congregants of an Orthodox synagogue could no longer afford their rent, they found help in the local mosque. The only unusual detail—- this synagogue (a Jewish house of worship) is a mosque.

Or rather, it’s housed inside a mosque. That’s right: Members of the Chabad of East Bronx, an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, worship in the Islamic Cultural Centre of North America, which is home to the Al-Iman mosque
“People have a misconception that Muslims hate Jews,” said Baumann. 
“But here is an example of them working with us.”
“Nowhere in the world would Jews and Muslims be meeting under the same roof,” said Patricia Tomasulo, the Catholic Democratic precinct captain and Parkchester community organizer, who first introduced the leaders of the synagogue and mosque to each other. “It’s so unique.”
Indeed, though conventionally viewed as adversaries both here and abroad, the Jews and Muslims of the Bronx have been propelled into an unlikely bond by a demographic shift. The borough was once home to an estimated 630,000 Jews, but by 2002 that number had dropped to 45,100, according to a study by the Jewish Community Relations Council. At the same time, the Muslim population has been increasing. In Parkchester alone, there are currently five mosques, including Masjid Al-Iman.
Near the corner of Westchester Avenue and Pugsley Street in Parkchester, just off the elevated tracks of the No. 6 train, Yaakov Wayne Baumann stood outside a graffiti-covered storefront on a chilly Saturday morning. Suited up in a black overcoat with a matching wide-brimmed black fedora, the thickly bearded 42-year-old chatted with elderly congregants as they entered the building for Shabbat service.
The relationship started years ago, when the Young Israel Congregation (YIC), then located on Virginia Avenue in Parkchester, was running clothing drives for needy families, according to Leon Bleckman, now 78, who was at the time the treasurer of the congregation. 
 
Sheikh Moussa
One of the recipients was Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, the founder of the Al-Iman Mosque, who was collecting donations for his congregants—many of whom are immigrants  from Africa. The 49-year-old Imam is an immigrant from Gambia in West Africa who came to the United States in 1986. After a year in Harlem, he moved to Parkchester, where he eventually founded the Muslim centre and later established an Islamic grade school. Through that initial meeting, a rapport developed between the two houses of worship, and the synagogue continued to donate to the Islamic centre, among other organizations.
But in 2003, after years of declining membership, YIC was forced to sell its building at 1375 Virginia Ave., according to a database maintained by Yeshiva University, which keeps historical records of synagogues. Before the closing, non-religious items were given away; in fact, among the beneficiaries was none other than Drammeh, who took some chairs and tables for his centre.
Meanwhile, Bleckman and the remaining members moved to a nearby storefront location, renting it for $2,000 a month including utilities. 
With mostly elderly congregants, YIC struggled to survive financially and, at the end of 2007, was forced to close for good. The remaining congregants were left without a place to pray. During the synagogue’s farewell service, four young men from the Chabad Lubavitch world headquarters in Crown Heights showed up. Three months earlier, Bleckman, then chairman of the synagogue’s emergency fund, had appealed for help from the Chabad.
“The boys from the Chabad said they came to save us,” said Bleckman. 
“We were crying.”
At this point, Chabad took over the congregational reins from YIC, with members officially adopting the new name Chabad of East Bronx. Still, for the next six to seven weeks, Bleckman said they could not even hold a service because they had nowhere to hold it.
 
Accommodated for free
When Drammeh learned of their plight, he immediately volunteered to accommodate them at the Muslim centre at 2006 Westchester Ave.—for free.
“They don’t pay anything, because these are old folks whose income is very limited now,” said Drammeh, adding that he felt it was his turn to help the people who had once helped him and his community. “Not every Muslim likes us, because not every Muslim believes that Muslims and Jews should be like this,” Drammeh said, referring to the shared space. 
But “there’s no reason why we should hate each other, why we cannot be families.” Drammeh in particular admires the dedication of the Chabad rabbis, who walked 15 miles from Brooklyn every Saturday to run prayer services for the small Parkchester community.
For the first six months, congregants held Friday night Sabbath services inside Drammeh’s cramped office. As more people began joining the congregation, Drammeh offered them a bigger room.  (When it is not in use, students from the Islamic school use it as their classroom.) 
Inside the synagogue, a worn, beige cotton curtain separates the men and women who attend the service. A solitary chandelier hangs just above the black wooden arc that holds the borrowed Torah, which is brought weekly from the Chabad headquarters. A large table covered with prayer books stands in the centre, and a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is displayed prominently on a nearby wall. During Shabbat, when Jewish congregants are strictly prohibited from working, they have to rely on the Muslim workers at the centre or on Drammeh to do simple chores such as turning on the light and switching on the heater.
 
“I was surprised”
At first, it did not make sense, said Hana Kabakow, wife of Rabbi Meir Kabakow. “I was surprised,” said the 26-year-old congregant who was born and raised in Israel. “But when I came here I understood.” The Kabakows have been coming to the service from Brooklyn for the last two years.
Harriet Miller, another congregant, said she appreciated the centre’s accommodating the synagogue. “They are very sweet people,” said the 79-year-old Bronx native and long-time resident of Parkchester, who added that she welcomes the new Muslim immigrants in her neighbourhood: 
Drammeh understands the importance of teaching tolerance more broadly, and for turning the school—which was itself founded at the nearby St. Helena Catholic Church on, of all days, Sept. 11, 2001—into a model of sorts for religious tolerance in New York.
“We’re not as divided as the media portrays us to be,” Drammeh said. 
“Almost 90 percent of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian teachings are the same.”
His latest project involves introducing fifth-grade Jewish and Islamic school students to each other’s religious traditions. Other participants of the program, now in its sixth year, include the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, the Al Ihsan Academy of Queens, and the Kinneret Day School of Riverdale. At the end of the program, students organize an exhibit that shows family artefacts of their respective cultures and religion. The principal of the Islamic school, who is also Sheik Drammeh’s wife, said that even after the program ended, the participants became “fast friends” and would visit each other’s homes.
 
Thankful Jewish congregants
While the Jewish congregants are thankful for their new home, they hope that one day they can rebuild their own synagogue. That day may be far off: Even now that they have space to worship, they still struggle to operate. They don’t have proper heating inside, and the portable working heater could not reach the separate area where the elderly women are seated, forcing them to wear their jackets during the entire service. Congregants are appealing for financial support from the Jewish community and other congregations.
But Leon Bleckman and others say they now also have loftier goals, including reviving the Jewish presence in the neighbourhood and reaffirming the positive relationship with their Muslim friends. “We are able to co-exist together side by side in the same building,” said Assistant Rabbi Avi Friedman, 42. “That’s sort of like a taste of the future world to come—the messianic future where all people live in peace.”
----------------------------------------------------------------
Ted Regencia is a digital media student at the Columbia Journalism School. His Twitter feed is at @tedregencia. Lindsay Minerva, a digital media student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, is an intern at Newsweek. Her Twitter feed is at @lindsayminerva./?cat=34
The Muslim Observer http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=9903

Comment

A view of the Al-Iman Mosque where the Jewish place of worship is housed.

Ted Regencia and Lindsay Minerva

After the Jewish congregants of an Orthodox synagogue could no longer afford their rent, they found help in the local mosque. The only unusual detail—- this synagogue (a Jewish house of worship) is a mosque.

Or rather, it’s housed inside a mosque. That’s right: Members of the Chabad of East Bronx, an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, worship in the Islamic Cultural Centre of North America, which is home to the Al-Iman mosque
“People have a misconception that Muslims hate Jews,” said Baumann. 
“But here is an example of them working with us.”
“Nowhere in the world would Jews and Muslims be meeting under the same roof,” said Patricia Tomasulo, the Catholic Democratic precinct captain and Parkchester community organizer, who first introduced the leaders of the synagogue and mosque to each other. “It’s so unique.”
Indeed, though conventionally viewed as adversaries both here and abroad, the Jews and Muslims of the Bronx have been propelled into an unlikely bond by a demographic shift. The borough was once home to an estimated 630,000 Jews, but by 2002 that number had dropped to 45,100, according to a study by the Jewish Community Relations Council. At the same time, the Muslim population has been increasing. In Parkchester alone, there are currently five mosques, including Masjid Al-Iman.
Near the corner of Westchester Avenue and Pugsley Street in Parkchester, just off the elevated tracks of the No. 6 train, Yaakov Wayne Baumann stood outside a graffiti-covered storefront on a chilly Saturday morning. Suited up in a black overcoat with a matching wide-brimmed black fedora, the thickly bearded 42-year-old chatted with elderly congregants as they entered the building for Shabbat service.
The relationship started years ago, when the Young Israel Congregation (YIC), then located on Virginia Avenue in Parkchester, was running clothing drives for needy families, according to Leon Bleckman, now 78, who was at the time the treasurer of the congregation. 
 
Sheikh Moussa
One of the recipients was Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, the founder of the Al-Iman Mosque, who was collecting donations for his congregants—many of whom are immigrants  from Africa. The 49-year-old Imam is an immigrant from Gambia in West Africa who came to the United States in 1986. After a year in Harlem, he moved to Parkchester, where he eventually founded the Muslim centre and later established an Islamic grade school. Through that initial meeting, a rapport developed between the two houses of worship, and the synagogue continued to donate to the Islamic centre, among other organizations.
But in 2003, after years of declining membership, YIC was forced to sell its building at 1375 Virginia Ave., according to a database maintained by Yeshiva University, which keeps historical records of synagogues. Before the closing, non-religious items were given away; in fact, among the beneficiaries was none other than Drammeh, who took some chairs and tables for his centre.
Meanwhile, Bleckman and the remaining members moved to a nearby storefront location, renting it for $2,000 a month including utilities. 
With mostly elderly congregants, YIC struggled to survive financially and, at the end of 2007, was forced to close for good. The remaining congregants were left without a place to pray. During the synagogue’s farewell service, four young men from the Chabad Lubavitch world headquarters in Crown Heights showed up. Three months earlier, Bleckman, then chairman of the synagogue’s emergency fund, had appealed for help from the Chabad.
“The boys from the Chabad said they came to save us,” said Bleckman. 
“We were crying.”
At this point, Chabad took over the congregational reins from YIC, with members officially adopting the new name Chabad of East Bronx. Still, for the next six to seven weeks, Bleckman said they could not even hold a service because they had nowhere to hold it.
 
Accommodated for free
When Drammeh learned of their plight, he immediately volunteered to accommodate them at the Muslim centre at 2006 Westchester Ave.—for free.
“They don’t pay anything, because these are old folks whose income is very limited now,” said Drammeh, adding that he felt it was his turn to help the people who had once helped him and his community. “Not every Muslim likes us, because not every Muslim believes that Muslims and Jews should be like this,” Drammeh said, referring to the shared space. 
But “there’s no reason why we should hate each other, why we cannot be families.” Drammeh in particular admires the dedication of the Chabad rabbis, who walked 15 miles from Brooklyn every Saturday to run prayer services for the small Parkchester community.
For the first six months, congregants held Friday night Sabbath services inside Drammeh’s cramped office. As more people began joining the congregation, Drammeh offered them a bigger room.  (When it is not in use, students from the Islamic school use it as their classroom.) 
Inside the synagogue, a worn, beige cotton curtain separates the men and women who attend the service. A solitary chandelier hangs just above the black wooden arc that holds the borrowed Torah, which is brought weekly from the Chabad headquarters. A large table covered with prayer books stands in the centre, and a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is displayed prominently on a nearby wall. During Shabbat, when Jewish congregants are strictly prohibited from working, they have to rely on the Muslim workers at the centre or on Drammeh to do simple chores such as turning on the light and switching on the heater.
 
“I was surprised”
At first, it did not make sense, said Hana Kabakow, wife of Rabbi Meir Kabakow. “I was surprised,” said the 26-year-old congregant who was born and raised in Israel. “But when I came here I understood.” The Kabakows have been coming to the service from Brooklyn for the last two years.
Harriet Miller, another congregant, said she appreciated the centre’s accommodating the synagogue. “They are very sweet people,” said the 79-year-old Bronx native and long-time resident of Parkchester, who added that she welcomes the new Muslim immigrants in her neighbourhood: 
Drammeh understands the importance of teaching tolerance more broadly, and for turning the school—which was itself founded at the nearby St. Helena Catholic Church on, of all days, Sept. 11, 2001—into a model of sorts for religious tolerance in New York.
“We’re not as divided as the media portrays us to be,” Drammeh said. 
“Almost 90 percent of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian teachings are the same.”
His latest project involves introducing fifth-grade Jewish and Islamic school students to each other’s religious traditions. Other participants of the program, now in its sixth year, include the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, the Al Ihsan Academy of Queens, and the Kinneret Day School of Riverdale. At the end of the program, students organize an exhibit that shows family artefacts of their respective cultures and religion. The principal of the Islamic school, who is also Sheik Drammeh’s wife, said that even after the program ended, the participants became “fast friends” and would visit each other’s homes.
 
Thankful Jewish congregants
While the Jewish congregants are thankful for their new home, they hope that one day they can rebuild their own synagogue. That day may be far off: Even now that they have space to worship, they still struggle to operate. They don’t have proper heating inside, and the portable working heater could not reach the separate area where the elderly women are seated, forcing them to wear their jackets during the entire service. Congregants are appealing for financial support from the Jewish community and other congregations.
But Leon Bleckman and others say they now also have loftier goals, including reviving the Jewish presence in the neighbourhood and reaffirming the positive relationship with their Muslim friends. “We are able to co-exist together side by side in the same building,” said Assistant Rabbi Avi Friedman, 42. “That’s sort of like a taste of the future world to come—the messianic future where all people live in peace.”
----------------------------------------------------------------
Ted Regencia is a digital media student at the Columbia Journalism School. His Twitter feed is at @tedregencia. Lindsay Minerva, a digital media student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, is an intern at Newsweek. Her Twitter feed is at @lindsayminerva./?cat=34
The Muslim Observer http://muslimmedianetwork.com/mmn/?p=9903

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THE ECONOMIST SUGGESTS

Delhi should try to open up with neighbours

SOUTH ASIA is about the least integrated part of the world. Neighbours supply just 0.5% of India’s imports, and consume less than 4% of its exports. India and Pakistan, mutually antagonistic, account for a fifth of all living humans, yet their bilateral trade is puny, at less than $3 billion a year. The main regional body, the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation, is an irrelevance. Diplomatic torpor usually reigns in the region: last week, when the elected president of one member country, the Maldives, was toppled in a coup, there was a resounding silence from the neighbours.

India, the regional superpower, is largely to blame. Though it is a democracy and has easily the biggest economy and armed forces in South Asia, it has rarely been a force for good. Instead it has treated the neighbours, by turns, with negligence and high-handedness.
Ideology and size are largely to blame. Economic self-sufficiency—the doctrine that informed Indian policymaking for nearly half a century after independence—made co-operating with the neighbours unnecessary. And India’s size—its population is seven times that of its nearest neighbour, Pakistan—has encouraged bullying tendencies. It has meddled in Nepal’s politics, and in the early stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war it backed Tamil guerrillas. Even today the opposition in Bangladesh claims nefarious Indian influence, and Pakistan says its old foe is supporting separatists in the province of Baluchistan. It has offered no evidence for the claim. But past Indian arrogance makes neighbours ready to believe anything.
This is an economic as well as a diplomatic problem. Lack of integration helps to keep South Asians poor. By one estimate, without barriers trade between India and Pakistan would grow nearly tenfold. Today the main border-crossing near Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore is at times almost deserted. If educated Sri Lankans were allowed to work in India, they could get good jobs there instead of having to take menial work in the Gulf, thus easing a growing shortage of skilled Indian workers. A regional energy market could boost prosperity; and Indian engagement in the problem of water-sharing could reduce dangerous tensions on the issue.
As a measure of India’s priorities, consider that the world’s second-most-populous country has no more diplomats than tiny New Zealand. By contrast, China has a huge and sophisticated foreign service, housed in sleek new embassies around the world. And it is partly with an eye to a rising China that India now shows signs of change.
 
Niceness contest
These days India is putting more effort into improving neighbourly relations and is dishing out aid to sweeten the air. The foreign minister, S.M. Krishna, vows never to meddle inside another country. This week the trade minister led a business delegation to Lahore. And for all the accusations of anti-Pakistan meddling in Afghanistan, Indian efforts are accomplishing some good there: training police, and building roads and electricity lines. All over the region, India is opening new consulates. It may even recruit more diplomats.
But there is much more that India could do. It should unilaterally boost regional trade by unclogging roads, and by building better ports and freight parks at its borders. Non-tariff barriers—including the one that insists Pakistani cement crosses the border only by train, not lorry—should go. And India could take lessons from other big emerging powers, such as South Africa and Brazil, on how to build relationships in the region. Elephants must learn to move carefully, for fear of causing damage in the neighbourhood.

Comment

SOUTH ASIA is about the least integrated part of the world. Neighbours supply just 0.5% of India’s imports, and consume less than 4% of its exports. India and Pakistan, mutually antagonistic, account for a fifth of all living humans, yet their bilateral trade is puny, at less than $3 billion a year. The main regional body, the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation, is an irrelevance. Diplomatic torpor usually reigns in the region: last week, when the elected president of one member country, the Maldives, was toppled in a coup, there was a resounding silence from the neighbours.

India, the regional superpower, is largely to blame. Though it is a democracy and has easily the biggest economy and armed forces in South Asia, it has rarely been a force for good. Instead it has treated the neighbours, by turns, with negligence and high-handedness.
Ideology and size are largely to blame. Economic self-sufficiency—the doctrine that informed Indian policymaking for nearly half a century after independence—made co-operating with the neighbours unnecessary. And India’s size—its population is seven times that of its nearest neighbour, Pakistan—has encouraged bullying tendencies. It has meddled in Nepal’s politics, and in the early stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war it backed Tamil guerrillas. Even today the opposition in Bangladesh claims nefarious Indian influence, and Pakistan says its old foe is supporting separatists in the province of Baluchistan. It has offered no evidence for the claim. But past Indian arrogance makes neighbours ready to believe anything.
This is an economic as well as a diplomatic problem. Lack of integration helps to keep South Asians poor. By one estimate, without barriers trade between India and Pakistan would grow nearly tenfold. Today the main border-crossing near Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore is at times almost deserted. If educated Sri Lankans were allowed to work in India, they could get good jobs there instead of having to take menial work in the Gulf, thus easing a growing shortage of skilled Indian workers. A regional energy market could boost prosperity; and Indian engagement in the problem of water-sharing could reduce dangerous tensions on the issue.
As a measure of India’s priorities, consider that the world’s second-most-populous country has no more diplomats than tiny New Zealand. By contrast, China has a huge and sophisticated foreign service, housed in sleek new embassies around the world. And it is partly with an eye to a rising China that India now shows signs of change.
 
Niceness contest
These days India is putting more effort into improving neighbourly relations and is dishing out aid to sweeten the air. The foreign minister, S.M. Krishna, vows never to meddle inside another country. This week the trade minister led a business delegation to Lahore. And for all the accusations of anti-Pakistan meddling in Afghanistan, Indian efforts are accomplishing some good there: training police, and building roads and electricity lines. All over the region, India is opening new consulates. It may even recruit more diplomats.
But there is much more that India could do. It should unilaterally boost regional trade by unclogging roads, and by building better ports and freight parks at its borders. Non-tariff barriers—including the one that insists Pakistani cement crosses the border only by train, not lorry—should go. And India could take lessons from other big emerging powers, such as South Africa and Brazil, on how to build relationships in the region. Elephants must learn to move carefully, for fear of causing damage in the neighbourhood.

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Greece bows to Germany for survival

Patrick Cockburn

 
Greeks expect to agree a deal with the Eurozone leaders that will cede much of their country’s independence. Greece will become an economic – and to a large extent a political – colony of Germany and its allies. Berlin will have a say in everything from the choice of prime minister to the types of medicines dispensed by pharmacies.
In return for €230bn, made up of €130bn in fresh loans and €100bn in write-downs on privately held Greek government bonds, Greece is relieved from its immediate debt burden. But the money does not go to the Greek government, still less to the Greek people. It simply leaves them to live off the money they earn.
For all the television pictures of rioting protesters, clouds of tear gas and burning buildings in central Athens over the last week, a striking feature of the political landscape is the lack of resistance to the German terms. The Greek political elite sound and look stunned, grudgingly surrendering to the demands of the Troika (EU, IMF and European Central Bank), but bereft of ideas about what else to do.
The two political parties that have dominated Greek politics for 30 years, the centre-left Pasok and the conservative New Democracy, do not come out well from the crisis. Tasos Telloglou, Greece’s top investigative journalist at Skai TV who has exposed many corruption scandals, describes the members of parliament as “fat and lazy [people who] only worry about how to get back to where they were four years ago before the crisis”. He says both ruling parties, which have alternated in power since the fall of the military junta in 1974, have privately agreed to continue their coalition after the next election, which is expected in 10 weeks’ time.
His view of Greek voters is almost equally contemptuous. They too, he says, yearn for a return of the good times when Greece had the same AAA credit rating as Germany. He says: “We wanted to have a European income without having European productivity, so we just borrowed money.” But lenders will avoid Greece for a long time, so there can be no return to the living standards enjoyed before 2008. Mr Telloglou quotes approvingly the Greek saying: “You can turn an aquarium into fish soup, but you cannot turn fish soup into an aquarium.”
The mood of the political leadership is one of fatalism and despair. Simos Kedikoglou, a New Democracy MP, says of the parliamentary vote on the deal a week ago: “We had to choose between the certainty of disaster and the doubt of salvation. You can’t be independent when you have to borrow €20m a day. We’re in an awful shape. We don’t produce anything, not even the meat we eat.”
But there are clearly other motives behind the radical changes now being imposed on Greece. “It is like undiluted Thatcherism forced on the country in a few years,” said one observer in Athens. For instance, the minimum wage is to be reduced by 22 per cent to €522 a month as part of the latest austerity round. The Troika believes this will increase employment, but Greek economists disagree, saying that Chinese or Bulgarian workers will always be paid less. Greeks will not get jobs for the same reason that the Greek merchant navy employs Filipinos below the level of captain and chief engineer. Cutting the pay of poorly paid state employees will also do little for Greece except reduce consumption and increase misery.
Part of the explanation for these measures is probably that German leaders want to prove to German voters that they are giving the Greeks a rough time and not allowing them to guzzle German subsidies. The punitive nature of the Troika’s reforms also reflects a wish to send a message to heavily indebted Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Ireland not to dare take the Greek option of what is effectively a managed default on its debts. Even the rude things said by German and Dutch politicians about Greece last week served the purpose of showing their domestic audience that they were not being taken to the cleaners by the wily but improvident Greeks.
But on the back of the austerity program rides a neo-liberal vision of how the Greek economy and society should be run. It sounds and looks very much like what was applied in Russia under Boris Yeltsin after 1992. There will be widespread privatizations; cuts in social security, pensions and state health provision; and wholesale deregulation. Many on the right welcome these reforms. Vagelis Agapitos, a financial consultant in Athens, looks forward to the day when houses, hotels, wind farms and fish farms can be built without any troubling regulations or permits. Archaeological surveys would be dropped. “We don’t need another sculpture from [ancient] Greece,” he says. “We need to break the taboo that public employees work for life.”
One reason for the mess Greece is in lies in its recent history. After a ferocious civil war between Communists and their enemies, beginning in 1946, the victorious right was wholly dominant up to the fall of the colonels in 1974. Ship owners and bankers, often products of the Greek Diaspora and detached from the home economy, were gently treated. So too were small shops, professionals and businesses, which paid little tax. Greece never enjoyed the sort of post-war social compromise seen in the rest of Europe, where liberal capitalism was balanced by commitments to workers’ rights, social spending and the welfare state.
In the early 1980s, Greece shifted to the left just as Reaganism and Thatcherism were taking hold in the US and UK. Pasok was in power for most of the next 20 years and built up state spending on social welfare and a system of political patronage. Unsackable employees worked in redundant industries. Pasok never reformed the archaic state it had inherited, so professionals and property owners went on paying few taxes. Some 94 per cent of Greeks claimed to earn less than €30,000 a year. It is only over the last year that the Troika forced banks to disclose the real income of their customers, rather than what they were claiming for tax purposes. A list shows a hairdresser who earned €423,000 but declared just €35,000, and a gynaecologist on €1.3m who declared only €877,000.
This welfare state for the rich and the poor could only be sustained by borrowing. It is now being dismantled. But, as one Greek academic said: “In Greece only the weak and the poor get punished.”
------------------------------------------------
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq

 

Comment

Patrick Cockburn

 
Greeks expect to agree a deal with the Eurozone leaders that will cede much of their country’s independence. Greece will become an economic – and to a large extent a political – colony of Germany and its allies. Berlin will have a say in everything from the choice of prime minister to the types of medicines dispensed by pharmacies.
In return for €230bn, made up of €130bn in fresh loans and €100bn in write-downs on privately held Greek government bonds, Greece is relieved from its immediate debt burden. But the money does not go to the Greek government, still less to the Greek people. It simply leaves them to live off the money they earn.
For all the television pictures of rioting protesters, clouds of tear gas and burning buildings in central Athens over the last week, a striking feature of the political landscape is the lack of resistance to the German terms. The Greek political elite sound and look stunned, grudgingly surrendering to the demands of the Troika (EU, IMF and European Central Bank), but bereft of ideas about what else to do.
The two political parties that have dominated Greek politics for 30 years, the centre-left Pasok and the conservative New Democracy, do not come out well from the crisis. Tasos Telloglou, Greece’s top investigative journalist at Skai TV who has exposed many corruption scandals, describes the members of parliament as “fat and lazy [people who] only worry about how to get back to where they were four years ago before the crisis”. He says both ruling parties, which have alternated in power since the fall of the military junta in 1974, have privately agreed to continue their coalition after the next election, which is expected in 10 weeks’ time.
His view of Greek voters is almost equally contemptuous. They too, he says, yearn for a return of the good times when Greece had the same AAA credit rating as Germany. He says: “We wanted to have a European income without having European productivity, so we just borrowed money.” But lenders will avoid Greece for a long time, so there can be no return to the living standards enjoyed before 2008. Mr Telloglou quotes approvingly the Greek saying: “You can turn an aquarium into fish soup, but you cannot turn fish soup into an aquarium.”
The mood of the political leadership is one of fatalism and despair. Simos Kedikoglou, a New Democracy MP, says of the parliamentary vote on the deal a week ago: “We had to choose between the certainty of disaster and the doubt of salvation. You can’t be independent when you have to borrow €20m a day. We’re in an awful shape. We don’t produce anything, not even the meat we eat.”
But there are clearly other motives behind the radical changes now being imposed on Greece. “It is like undiluted Thatcherism forced on the country in a few years,” said one observer in Athens. For instance, the minimum wage is to be reduced by 22 per cent to €522 a month as part of the latest austerity round. The Troika believes this will increase employment, but Greek economists disagree, saying that Chinese or Bulgarian workers will always be paid less. Greeks will not get jobs for the same reason that the Greek merchant navy employs Filipinos below the level of captain and chief engineer. Cutting the pay of poorly paid state employees will also do little for Greece except reduce consumption and increase misery.
Part of the explanation for these measures is probably that German leaders want to prove to German voters that they are giving the Greeks a rough time and not allowing them to guzzle German subsidies. The punitive nature of the Troika’s reforms also reflects a wish to send a message to heavily indebted Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Ireland not to dare take the Greek option of what is effectively a managed default on its debts. Even the rude things said by German and Dutch politicians about Greece last week served the purpose of showing their domestic audience that they were not being taken to the cleaners by the wily but improvident Greeks.
But on the back of the austerity program rides a neo-liberal vision of how the Greek economy and society should be run. It sounds and looks very much like what was applied in Russia under Boris Yeltsin after 1992. There will be widespread privatizations; cuts in social security, pensions and state health provision; and wholesale deregulation. Many on the right welcome these reforms. Vagelis Agapitos, a financial consultant in Athens, looks forward to the day when houses, hotels, wind farms and fish farms can be built without any troubling regulations or permits. Archaeological surveys would be dropped. “We don’t need another sculpture from [ancient] Greece,” he says. “We need to break the taboo that public employees work for life.”
One reason for the mess Greece is in lies in its recent history. After a ferocious civil war between Communists and their enemies, beginning in 1946, the victorious right was wholly dominant up to the fall of the colonels in 1974. Ship owners and bankers, often products of the Greek Diaspora and detached from the home economy, were gently treated. So too were small shops, professionals and businesses, which paid little tax. Greece never enjoyed the sort of post-war social compromise seen in the rest of Europe, where liberal capitalism was balanced by commitments to workers’ rights, social spending and the welfare state.
In the early 1980s, Greece shifted to the left just as Reaganism and Thatcherism were taking hold in the US and UK. Pasok was in power for most of the next 20 years and built up state spending on social welfare and a system of political patronage. Unsackable employees worked in redundant industries. Pasok never reformed the archaic state it had inherited, so professionals and property owners went on paying few taxes. Some 94 per cent of Greeks claimed to earn less than €30,000 a year. It is only over the last year that the Troika forced banks to disclose the real income of their customers, rather than what they were claiming for tax purposes. A list shows a hairdresser who earned €423,000 but declared just €35,000, and a gynaecologist on €1.3m who declared only €877,000.
This welfare state for the rich and the poor could only be sustained by borrowing. It is now being dismantled. But, as one Greek academic said: “In Greece only the weak and the poor get punished.”
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PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq

 


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