Greek Jews look to make aliyah

By Gil Shefler, June 14, 2012
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Yvette Cohen sat at a taverna in the shadow of the Acropolis last week and spoke about when — not whether — she leaves the country of her birth.

The young, socially active member of Greece’s Jewish community of about 5,000 said the precarious political situation that has been plaguing the country for the past two years is such that all of her 20-something friends are doing the same.

“As Jews, we have options,” she said. “Of course, Israel is in our DNA and, for me, that’s the only option. But the other popular destination, especially for those who don’t want to learn a new language, is Britain.”
The effects of the sovereign debt crisis are seen almost anywhere you go in Greece. The streets of downtown Athens are awash with homeless people and official unemployment has soared well past 20 per cent.
Earlier this year, the community put a call out to Jewish groups around the world for money to prevent the closure of some of its institutions.

A coalition of groups responded with sizable donations. They included the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), which promised up to $1 million; and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which has given $400,000.

Sakis Leon, the secretary general of the community, stood outside the Jewish school where about 150 children aged 4-12 study and thanked donors for their generosity. He added that the school now had funding for at least two more years.

“We have one of the best schools in the country with about 70 per cent of the Jewish kids in the city enrolled,” said Mr Leon.

“When the crisis began, many parents could not afford to pay for tuition. At precisely the same time we could not continue to subsidise enrollment, so the money was necessary to keep children in school.”
He said that in order to balance its books the community has had to retire one of its two rabbis and reduce pensions and stipends.

Besides the country’s financial woes, Greek Jews are also worried about the rise of Golden Dawn, an extreme-right party which won almost seven per cent of the vote in May. Its emblem closely resembles a swastika and its founder has repeatedly denied the Holocaust.

Members of the Golden Dawn, however, reject claims that it is a Nazi group. “We are Greek nationalists [not Nazis],” said Alexanderis Lyres, a member of the group, at its party headquarters. “We have similarities with national socialists back in Germany but we don’t agree with them on everything.”

Mr Lyres, however, added: “All the stories [about the Holocaust] are exaggerated to support specific interests.”

Last updated: 12:45pm, June 14 2012