Jewish Greece is a bundle of contradictions

Despite polls showing antisemitic attitudes are rife, it feels safe and has Holocaust heroes

January 26, 2023 10:05

Being a Jew in Greece — and I spend a lot of time there — means inhabiting a place of contradictions. Although I’ve never experienced antisemitism there, the country has something of a bad reputation and, on Holocaust Memorial Day, thoughts of Jews and Greece start to commingle in my mind. The story here is both old and new.

A few years back, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) ran a global survey of antisemitic attitudes that ranked Greece highest of all countries outside of the Middle East. Sixty-nine per cent of the population, it found, “agreed with a majority of antisemitic stereotypes”.

On the surface, this seems to be borne out by the first 20-odd years of the 21st century, which have been turbulent for almost everyone, but even more so for Greece. As the Western financial crisis tore society apart, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party (whose insignia was basically a swastika) rose to become the country’s third largest party in parliament.

It was, admittedly, a short-lived triumph. The party is finished; its leaders now fester in cells. The group was undoubtedly steeped in antisemitic rhetoric but, in truth, it was far more interested in beating up helpless migrants than promulgating the protocols.

The sentiments, though, are there on both left and right. The Communist Party of Greece, for example, openly refers to Israel as a “state-killer” while antisemitism descends to the streets as well. In early January, some scumbag vandalised a mural at Thessaloniki train station. It was the second time in two weeks that neo-Nazis targeted a memorial honouring the long-standing Jewish presence and the victims of the Holocaust.

Which brings us to the old: Thessaloniki. You cannot think of Jews in Greece without the country’s second city, which stands as a slightly rundown but ancient monument to another side of Greece’s relationship with Jews. The maritime gateway to the Balkans and south-east Europe was once a great Jewish city.

Tens of thousands of us poured into the country in the 15th century, following the Ottoman conquest of the country in 1430 and the Expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. They have remained ever since, making the diaspora in Greece the longest continuous Jewish presence in Europe.

The Jews helped turn Thessaloniki into one of the most cosmopolitan places on Earth. Then the Nazis came. Before the Second World War, there were around 80,000 Jews in Greece. The Nazis killed 65,000 of them, mostly in Thessaloniki. Beyond this there are other tragedies, not least the fate of the Jews of Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese Islands, the story of European Jewry in miniature.

Rhodes (as the cover feature of this week’s JC2 explores) was once home to another ancient Jewish community that was said to have lived there for more than 2,300 years. It was held by Italy until Mussolini surrendered in September 1943. For ten months, no action was taken against Jews on Rhodes despite deportations from other areas of Greece, so most stayed on the island.

The Nazis occupied the Italian zone in 1944 and, on 23 July, 1944, they deported 1,673 Jews on Rhodes and neighbouring Kos, sending them on a long journey to Germany and then Auschwitz, from which only 151 survived. The island is now a quasi-memorial to some; each year, thousands of Jews visit Rhodes’ former Jewish Quarter, “La Juderia”.

Today, there are 5,000 Jews left in Greece: 4,000 in Athens, the rest divided between Thessaloniki and smaller towns. Though it is much diminished, Jewish life goes on. As the ADL report also noted, violence toward Jews is pretty much non-existent. Generally, antisemitism takes the form of unthinking comments or bubbles up from the swamps of the extreme left and right. As I said, I’ve never experienced any.

There are also, of course, the positives. Greece has its share of Holocaust heroes. On Zakynthos, the Mayor and Bishop protected all the island’s 275 Jews by refusing to hand over any names to the Nazis, aside from two: their own.

In recent times, the state has also decided to take up the fight against antisemitism — not least by internalising the Shoah in public life. In 2004, the Greek Parliament officially instituted 27 January as Holocaust Remembrance Day. Ten years on, Holocaust denial was made illegal.

Every 15 March, a silent memorial rally is held in Thessaloniki on the anniversary of the departure of the first deportation train, and in July 2018, Greece co-sponsored a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council against antisemitism.

Greece is always ambivalent, and no more so than in its relationship with its Jews.

It’s a paradise, until you deal with the state; it’s a great place for Jews in a part of the world that is typically unwelcoming. And it remains the only place in the world where, no matter how hard I try, I just cannot get the local Chabad rabbi to take an interest in me. Now that truly is an astonishing Jewish story.

January 26, 2023 10:05

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