Monday, February 01, 2010


In his magisterial work: The Balkans: nationalism, war and the great powers 1804-1999, Misha Glenny writes that Greek Jews had never "encountered anything remotely as sinister as north European anti-Semitism. The twentieth century had witnessed the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment among Greeks... but it attracted an insignificant minority". The European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia 2002-2003 report on anti-Semitism in Greece noted that there were no instances of physical or verbal assaults on Jews, along with examples of "good practices" for countering prejudice. The report concluded that " 2003 the Chairman of the Central Jewish Board in Greece stated that he did not consider the any rise in antisemitism to be alarming." On November 21, 2003, Nikos Bistis, the Greek Deputy Minister of the Interior, declared January 27 to be Holocaust Remembrance Day in Greece, and committed to a "coalition of Greek Jews, Greek non-Jews, and Jews worldwide to fight antisemitism in Greece".
Indeed, Jews have had a presence in Greece for aeons and have profoundly influenced and have been influenced in return by Greek culture. Christianity it could be argued, marks a dialectic between Greek and Jewish thought. At a time when Jews were expelled from England (1290) and then Inquisitorial Spain, Greece was a haven of tolerance. This is why the recent arson attack on the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Hania, Crete, the only remaining synagogue on that island is such a horrifying and uncharacteristic act. Over 2,000 rare books and much of the recently restored building was destroyed. It is gratifying at least that the two Britons and two Americans responsible for this heinous hate crime have been arrested. Unsuprisingly, popular sentiment in Greece is outraged, for despite the odd crackpot historian or populist’s ravings, the Jewish community in Greece is held in high esteem, as is meet for what constitutes undoubtedly, the country’s oldest minority community.
The first recorded mention of Judaism in Greece dates from 300-250BC on the island of Rhodes. In the 2nd century BC, Hyrcanus, a leader in the Jewish community of Athens, was honoured by the raising of a statue in the aogra. According to the Jewish historian Josephus an even earlier mention of a Hellenized Jew by a Greek writer was to be found in the work "De Somno" by the Greek historian Clearchus of Soli, where Clearchus describes the meeting between Aristotle in the 4th century BC and a Jew in Asia Minor, who was fluent in Greek language and thought:
"'Well', said Aristotle, 'the man was a Jew of Coele Syria. Now this man, who entertained a large circle of friends and was on his way from the interior to the coast, not only spoke Greek but had the soul of a Greek. During my stay in Asia, he visited the same places as I did, and came to converse with me and some other scholars, to test our learning. But as one who had been intimate with many cultivated persons, it was rather he who imparted to us something of his own.'"
Archaeologists have also discovered ancient synagogues in Greece, including the Synagogue in the Agora of Athens and the Delos Synagogue, dating to the second century BC.
The ties between Greeks and Jews were further augmented in the aftermath of Alexander's death, as the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kings fought for control of Israel. The Jews of Alexandria created a unique fusion of Greek and Jewish culture,while the Jews of Jerusalem were divided between conservative and pro-Hellene factions. When the High Priest Simon II died in 175 BC, conflict broke out between supporters of his son Onias III (who opposed Hellenization, and favored the Ptolemies) and his son Jason (who favored Hellenization, and favored the Seleucids). A period of political intrigue followed, with priests such as Menelaus bribing the king to win the High Priesthood, and accusations of murder of competing contenders for the title. The result was a brief civil war. The Tobiads, a philo-Hellenistic party, succeeded in placing Jason into the powerful position of High Priest. He established an arena for public games close by the Temple. The high priest Jason went further and converted Jerusalem into a Greek polis replete with gymnasium and ephebeion. Some Jews are known to have engaged in non-surgical foreskin restoration in order to join the dominant cultural practice of socializing naked in the gymnasium, where their circumcision would have been a social stigma. Antiochus IV’s desecration of the Temple and outlawing of Jewish religious observances culminated in the revolt of the Maccabees and the resurgance of the first Jewish state since the time of the Babylonians. In many ways, it was the disassociation with Hellenism that defined the Jewish identity.When Greece fell to the Roman Empire in 146 BC, the Jews living in Roman Greece had a different experience than those of Iudaea Province. The New Testament describes Greek Jews as a separate community from the Jews of Judaea, and the Jews of Greece did not participate in the First Jewish-Roman War or later conflicts. The Jews of Thessaloniki, speaking a dialect of Greek, and living a Hellenized existence, enjoyed relative authority. It is widely held by the Jews of Ioannina, that the Roman emperor Titus, after capturing Jerusalem in September 70, was transporting many Jews to Rome as slaves when his ship was driven by a storm onto the coast of Epirus. Instead of throwing his captives into the sea, he allowed them to disembark, and they eventually made their way to the area in which loannina later was established.
Perhaps the most important Jew to influence Greece at this time, was Saul, the Hellenized Jew from Tarsus, who, as Paul, was instrumental in the founding of many Christian churches throughout Rome, including Asia Minor and Greece. Paul's second missionary journey included proselytizing at Thessaloniki's synagogue until driven out of the city by its Jewish community, and he also preached about the ‘unknown God’ in Athens. In the fervour of his new found, faith, Paul could see no distinction between Greeks and Jews, as he wrote in his epistle to the Galatians: “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free…for ye all are one man in Christ Jesus.”
During the Byzantine Empire, some Byzantine emperors were anxious to exploit the wealth of the Jews of Greece, and imposed special taxes on them, while others attempted forced conversions to Christianity. The latter pressure met with little success, as it was resisted by both the Jewish community and by the Orthodox church synods.
The community of “Romaniote Jews” speaking a Greek dialect written with Hebrew letters and known as “Yavanic,” was to by augmented in 1376, by an heralding an Ashkenazi immigration from Hungary and Germany to avoid the persecution of Jews throughout the fifteenth century. These communities would be further augmented by the settlement of Sephardic, Ladino-speaking Jews from Spain, who settled primarily in Thessaloniki. These immigrants established the city's first printing press, and the city became known as a centre for commerce and learning. The exile of other Jewish communities swelled Thessaloniki’s Jewish population, until Jews were the majority population in 1519.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Sephardic domination of Thessaloniki was paramount. According to Misha Glenny, Thessaloniki was the only city in the Empire where some Jews "employed violence against the Christian population as a means of consolidating their political and economic power",as traders from the Jewish population closed their doors to traders from the Greek and Slav populations and physically intimidated their rivals. By the early 1900s Thessaloniki's Jewish community comprised more than half of the city's population. As a result of the Jewish influence on the city, many non-Jewish inhabitants of Thessaloniki spoke Ladino, and the city virtually shut down on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
Thessaloniki’s liberation in 1912, was met with scepticism by many in the Jewish community, as they feltBulgarian control would keep the city at the forefront of a national trade network, while Greek control might affect, for those of certain social classes and across ethnic groups, Thessaloniki's position as the destination of Balkan village trading. After liberation, however, the Greek government won the support of the city's Jewish community, and Greece under Eleftherios Venizelos was one of the first countries to accept the Balfour Declaration, 1917.There are few Jews left in Greece today. The Holocaust saw the community’s extirpation, despite efforts by Greeks and especially the clergy to protect them. The 275 Jews of the island of Zakynthos, survived because when the island's mayor, was presented with the German order to hand over a list of Jews, Bishop Chrysostomos returned to the Germans with a list of two names; his and the mayor's. The island's population hid every member of the Jewish community. When the island was almost levelled by the great earthquake of 1953, the first relief came from the state of Israel, with a message that read "The Jews of Zakynthos have never forgotten their Mayor or their beloved Bishop and what they did for us." In Ioannina, a once vibrant community has been reduced to less than twenty elderly members and the Jewish instriptions painted on the facades of houses in the old castle quarter have no faded. Yet the partership, fusion and dialectic of Judaeo-Hellenic thought has determined the course of Western civilization. Faced with that knowledge, petty-minded bigots and racists should feel particularly small. Until next week, this rare Graeco-Jewish joke with a caveat for the cringe factor: “Did you hear about the half Jewish/half Greek owner of a pencil company? No?! His name is Mo Levy.” Oy vey!
First published in NKEE on 1 February 2010