The news that Moses Elisaf, professor of medicine and president of the tiny Jewish community of Ioannina, was elected mayor of the city, becoming Greece’s first-ever Jewish mayor was celebrated with enthusiasm and a sense of restrained optimism.
There is enthusiasm because Elisaf’s win has great historical importance. The Jewish Community in Ioannina, one of the oldest Greek-speaking communities in the country, was almost entirely wiped out during the Holacaust. 75 year later, in the same city, a descendant of Holocaust survivors is elected mayor.
There is a sense of restrained optimism because although far-right populist parties are still growing in many European countries, taking a central role within the established political spectrum of the traditional right-wing parties, yet we see a different pattern developing in Greece. During the economic crisis, various forms of antisemitism had been utilized by inter-party populists, neo-fascists and the supporters of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Almost ten years after the beginning of the crisis and the overall political turbulence that followed, a growing and firmer stance against anti-Semitism in the Greek public sphere prevails. The excellent bilateral relations and the strengthening of the strategic alliance and cooperation between Greece, Cyprus and Israel have also encouraged this development.
Nevertheless, some people suggested that by prioritizing Elisaf’s religious identity and origin over his excellence as a politically independent active citizen and accomplished doctor and academic, might blur -and perhaps slow down- the progressive overtones of his victory. It’s tempting to agree that in a secular democracy like Greece, no religious affiliation gives advantages or disadvantages, so we should not overemphasize the Jewishness of the new mayor.
However, there is one important caveat in this argument. Greece, even nowadays, does not necessarily provide the perfect religiously pluralistic environment, one might assume. This is due, among other factors, to the complicated role that the historical transition from a world of kingdoms and empires (such as the Ottoman Empire) to one of the modern nation-states inflicted upon various minorities. Even after the end of the Cold War, the rapid change in global patterns of living, with mobility and urbanization, stumbled at the new hurdles laid by the meteoric rise of anti-globalism and anti-immigration. Nowadays, American Evangelical Protestantism and Russian Orthodoxy still aspire to save souls both in politics and in religion, challenging a global world in which the concept of multiple and overlapping identities is considered wrong and demoralizing.
Therefore, emphasizing the Jewishness of Moses Elisaf is an excellent chance to discuss openly about the difficulty that Greek Jews have struggled with over the years. Why being Greek and Christian Orthodox must be mutually inclusive? Why Greek Jews must prove that they do not have divided allegiances between Greece and Israel?
More importantly, celebrating Greece’s first-ever Jewish mayor is a great moment to further research and learn the history of Greek Jews, most notably the old and troubled story of the Romaniote community of Ioannina. Many Romaniotes believe that their ancestors migrated from the ancient Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians (around 586 B.C.E) and later, during the Roman period after the destruction of the second temple. The term Romaniotes came to denote their place of culture and origin, which was essentially Greek as opposed to the Sephardim who came to the Ottoman-occupied lands of the Balkans from Spain and Portugal.
In her outstanding book of extraordinary scope “Greece: A Jewish History”, professor Katherine Fleming tells the incredibly complex and daring story of Greek Jews, illuminating controversial implications that the non-linear transition from the Ottoman Empire to the independent Greek state created for different Greek Jewish communities.
For instance, when the Greco-Turkish War broke out in 1897, the Romaniotes decided to fight on the Greek side, in order to assert their legitimacy as Greeks, while the Sephardim in Salonika decided to defend their status quo under the Ottoman rule. Theodor Herzl’s intellectual and cultural affinity distinctly was with the Greeks, who were fighting a long war of liberation and independence. As Fleming pinpoints “the Greco-Turkish War is perhaps the first instance in the modern period of Jews fighting other Jews in the context of national wars”. (K.E Fleming 2008, p. 45). During the time the Greek state expanded and Ioannina became part of Greece, the Romaniotes were praised fighting on the Greek side in the war against the Ottoman Empire, while the Sephardim were sceptical about the rising new world of nation-states. This was a period when a significant lack of support for the Zionist movement prevailed in Salonica, though Herzl years before thought that independent movements, like the one of the Greeks, would work in favour of growing support for the Jewish nation’s historical connection to its ancestral land.
When the Germans occupied Greece they initiated a campaign both in Thessaloniki and other Greek cities with an objective to kindle a war among the communities, utilizing past intercommunal political and religious tensions. At the start of World War II, Ioannina was home to about 2,000 Jews. They spoke Greek, they were the cornerstone of the city’s economy, they largely enjoyed good relations with their fellow neighbours, who were Christian Orthodox Greeks. On March 25, 1944, the Nazi occupiers rounded up the Greek Jews of Ioannina and sent them to Auschwitz. Men, women, and children, were driven to Larissa and loaded onto a train and some days later, those who survived the transport were murdered at Auschwitz. Because of their full Greek assimilation, the Romaniotes in Ioannina were misguided by a distorted sense of security and protection. Only 112 Jews from Ioannina survived the death camps in Birkenau. Another 69 escaped the occupation authorities, hiding or fleeing into the mountains, where some fought with the Greek resistance. 90% of Greek Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
Elisaf’s noble victory is a very good reason to be optimistic about the future of Greece’s Jewish communities, the rejection of anti-Semitism and the survival of the legacy of the Romaniote ethos.
Ioannina is one of Greece’s most evocative cities and the capital of Epirus region in northern Greece. It lies on the westerns shores of the atmospheric Lake Pamvotida, and framed by the stunning mountain range. Five years ago, during a memorial service inside Ioannina’s Kahal Kadosh Yashan synagogue to mark 70 years since the Nazi deportations, Moses Elisaf was melancholic, contemplating the dwindling of a unique, centuries old Romaniote Jewish tradition. He didn’t want to think about the future and considered it very hard to be optimistic. Today, as he becomes Greece’s first-ever Jewish mayor, Elisaf’s noble victory is a very good reason to be optimistic about the future of Greece’s Jewish communities, the rejection of anti-Semitism and the survival of the legacy of the Romaniote ethos.