In the same boat

'The economic crisis is tragic for all of Greece and we Jews are not immune.'

Citizens line up at an ATM outside an Alpha Bank branch in Athens. (photo credit: JEAN-PAUL PELISSIER / REUTERS)
Citizens line up at an ATM outside an Alpha Bank branch in Athens.
Strikes and demonstrations became an almost daily occurrence in Greece as the country’s economic and debt crisis came to a head in July. Citizens were confronted with closed banks, cash withdrawal limits and stores running out of imported items. The draconian package of austerity measures European creditors forced on Greece promises still more difficulties over the coming months and years.
Members of Greece’s 5,000 member Jewish community have suffered alongside their countrymen, though they allow they have one important, even if small ‒ and everyone emphasizes the word “small” ‒ advantage over non-Jews in the country.
“We are a community,” Minos Moissis, a banker and the president of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece explains to The Jerusalem Report . “What that means is we support each other. There are a few elderly people in the community, for example, and we subsidize them when they can’t access their pensions or if they have health issues. We help when we can.”
Moissis says the community receives support from across its membership and from other Jewish communities and organizations outside the country.
“We have the same problems as everyone else,” Moissis Litsis, an Athens-based journalist who is a member of the community tells The Report. “Some people have lost their jobs because of the crisis, or they are still working but the company cannot pay them on time. But this is not unique. Everyone in Greece could tell you the same kinds of stories.”
An elderly man, who is part of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, agrees. “This is very hard for all of us,” he tells The Report, asking not to be named. “This crisis is tragic for all of Greece and we [Jews] are not immune.”
The difficult economic times in Greece are not new, even if they have intensified dramatically in recent months. Greece’s economy has contracted by a fourth since 2008, and the buying power for the average Greek has been slashed by nearly a third over the same period. Since 2010, the country’s population has shrunk every year, sparked mostly by young Greeks leaving for better opportunities elsewhere.
But while Greek Jews say some members of their community have departed ‒ including a few who have moved to Israel ‒ the numbers of those leaving remain small and many say they plan to move back. The elderly man from Thessaloniki, for example, says two of his grandchildren left Greece to work in the financial sector in New York in recent years, but one has already returned and the other is likely to do so soon. “Greeks are proud of their nationality and that [also] goes for the Jews,” he points out. There is a historic anti-Semitic element in Greece, and perhaps because of this Jews keep a low profile. The main synagogue in the capital is elegant but discreet, located on a quiet side street not far from the hill leading up to Athens’ famed Acropolis (though members of the community live all over the city). Greek Jews say they think of themselves as Greeks who happen to be Jewish rather than as a separate subsection.
The country is home to the Golden Dawn political party, often referred to as a neo-Nazi group (Golden Dawn denies this) whose members are often responsible for anti-Semitic graffiti and social media posts. The party is a junior member of the opposition in parliament, with 17 seats in the 300-member body. But the group has toned down its rhetoric in recent years, and its popular support has slowly eroded since its high-water mark three years ago.
Recently, a fringe, right-wing newspaper ran a headline blaming Jews and Masons, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, of siphoning off Greece’s wealth. In late June, a member of parliament from the ruling government coalition, Dimitris Kammenos, used a photo of the Auschwitz concentration camp on a Facebook page doctored to read “We’re staying in Europe” above the main gate. Kammenos’s own party, the Jewish Community of Athens, and other groups criticized the image. The post was quickly taken down, and Kammenos apologized.
A few days before that, a new Holocaust monument in the eastern Greek city of Kavala was defaced by vandals using paint, and in early June a monument to Greek victims of the Holocaust at Pafou Square in Athens was desecrated. Both were quickly repaired.
But despite those incidents, community leader Moissis says the economic crisis has not sparked an increase in anti-Semitic acts.
“There is an anti-Semitic element in Greece, but I can confirm that there has been no real increase since the crisis started,” Moissis asserts. “It’s easy for frightened people to blame outsiders, but I don’t think people in Greece see us as outsiders. We’re just as Greek as anyone else.