Celebrating Hanukkah in Greece

Dec. 20 2017

When Greece annexed Salonica in 1912, it became the Greek city with the largest concentration of Jews. These Jews, who for the most part spoke Judeo-Spanish, made up a plurality of Salonica’s population; only after joining Greece did they begin to think of themselves as Greek Jews and learn to read and write the Greek language. This newfound identity complicated Hanukkah, which commemorates a Jewish victory over the Syrian Greeks. Devin Naar writes:

Continuing to plan for a Jewish future in Greece, even once the country entered the war against Italy in 1940, Jewish leaders in Salonica published a new prayer book, Sha’arey T’filah, in March 1941. . . . [T]he editors of the prayer book—Salonican-born Jews who had been educated in Palestine—dedicated it to a Jewish soldier who had fallen on the battlefield defending “our beloved homeland, Greece.” Written not in Greek, but rather in Judeo-Spanish, the dedication aimed to show to Jews themselves that they ought to think of themselves not only as religiously Jewish and culturally Sephardi, but as Greek patriots, too. They believed that all of these allegiances could be held simultaneously.

But in order to accommodate their Jewish and Greek identities, they made two noteworthy changes to the prayer book. In the Al ha-Nissim prayer added to the liturgy on Hanukkah that refers to the miracles associated with the holiday, the traditional reference to the “wicked Greek government” is quietly changed to the “wicked government.”

More remarkably, in the popular Hanukkah song Maoz Tsur (“Rock of Ages”), the reference to the enemy as Y’vanim (“Greeks”) is replaced by Suriyim (“Syrians”). . . . The Seleucid empire, the Hellenistic state in control of Judea at the time of the Maccabees, was indeed culturally Greek, but was geographically based in Syria. Hence the Salonican Jewish leaders could transform the “Syrians” into the Hanukkah enemies and thereby more easily embrace Greece as their beloved homeland.

Despite this sense of Greek patriotism cultivated by Salonican Jewish leaders, when the deportations to Auschwitz began in March 1943, local Greek officials and Orthodox Christian neighbors neither intervened nor objected. On the contrary, the local population participated in the dispossession of the city’s Jews, taking over thousands of homes and businesses. The university and the municipality—not the Nazis—initiated the destruction of the Jewish cemetery that stretched over a terrain the size of 80 football fields and housed more than 300,000 graves.

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Read more at Stroum Center for Jewish Studies

More about: Greece, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Prayer, Sephardim, Thessaloniki

When It Comes to Syria, Vladimir Putin’s Word Can’t Be Trusted

July 13 2018

In the upcoming summit between the Russian and American presidents in Helsinki, the future of Syria is likely to rank high on the agenda. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has already made clear that Moscow won’t demand a complete Iranian withdrawal from the country. Donald Trump, by contrast, has expressed his desire for a complete U.S. withdrawal. Examining Moscow’s track record when it comes to maintaining its past commitments regarding Syria, Eli Lake urges caution:

Secretary of State John Kerry spent his last year in office following Lavrov all over the world in an attempt to create a U.S.-Russian framework for resolving the Syrian civil war. He failed. . . . President Trump [now] wants to get to know Putin better—and gauge his willingness to help isolate Iran. This is a pointless and dangerous gambit. First, by announcing his intention to pull U.S. forces out of the country “very soon,” Trump has already given away much of his leverage within Syria.

Ideally, Trump would want to establish a phased plan with Putin, where the U.S. would make some withdrawals following Iranian withdrawals from Syria. But Trump has already made it clear that prior [stated] U.S. objectives for Syria, such as the removal of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, are no longer U.S. objectives. The U.S. has also declined to make commitments to give money for Syrian reconstruction.

Without any leverage, Trump will have to rely even more on Putin’s word, which is worthless. Putin to this day denies any Russian government role in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. Just last month, Putin went on Austrian television and lied about his government’s role in shooting down a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. Why would anyone trust Putin to keep his word to help remove Iran and its proxies from Syria?

And this gets to the most dangerous possible outcome of the upcoming summit. The one thing that Kerry never did was to attempt to trade concessions on Syria for concessions on Crimea, the Ukrainian territory that Russia invaded and annexed in 2014. There was a good reason for this: even if one argues that the future of Ukraine is not a high priority for the U.S., it’s a disastrous precedent to allow one nation to change the boundaries of another through force, and particularly of one that signed an agreement with the U.S., UK, and Russia to preserve its territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its cold-war-era nuclear weapons.

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Read more at Bloomberg

More about: Crimea, Donald Trump, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy, Vladimir Putin