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

At the UN, Nikki Haley Told the Truth about Israel—and the World Didn’t Burn Down

April 22 2019

Although Nikki Haley had never been to Israel when she took the position of American ambassador to the UN, and had no prior foreign-policy experience, she distinguished herself as one of the most capable and vigorous defenders of the Jewish state ever to hold the position. Jon Lerner, who served as Haley’s deputy during her ambassadorship, sees the key to her success—regarding both Israel and many other matters—in her refusal to abide by the polite fictions that the institution holds sacred:

Myths are sometimes assets in international relations. The fiction that Taiwan is not an independent country, for example, allows [the U.S.] to sustain [its] relationship with China. In other cases, however, myths can create serious problems. On Israel–Palestinian issues, the Trump administration was determined to test some mythical propositions that many had come to take for granted, and, in some cases, to refute them. Haley’s prominence at the UN arose in large part from a conscious choice to reject myths that had pervaded diplomacy on Israel–Palestinian issues for decades. . . .

[For instance], U.S. presidents were intimidated by the argument that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would trigger violent explosions throughout the Muslim world. President Trump and key colleagues doubted this, and they turned out to be right. Violent reaction in the Palestinian territories was limited, and there was virtually none elsewhere in Arab and Islamic countries. . . .

It turns out that the United States can support Israel strongly and still work closely with Arab states to promote common interests like opposing Iranian threats. The Arab street is not narrowly Israel-minded and is not as volatile as long believed. The sky won’t fall if the U.S. stops funding UN sacred cows like the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA). Even if future U.S. administrations revert to the policies of the past, these old assumptions will remain disproved. That is a valuable accomplishment that will last long after Nikki Haley’s UN tenure.

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More about: Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, United Nations, US-Israel relations