Violent anti-Semitism leaves Crete indifferent

The Greek island of Crete.
By Frans van Hasselt in Athens

A restored 16th century synagogue was burnt down, twice.

The Ets Chavim synagogue, located in the old centre of the seaside town of Chania in Crete, has been set ablaze twice in 12 days. Valuable documents and books contained in its library were lost in the flames, as were computers and rare sound recordings. The synagogue, which also serves as a museum, had not received any additional protection after it was first attacked, since the government failed to recognise the threat posed. The museum has now been closed.


In the last two months, an obviously fascist-inspired militia has been at work in the town, which has long been home to many immigrants. The phenomenon drew little attention until recently, but the conservative former prime minister Konstandinos Mitsotakis (91), who hails from this electoral district, was among the first to voice concern. “Chania is placing itself apart from the rest of Greece,” he said. On Friday morning, the police arrested two Britons and a Greek in connection with the fires.

Greece apathetic to anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism has also reared its head outside Chania. Jewish monuments, houses of prayer and graves in Jannina, Volos, Athens, Thessaloniki and Larissa (which boasts a small statue of Anne Frank) have been covered with graffiti.

The prestigious Kathimerini newspaper published three articles this week expressing concern not only over the violence itself, but also over the indifferent response to it. Not a word has been spoken about the violence on TV, and the new minister for civil protection has also remained mum. Greeks are, some say, perhaps not anti-Semitic, but they are also not anti-anti-Semitic.

Thessaloniki is proof. Here, in the first half of the last century, Sephardic Jews made up nearly half of the population. More than 48,000 were killed during the second world war, but a monument was not constructed in their memory until 1997. Today, the monument is regularly smeared with swastikas.

Home to the Jews for two millennia

For 2,400 years, Crete was home to a sizable Jewish population; this ended with the German occupation. In 1944, the last 370 Jews living in Crete had been deported on a ship carrying German soldiers as well. The vessel was sunk by the British on the Aegean Sea.

Fifteen years ago, the popular writer Manolis Rasoulis expressed his joy that the island had become devoid of Jews, which led to a rare complaint by the Central Jewish Council in Athens. The incident had a bizarre twist. Years later Rasoulis visited Israel and found Greek music was popular there. After that, he expressed opinions extremely sympathetic to Jews.

But it isn’t true that there are no Jews in Crete. Nikos Stavroukalis, the former managing director of the Jewish museum in Athens, returned to Crete to finish his life work: the restoration of the 16th century synagogue in Chania. He completed it ten years ago, after overcoming resistance from the local prefect and church authorities.

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