Yesterday, the Greek town of Kavala was supposed to unveil a memorial dedicated to its 1,484 Jewish residents who were killed by the Nazis. But the ceremony never took place. Instead, at the last minute, Kavala’s mayor Dimitra Tsanaka postponed the long-awaited event on the grounds that members of her party objected to the monument’s Star of David engraving. Naturally, this provoked outrage from the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece and its U.S. partner body, the American Jewish Committee.
“How can it be that the eternal symbol of the Jewish people—the very symbol that the Nazis required Jews to wear in the death camps and ghettos of Europe during the Second World War—is deemed unfit for public display in Kavala?” asked AJC executive director David Harris. “What gall for the Jewish community to be asked to remove the Star of David as a condition for allowing the monument to be displayed!”
Yet Kavala’s conduct should not come as such a surprise. The town resisted efforts to erect a memorial to its slain Jews for decades, only acquiescing in 2004. Even then, the Jewish community was required to pay for the monument out of its own pockets. Moreover, as with many particularly pointed expressions of anti-Semitism in Europe, this one is not an isolated occurrence.
Greece ranks as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe on the Anti-Defamation League’s global index, and it’s not even close. When surveyed, an astonishing 85% of Greek respondents agreed that “Jews have too much power in the business world,” while 82% said that “Jews have too much power in international financial markets.” Furthermore, 74% averred that “Jews have too much control over global affairs,” while 68% lamented that “Jews have too much control over the global media.” Tellingly for the case of Kavala, 60% of Greek respondents seconded the claim that “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.” (On the bright side, only 38% said “Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars.”)
These anti-Semitic attitudes have found ample expression in the political sphere, where the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party received 7% of the vote in the January 2015 elections. But such anti-Jewish sentiments are far from restricted to the fringe. Following the elections, the new Greek government appointed Panos Kammenos, a right-wing politician who famously accused Jews of not paying taxes, as the country’s defense minister. In February, when Ta Nea, one of Greece’s widest circulating papers, ran a story on alleged tax evaders, it identified only the Jews by religion. (Notably, none of these instances of anti-Jewish bigotry emanated from the country’s Muslim community, underscoring the fact that contrary to the popular myth, resurgent European anti-Semitism is not restricted to any one population, but rather finds its roots among many.)
At the same time, many voices have been raised in protest against the anti-Jewish currents in Greek society. After Kavala’s mayor objected to the Holocaust memorial’s Jewish star, the country’s culture and religious affairs minister Giorgos Kalantzis countered in no uncertain terms: “As an Orthodox Christian, I feel deeply insulted by this issue, because it would be as if someone asked us to erase or modify for ‘aesthetic reasons’ the symbol of the cross on the tombs of our grandfathers executed by the Germans.” Likewise, Kavala’s former mayor, Kostis Simitzis, has come out in support of the monument.
Under intense local and international pressure, Mayor Tsanaka has since announced that the memorial will be unveiled “very soon,” but she did not offer a specific date. Having already waited decades for this moment, Kavala’s Jews will wait a little longer.
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.