Letter from Thessaloniki

It is an open secret that Orthodox Greeks, while climbing a slippery slope, have steadily preferred Arafat to Sharon or Bush. One of the most fascinating aspects of history-watching is that for almost a thousand years the Greek east and the Latin west have been growing increasingly further apart. And it was not just journalist Helena Smith who, about two years ago in an article in the Guardian, detected «a whiff of anti-Semitism in some Greeks’ support for the Palestinians.» Also Greek-born, Mordechai Frisis – a 32-year-old rabbi who grew up in a traditional Zionist home in Athens – declared in an article in the Jerusalem Post signed by Michael Freund shortly after he moved to Thessaloniki last year: «I walk around with a cap because there have really been some problems. There is anti-Semitism in Greece.» God willing, Arafat’s exit from the stage might bring peace to the Middle East, and possibly less anti-Jewish sentiments in Greece. Inshallah. Meanwhile, and while things change, something has to be made very clear since Arafat’s burial: The term «Islamic fundamentalist,» which has been used by all and sundry, has been applied in totally the wrong fashion, to say the least. There is a worldwide conventional wisdom that presents an inherently aggressive and xenophobic religion, Islam, with «radical» followers who practice «jihad,» which is the only Arabic word everyone in the West comprehends: «holy war.» Here we have a huge misunderstanding. A fundamentalist is someone who adheres to the traditional orthodox aspect of his own religion and does not pursue other pleasures. Fundamentals are now taken entirely for granted by Christians and Jews who are irresistibly drawn to the Old Testament God at his most prohibiting and pitiless. Fortunately, terrorism is not a part of the fundamental teachings of Islam. Modern terrorism was used by the Greek freedom-warriors against the Ottoman Empire, by the French resistance against the German occupiers and by Zionist fanatics and radicals against the British in Palestine – not to mention by the Cypriots and the Irish for centuries. And wasn’t the Jew Samson the first suicide-bomber in history when he sacrificed himself, taking with him to death a vast number of ancient Palestinians? Now speaking of the Ottoman occupation of Greece, in actual practice, the Turks treated their Christian subjects with remarkable generosity. The Muslims in the 15th century were far more tolerant toward Christianity than Western Christians were toward one another during the Reformation and the 17th century. Sir Steven Runciman, a contemporary writer of history, is being broadly quoted: In «The Fall of Constantinople, 1453,» Runciman reports that the end of the Byzantine Empire began when the crusaders seized Constantinople and divided up much of the empire among themselves. «The last Christian emperor standing in the breach,» as Sir Steven records it, «was abandoned by his Western allies, holding the infidel at bay until their numbers overpowered him and he died, with the empire as his winding sheet.» Well, good for us Greeks. Because as Sir Steven notes further, the «infidels,» unlike the Roman Catholics, did not persecute others for their religion. One of the last grand dukes of the Byzantine Empire, Lucas Notaras, famously remarked, «I would rather see the Muslim turban in the midst of Constantinople than the Latin mitre.» By submitting to the sultan, the Greek Church was able to survive until the present day, while the Greek community continued to maintain its identity. Now on anti-Semitism: There are some historical facts that cannot be ignored. Sephardic Jews, fleeing the Inquisition in Spain, came to Thessaloniki in the 15th century, settling in such large numbers that for a time the city was known as a «second Jerusalem» – at least until World War II when the Jewish community was annihilated by Nazi occupiers. In 1821, the Turks killed the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople and forced some Jews to throw his body into the sea. When this became known in Greece, the Greek Jews were massacred. About a century later, after the Balkan wars, it was a widely known fact that the Jews of Thessaloniki were against Greek independence. Being mainly merchants and businessmen, a vast Ottoman Empire (a sort of European Common Market) was preferable to them than a tiny new country. Greek Christians have hardly forgotten this. Even today in this city – still known to some as «Madre Israel» (Malkhah Israel) or the «Queen of Israel,» as the Spanish Jews, the ladinos, proudly called Thessaloniki – there exist Christian radicals who believe that Jews are forever guilty of the murder of our Lord, hence the «justified» preference for the Palestinians. Our fundamentalists, compulsively given to over-emphasizing, still quote from Paul’s first Epistle to the Thessalonians («The Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us») which falls just short of being an anathema («…in flaming fire taking vengeance on them»). After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, an entire epoch disappeared. Islam then replaced the Soviet Union as the new «evil empire.» Unhappily, modern-day Christian and Jewish radicals who possess a gift for creating images for others, have presented an eternally combative, aggressive, superstitious and clannish Islam outside of history. Still, the past instructs us that it was Islamic fundamentalism that built a Caliphate stretching from Spain and North Africa to Iran and India in the East – over a period of roughly 12 centuries – and which provided security within a stable state, a security that was shared by the Muslims, Christians and Jews who lived within its borders. Furthermore, during the Dark Ages, while Europe was in the midst of massive turmoil, Islamic fundamentalists were enjoying the luxuries of universities, street-lighting and medical theory inherited from the earlier Greeks. How did this period of fundamentalism end? Following the foreign interference which began with the many crusades launched from Europe. Until last week, Arafat’s mere existence had allowed Washington and Tel Aviv to justify their neglect of a serious peace plan. Yet Arafat is already the subject of a cult that may persist through the machinery of publicity long after all memory of his administration has been absorbed by the golden myth now being created.