Israel ’s relationship with the Palestinians mirrors that in the early 20th century between the government of Greece and the large Sephardic Jewish community of Salonika (modern Thessaloniki). Growing up as a boy whose four grandparents immigrated to the United States from Salonika between 1913 and 1916—and many of whose relatives went through the Holocaust there—I regularly heard stories of the tense relationship between Salonika’s Jews and the Greek authorities prior to World War II. Greece captured the city from the Ottoman Turks in 1912. At the time Jews heavily outnumbered Greeks and Turks in the city. Descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and other Mediterranean lands during the Spanish Inquisition, their medieval Spanish dialect (Ladino) was the language most often heard in the coffeehouses and marketplaces of the city. Though Greece immediately granted them citizenship, most Jews would have preferred the city remain part of Turkey, which had given them refuge in 1492. There was a Ladino saying I used to hear as a boy: “Turko no aharva Judió.” A Turk does not beat a Jew. The implication, of course, is that they were beating other people. But the Turks had treated the Jews well, even letting Salonika ’s busy harbor close for the Jewish Sabbath.
The Greek authorities were not so inclined. Salonika had been a Greek city in ancient and Byzantine times and in the view of the Greek government should become one again. The fact that it had been a Spanish-speaking Jewish city for the past four centuries was a historical anomaly. When a fire in 1917 destroyed the center of the city, the municipal government expropriated the burnt zone and prohibited the property owners, most of them Jews, from rebuilding while it developed a new city plan. Combined with the slow pace of reconstruction, this convinced many Jews that the government wanted them to emigrate so it could replace them with Greeks.
In 1923, after a short war between Greece and Turkey , the two countries enacted a population exchange that sent 400,000 Muslims to Turkey and a million ethnic Greeks from Turkey to Greece . A hundred thousand Greek refugees were resettled in Salonika , making the Jews a minority there for the first time since the 15th century. The refugees, who had suffered terribly at the hands of the Turks, tended to view the Jews as competitors for housing and jobs. In 1924 they pressured the Greek government to pass a law mandating compulsory rest on Sunday, forcing religious Jews to lose two days of work a week to the Greeks’ one. In his report to the U.S. State Department the American Consul in Salonika at the time, Ieland Morris, wrote: “The motives of the refugees were very evident. They desired to harass the Jewish element in every way possible, in order to induce them to abandon Saloniki.”
In the mid-30s the municipal authorities began pressuring the Jewish community to stop using its large cemetery outside the city walls (with graves dating to 1492), cede part of it to the local university, and establish a new one farther away. In 1931 a Greek fascist group attacked and burned two Jewish neighborhoods, claiming they were communist havens. Though most Greek politicians condemned the attacks, the Greek Prime Minister, Venizelos, said it was a warning to foreign subversives that the Greek people “were not asleep.” By the late 1930s most Jews had concluded that the Greeks saw themselves as the city’s rightful inhabitants and the Jews as a minority who would hopefully one day leave. Ultimately the Jews did leave—via the train to Auschwitz , where 50,000 of them perished. By the end of the war, Salonika was a thoroughly Greek city and the Jews little more than a memory.
The Jewish settlers on the West Bank are the Israeli version of the Greek refugees of Salonika, exerting endless pressure on the Israeli government to help enact their agenda and force the Palestinians to abandon hope for a viable future in Jerusalem and the West Bank . The fact that historical Palestine had largely been Arab in population, culture and language for 13 centuries prior to 1948 means nothing to them.
The early Zionists took for granted that the Arabs of Palestine had originally come from Arabia . But modern DNA testing has confirmed that the ancestors of most Palestinians came from Palestine . They are its native sons and daughters as much as the Jews. Israel ’s announcement during Vice President Biden’s visit that 1,600 more housing units would be constructed for Jews in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem was a not-so-subtle message that, whatever the U.S. or any other country might think, this is Jewish land. But it’s not too late for Israel to take a different tack; to respect that Palestinian history and attachment to their homeland is as deep and meaningful as that of Israelis. When it does, the message will become this is our common homeland, and whatever the ultimate solution to this conflict, it will not work unless that fact is recognized. It’s a message the Jews of Salonika would have appreciated all those many years ago.
David Saffan is 60 years old and retired. He worked as a grant writer for 30 years. His two grandfathers, David Saffan and Yuda Saady, helped found the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America in 1915.