Between Liberalism and Slavophobia: Anti-Zionism, Antisemitism, and the (Re)making of the Interwar Greek State

Paris Papamichos Chronakis. Jewish Social Studies. Volume 25, Issue 1. Fall 2019.

In scholarly and lay circles today, anti-Zionism is commonly perceived as the most recent variant of a resurgent, bipartisan antisemitism. Such a presentist view, however, obscures anti-Zionism’s much longer and variegated history. This article unearths the widespread Christian hostility to Zionism in interwar Salonica, Greece, and links it to liberal politics, Slavophobia, minority policies, and authoritarian state (re)building. Anti-Zionism was the prevalent form of anti-Jewish hatred in Greece, but its popularity was less a clear sign of time-honored traditional Judeophobia or resurgent racist antisemitism than it was an indication of a broader, state-endorsed anxiety about the place and handling of ethnic, religious, and political difference in a modernizing Greece.

In scholarly circles and among the wider public alike, non-Jewish anti-Zionism is almost invariably considered a post-World War II phenomenon and subsequently categorized as the latest form of antisemitism. “From antisemitism to anti-Zionism,” to borrow the telling title of the most recent collection of essays on the subject, constitutes the dominant approach to the history of antisemitism in the long twentieth century. Working within this linear master narrative, most historians treat the establishment of the state of Israel and the twists and turns of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict the turning point and determining factor for the emergence and global spread of anti-Zionism. In particular, scholars have associated anti-Zionism with the rise of antisemitism in a post-Holocaust world, initially in the socialist regimes of Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 1960s; then among the anti-imperialist, anti-American, and third-worldist movements in the West of the 1960s and 1970s; and finally in the recurrent appearance of conspiracy theories worldwide. The work of Derek Penslar best exemplifies this approach. In a series of essays, Penslar neatly periodizes the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism by identifying a radical shift in the attitudes of western antisemites “from indifference to obsession” before and after the turning point of 1947.

The end result of this widely held assumption is, however, the tacit neglect of non-Jewish anti-Zionism’s much longer historical trajectory as well as its specific regional diversification. Though historians have long focused on anti-Zionist currents within diaspora Judaism across Europe and America, much less is known about non-Jewish opposition to Zionism during the first half of the twentieth century. Existing works on pre-World War II anti-Zionism have so far examined it in the context of the late Ottoman Empire, imperial Britain, and, chiefly, Communist Party politics in the Soviet Union and beyond. In nearly all these studies, however, authors have tacitly adopted a narrow, even normative, approach to anti-Zionism defining it as rejection of the legitimacy of a Jewish state. They thus mainly dealt with the hostility the Zionist national project generated among the Muslim public and officialdom of the late Ottoman Empire, the conservative establishment of interwar Britain, or the international communist movement. Anti-Zionism was certainly found to be present, but its importance was considered at best fluctuating and at worst limited. Moreover, several studies approached anti-Zionism as one more variant of interwar staple antisemitism, whereas others valued it precisely because it prefigured postwar developments. Although early on Jonathan Frankel and Robert Wistrich programmatically pointed to the diversity of anti-Zionism’s historical manifestations and its distinctiveness vis-à-vis antisemitism, many studies of pre-World War II anti-Zionism divest it of both its historicity and its specificity.

Undoubtedly, these studies have enriched and deepened our knowledge of anti-Zionism’s early history. Yet, as a result of their thematic focus and analytical blind spots, the established master narrative, with its emphasis on the Israel-Palestine question, still casts a wide interpretive shadow that extends all the way back to the early twentieth century. Recent works, especially those of Joseph Bendersky on anti-Zionism in the U.S. Army, clearly show how these problems can be overcome. However, the historiographical picture remains doubly problematic. It is problematic first because Zionism functioned not only as a strategy of exit and of state building in Mandate Palestine but also (and perhaps primarily) as a nationalism of the diaspora, a minority discourse, particularly in the much-neglected interwar period. Zionist culture, covering the entire range of public activity from youth and sports clubs to publications and public events, systematically sought to cultivate a revamped, visible, and affirmative sense of Jewishness among European and American Jewries.

Zionism’s pursuit of this objective, however, leads to the second historiographical problem: Zionism inevitably engaged non-Jews (physically or figuratively) and consequently generated counterdiscourses. Zionists (and their non-Jewish interlocutors) thus redefined the relationship between Jewish minorities, non-Jewish majorities, and the state, especially in countries with large and unassimilated Jewish minorities across central, eastern, and southeastern Europe. For although Zionism in all its diversity was a major force in the convoluted political landscape of imperial and postimperial eastern Europe, existing studies tend to neglect the response it generated among non-Jews. Recent and otherwise fascinating cultural historical works have successfully gone beyond intra-Jewish politics and begun to situate eastern European Zionisms in their national contexts, stressing in particular the symbiotic relationship Zionism developed with the emerging national cultures in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Little is known, however, about non-Jewish understandings of Zionism as a form of minority politics. As a result of this historiographical neglect of anti-Zionism in broader eastern Europe, the periodization and geographies of anti-Zionism are distorted.

As in other newly established nation-states in interwar eastern and southeastern Europe, Greek anti-Zionism flourished during a period of nationalizing policies, state building, and a turn toward authoritarianism. Like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Bulgaria, Greece had to accommodate substantive minority populations of Macedonians, Muslim Turks, Albanians, and Sephardi Jews residing in the country’s north frontier territories, themselves only very recently annexed after the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. This common, broader framework that Greece shared with other eastern European countries determined the breadth, logic, and uses of Greek Christian anti-Zionism. However, the presence of about 60,000 Sephardi Jews in Greece’s second city, Salonica (present-day Thessaloniki), also makes the Greek case special. Salonica was for all intents and purposes a Jewish city, known in the interwar years as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.” Sephardi Jews had constituted a plurality and at times a majority of its population since they settled in following their expulsion from Spain in the late fifteenth century. By the late nineteenth century, they were flourishing, dominating the local economy, shaping the city’s social life, even setting the rhythm of its time. Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, was the lingua franca of the market, and on Saturdays, the city stood still. After Ottoman Salonica became Greek following the First Balkan War of 1912-13, hellenization proceeded apace but the Jews continued to be major social, economic, and political players. In the 1920s and 1930s, Salonica became the cradle of Greek Judaism and the heart of Greek Zionism. This exceptional Jewish prominence, then, necessitates further inquiry into the importance of Zionism and, by reflection, anti-Zionism as much in local as in national politics.

Indeed, it is this particular interpenetration of the local and the national that gives Greek anti-Zionism its distinct flavor. Thus, to tease out its basic components, this article first focuses on anti-Zionist popular discourse in interwar Salonica. I will argue that Salonican anti-Zionism was doubly distinct. First, it was politically liberal, articulated by a press supportive of the Liberal Party of reformist politician Eleftherios Venizelos. Second, it pushed for Jewish assimilation and was thus based on a broader fear of foreign penetration in Greek Macedonia. Antisemitism was not the cause but the effect of Salonican anti-Zionism, which eventually became the chief expression of Greek antisemitism. A local phenomenon, anti-Zionism in Salonica nevertheless had a national impact. In the second part of the article, I will turn from grassroots politics to state policies, to investigate the ways in which the systematic surveillance of Zionist activities in Salonica constructed the Jews as one more “enemy of the (modernizing) state” and fueled the wider shift toward authoritarianism in interwar Greek politics.

Viewed from this perspective, Greek interwar antisemitism, articulated as a virulent critique of Zionism, is better considered a modernist than a pre- or antimodernist ideology. This differentiates it both from previous forms of antisemitism in Greece and from contemporary ones in Europe. In nineteenth-century Greece, anti-Jewish hatred was primarily rooted in religious Judeophobia. By contrast, in interwar western Europe, antisemitic discourses were increasingly racialized and stressed the role of Jews as agents of a malevolent, disruptive modernity. However, in interwar Salonica, premodernist religious antisemitism had waned whereas antimodernist antisemitic tropes were virtually nonexistent. In fact, the anti-Zionist discourse of the Greek Christian press as well as the surveillance practices of the Greek liberal state were distinctly modern in their orientation. It was the will to modernize state and society by eliminating every resistant particularity that fed the reaction against Zionism and by default against Jews as a whole.

Anti-Zionism and the City: Popular Discourses of the Press

National and local politics determined the relation between Jewish and Greek nationalists, albeit in curiously reverse ways. Vocal and vibrant, Zionism dominated communal politics, emerging as the main proponent of Jewish rights against the nationalizing (read, de-Judaicizing) policies of the Greek state. At the same time, however, it also facilitated Jewish integration into the broader Greek urban culture. In Salonica, Zionist sports clubs participated in the local championships, the celebrated Maccabi brass band performed on national holidays, and Zionist associations got involved in numerous political events, ranging from demonstrations against Salonica’s commercial marginalization to protests against repressive British rule in Cyprus. Zionism was in fact carving out a specifically Jewish space in the Hellenizing city while also serving as the main conduit of integration into it. From a Zionist perspective, national politics might have been causing friction, but an emerging local public culture was providing a common ground for Greek and Jewish nationalism to share.

By contrast, an altogether different reading of the local and the national determined Greek Christian attitudes to Zionism. Salonica’s Greek Christian public was generally positive toward Zionism’s territorial objectives. In 1917, Greece was one of the first countries to embrace the Balfour Declaration, an event proudly announced in the local press. In the following years, all Christian papers welcomed the Zionist congresses held in the city, endorsed the establishment of a Jewish national home, and even took an unconditionally pro-Zionist stance during the anti-Jewish riots of 1929 in Mandate Palestine. Interestingly, such pro-Zionism continued unabated in Salonica throughout the interwar period, although it had dwindled among Greek Christian publics elsewhere once, in late 1920, Britain ceased to back Greek territorial claims in Turkish western Anatolia while still fully honoring the “corrupt bargain” of a Jewish Palestine. In Salonica, in contrast, writers of every political persuasion considered the future Jewish state to be a welcoming agent of modern civilization in the backward Muslim Middle East and went so far as to “hellenize” Zionism by likening it to the Greek national movement for independence from the Ottoman Empire. An orientalist and paternalist rhetoric informed the elective affinities Greek nationalism was discovering in Zionism.

However, such positive evaluations of Jewish national aspirations were overshadowed by a much more widespread hostility, which was chiefly informed by localist concerns, namely, the vexed issue of hellenizing Salonica and assimilating its Jews. Even after the Greco-Turkish compulsory exchange of populations in 1923-24 and the resettlement of as many as 92,000 refugees from the west and north shores of Turkey in the city’s outskirts, Salonica still boasted around 60,000 Judeo-Spanish-speaking Jews, representing all social strata, from wealthy industrialists to impoverished stevedores. Moreover, a disproportionate number held foreign passports or embraced French culture, having studied in French-language communal and private schools. Salonica was also capital of the equally ethnically diverse Greek Macedonia, a province coveted by Bulgaria, in which strong and resistant Macedonian enclaves remained.

Operating within this context, the city’s Greek Christian press did not deny the legitimacy of Zionism as a whole. It did not oppose Zionism as a political movement but rather fiercely objected to its opposition to assimilation. For that reason, the Greek Christian papers “discovered” Zionism only when the nationalization of Greece’s ethnic minorities became a pressing priority. Although Zionism first gained ground in the late Ottoman period and grew spectacularly in the 1910s, it was the contraction of Greece after the country’s shattering defeat in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22 and the ensuing population exchange in 1923-24 that rendered the national integration of a culturally, religiously, and ethnically diverse population, like Salonica’s Jews, a necessary precondition for national security and social cohesion.

Developments within the Jewish community might also have determined the Greek Christian “discovery” of Zionism. In 1926, the General Zionists’ decision to ally with their chief opponents, the assimilationist party of the Moderates, and form an exclusively Jewish political party for the upcoming national elections purportedly testified, in the eyes of the Greek Christian press, to the Zionists’ unwillingness to integrate into the Greek polity. So did the General Zionists’ adoption of a more nationalist agenda right after these elections, as they struggled to curb the steep and unexpected rise of the Communists and of the much more radical Mizrahi Zionists within the community. It therefore seems likely that timing was doubly crucial, that parallel to long-term developments complex intracommunal politics impacted the Zionists’ stance and by reflection fueled Greek anti-Zionism. In retrospect, however, the Greek Christian press traded conjuncture for continuity, constructing a narrative that viewed the “Zionists” as systematically acting against Greece’s national interests ever since the Greek seizure of Salonica in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

Political allegiances further determined who the most vocal advocates of Greek anti-Zionism were. Anti-Zionism was largely a party discourse. The core political divide between the Liberal Party of Eleftherios Venizelos and the pro-royalist and fiercely anti-Venizelist Popular Party largely shaped local attitudes, with the opinions of the press varying according to each paper’s political affiliation. Thus, the conservative, anti-Venizelist Tahydromos was generally positive toward Zionist criticisms of the discriminatory policies of the Liberal government. By contrast, Salonica’s chief Venizelist paper, Makedonia, became the staunchest opponent of Zionism. In a highly polarized political environment akin to a low-intensity civil war, fierce party competition dictated these opposing views on Zionism. However, such diverging attitudes also reflected a radically different approach to minorities, since the Popular Party was better prepared to accommodate diversity than were the Liberals.

Makedonia would sometimes follow the international rightist trend of depicting Zionism as part of an international Jewish conspiracy and stress its role in manipulating governments, instigating wars, and promoting the causes of Bolshevism and revolution. However, such representations of Zionism, which reiterated the core themes of modern antisemitism, were few and disparate. Makedonia’s anti-Zionist discourse was chiefly informed by the vexed issue of hellenizing Salonica and assimilating its Jews. Indeed, the question of assimilation was as much at the core of Greek anti-Zionism as it was of Greek Zionism.

For the Zionists, assimilation constituted a long process of nurturing a dual identity. As Member of Parliament Mentesch Bessantchi put it, knowing Greek, embracing Greek civilization, “feeling Greek,” and fully participating in Greek public life were to be matched by the cultivation of Jewish identity, of being “faithful to our race.” For Zionists, being a good Greek and a good Jew was both desirable and feasible—what was unacceptable was a “vulgar, degenerate assimilation” that required the negation of every “Jewish” trait.

For the Venizelist Greek press of Salonica, however, assimilation entailed the erasure of every difference save religion. Consequently, the argument went, since the Zionists in reality considered Jews to be a distinct “millet” (i.e., an Ottoman-style self-governed ethnoreligious community) or else an “ethnic and political minority” “separate and distanced from the Greeks,” they were against the Jews’ acquisition of a Greek national consciousness. Zionism was in fact treated as a form of extreme Jewish nationalism. As such, it constituted a threat, because, as Makedonia noted, “a group of seventy thousand people with no Greek consciousness residing seventy kilometers from the border cannot be tolerated.” Granting minority status to the Jews of Greece would be an unacceptable recognition of their intrinsic foreignness, an intolerable acknowledgement of a “state within the state.” Zionism in the form of diasporic nationalism appeared divisive in a period in which the Greek state was systematically imprinting a new, uniform and exclusive, Greek identity on the Asia Minor refugees and its various ethnic and religious minorities alike. Despite the Venizelist press’s clamoring, essentially the issue dividing Jewish Zionists and Christian anti-Zionists was not assimilation per se but identity, the possibility or impossibility of being both Greek and Jew. While Zionism treated Jewish nationality as complementary to Greek, Christian anti-Zionists insisted that one could only be one or the other.

Proclaiming the Zionists a foreign element was coupled with castigating them for presumably serving foreign interests. During the early years of World War I, when Greece was still debating its entry into the conflict, the proentente Venizelist press already viewed Zionists support for Germany as treacherous, predicated on an unpatriotic wish to reverse the results of the Balkan Wars and detach recently annexed Salonica from Greece. In the 1920s, the Venizelist press never lost a chance to demonstrate the weak links binding Zionism to Greece. It often charged Zionist papers with being funded by the French consulate or denounced the Zionist leaders’ foreign nationality, like that of Solomon Bitty, president of the Association des Jeunes Juives, and editor of the newspaper La Renasensya Judhiah (Jewish Renaissance). Zionism was even linked to the malicious influence of foreign schools. When the Jewish students of Lycée Français, Salonica’s most prestigious French-run private high school, were accused in August 1929 of acting improperly toward their Greek history teacher, the Venizelist papers blamed Zionist parents for inculcating anti-Greek sentiments in their French-schooled children. Such an accusation might come as a surprise given the unbending opposition of many Zionists to foreign educational institutions and their fear that instruction in French rather than Hebrew would eventually lead to the de-Judaizing of the youth. The blame nevertheless reflected the deep conviction of the Liberal press that Zionists were in fact supporting foreign schools, as long as the latter offered Hebrew religious instruction to their Jewish students.

Further elaborating on the theme of Zionist foreignness, Makedonia spent months accusing Zionists of harboring pro-Bulgarian feelings, pointing to their close links with Bulgarian Zionist organizations. The accusation struck deep-seated fears among the city’s Greek Christian readership. The “Bulgar,” a stereotype dating back to the 1870s, personified the most hateful Other in the Greek national imagination. During the interwar period Bulgarophobia intensified as anxiety about the loyalty of Macedonian-speaking populations together with Bulgaria’s continuous challenge of Greek rule over the region fueled a virtual panic about the future of Greek Macedonia in the local public. In late May and June 1931, Makedonia tapped into such unbridled fears, systematically attacking the Zionists for maintaining a curiously close relationship with their Bulgarian counterparts, to the point of endorsing Bulgarian irredentism. According to the paper, Salonican Zionists were nothing but “dangerous conspirators” or, worse, “vipers” and “snakes” that Salonica and Greece had been nursing for years. They constituted a threat to the “security of the state,” and hence their organizations had to be disbanded and those involved in “antinational acts” deported. Soon enough, such incendiary words turned into action, and on June 29, 1931, Salonica experienced its first pogrom, as ultranationalist Christian groups set the Jewish neighborhood of Campbell on fire.

Even the international ties of Zionist sports clubs (not to mention their participation in ceremonies and meetings of Salonica’s expatriate communities) were, according to this conceptual framework, signs of Zionists’ “manic love” for everything foreign and of their unwillingness to cultivate local ties and declare their Greekness. Zionism was not an “authentic” national movement (which in this case would deserve respect) but rather a freakish cosmopolitan distortion, a “pseudonationalism,” which “veered toward Zion but without abandoning Salonica.” Rather than feeding on conventional themes of modern antisemitism such as Jewish financial dominance and the global machinations of Zionism, Greek anti-Zionism was structured instead around the interconnected stereotypes of the foreign and duplicitous Jew. It drew from a much broader antiforeign discourse and associated Zionism with the more frightful threats of Bulgarian revisionism and western European cultural imperialism, treating Zionism, that is, as one more manifestation of malicious foreign influence.

Ironically, what made this discourse even more credible was the fact that it was also articulated from within the Jewish community. In the 1920s and early 1930s Zionists, assimilationist Moderates, and Communists constituted the three major forces in communal politics. The three parties were locked in an intense struggle for political domination, fiercely competing for the same ballots of the numerous (and struggling) middle and lower Jewish strata. They also fought hard for ideological hegemony by seeking to advance their (mutually exclusive) versions of model Greek Jewishness among the Jews and to win the approval of Greek authorities. Incidentally, both Moderates and Communists attempted to do so by denouncing the Zionists as unpatriotic. “We wish to remind [our public],” the Zionist mouthpiece warned in June 1933,

that our anti-Semites are not self-taught in their war against us [the Jews] … [T]hey have been taught… probably by the Jews [themselves, meaning the Moderates] … who for the last three or four years in their wish to strike both Zionism and Zionists have found a miserable weapon, [that is]… presentation [of Zionists] as anti-patriotic and enemies of the State.

Similarly, the Jewish Communists imaginatively combined the language of Greek nationalism with that of anti-(British) colonialism to occasionally accuse Zionists of unpatriotic behavior for defaming the name of Greece abroad and for considering “a faraway British colony” rather than (Greek) Salonica to be their motherland. Although it was pro-British and staunchly anticommunist, Makedonia hastened to reproduce such accusations, adopting them to promote its own agenda. In interwar Salonica there was a complex interplay of various anti-Zionist stances with several latent links binding together Jewish and Christian anti-Zionism(s). Foundational concepts migrated from one ideological field or political movement to another, and Christian anti-Zionism shared several tropes, arguments, and themes with its countrepart(s). “Greek” anti-Zionism was both a Christian and a Jewish product.

Does one discern an “antisemitic anti-Zionism” in the Liberal Greek press? To what extent, that is, was Christian anti-Zionism antisemitic in the sense of reporducing staple antisemitic motifs and attacking all Salonican Jewry? To a certain degree, the answer must be in the affirmative. As elsewhere in western Europe, the Venizelist press was in favor of a national home in Palestine precisely because it would effectively deliver Greece of its Jews. However, the same papers also occasionally claimed the Jews of Salonica to be legitimate Greek citizens. Their discourse was fraught with ambivalences and internal contradictions. In fact, although the Venizelist press axiomatically distinguished between a “principled” anti-Zionism it espoused and a broad and unfounded antisemitism it condemned, the boundaries were effectively much harder to draw.

A recurrent anti-Zionist trope was the distinction between “good” and “bad” Jews, of a bad Zionist leadership misleading the benign Jewish polity. Similarly, others argued that some “circles” exploited the “pure Zionist feelings” of the Jews, kept them “captive,” and used them for their own material interests at the expense of the country’s. Anti-Zionist commentators disputed the deep popular roots of Zionism and the agency of the Jewish lower strata and instead attributed the profound social and political issues that Salonica’s Jews were facing to the machinations of a handful of agile but malevolent politicians. In fact, one notices a striking analogy between this mode of thinking and anticommunist discourse, for both Jews and workers were perceived as naïve masses easily manipulated by cunning agitators. This similarity suggests that anti-Zionism, far from being an antisemitic variant, was actually the offshoot of a much broader siege mentality that permeated Greek public discourse of the period. This mentality (or, better, metadiscourse) attributed the pressing social problems and minority issues the country was facing to the antinational activity of some individuals and claimed their elimination to be an adequate measure for the restoration of social peace and national cohesion. Recourse to policing and punishment rather than accommodation and implementation of consensual reformist policies became the preferred way of making sense both of minority politics and of social and political outcasts.

The distinction between “good” Jews and “bad” Zionists might have echoed broader mental schemes rather than antisemitic motives, but it nevertheless fed antisemitism proper by facilitating the equation of Jews with Zionism. The basis of this identification was once again foreignness perceived as anti-Greekness. Such “facts” as the foreign citizenship of “three quarters” of Salonica’s Jews, the publication of numerous Jewish newspapers in French, and the memory of a Jewish attempt to internationalize Salonica right before it was annexed to Greece in 1913 were lumped together to demonstrate Greek Jews’ alien nature and anti-Greek stance. Within this discursive framework, the “pseudonationalism” of the Zionists and their “contempt for everything Greek” could not but reflect the very essence of Salonican Jewry. The few “bad” Zionists functioned as a metonym for the entire Jewish community. Antisemitism was a reflection of anti-Zionism.

Christian Greek anti-Zionism was therefore self-contradictory, as it accused Zionism of both ultranationalism and internationalism and condemned it equally as extremely fanatical and as a smokescreen for foreign interests. As in Britain, the Liberal press blamed Zionism for the Jews’ alienation from the national body and the rise of antisemitism. However, Greek anti-Zionism was a particularly local phenomenon, closely related to the turbulent process of Salonican Jewish integration into the Greek state as well as the broader fight against foreign, European and Balkan influences. In this respect, it differed from anti-Zionist discourses elsewhere in western Europe, which tended to reiterate the staple features of modern antisemitism such as Jewish world domination, control of global finance, and support for Bolshevism. By contrast, given the Zionists’ vocal stance, we can argue that in interwar Salonica anti-Zionism shaped antisemitism rather than being shaped by it. A look at state policies offers some interesting insights into this claim.

Anti-Zionism and the (Re)construction of a Modern State

The Liberal press’s anti-Zionist discourse placed particular importance on the Zionist stance toward the state. Makedonia acknowledged that “liberal Greek political mores” made it more difficult to treat Zionists harshly, as did some neighboring states. However, Zionist audacity made it necessary to strengthen the state so that it could “crash the fever of Zionism through civilized means.” Written with a capital S, the State came to be imagined as a hypostasized, sanctified entity. It had an inherent honor and sacrosanct interests that took precedence at all times. Zionism was therefore to be condemned precisely because its activities threatened the very integrity of the state and offended its vital interests. Anti-Zionism, although it emanated from the self-proclaimed Liberal Party, interacted with a broader, emerging antiliberal discourse that constructed internal enemies by prioritizing the state over the individual or other subnational collectivities. As such, anti-Zionism fed from but also laid the groundwork for the broader shift toward authoritarianism. It left its imprint on the restructuring of civic administration and determined the reconstruction of a police state in interwar Greece.

Diffused through Salonica’s Liberal press, anti-Zionism shaped local attitudes on the ground. However, it also influenced state policies and state building in Greece more generally. Throughout the interwar period, the Greek state followed intracommunal Jewish politics closely, paying particular attention to Communist and Zionist activity. The press bureau of the regional administration, the General Government of Northern Greece, systematically monitored the Zionist press and reported regularly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Athens. Conflicts between Zionists and assimilationists, political alliances and splits, attitudes and responses to newly introduced state legislation, and Christian-Jewish relations in Salonica constituted the staple themes of these reports, whose authors were careful to highlight the varieties and divergences of opinion among the different Zionist groups. However, the same authors were still particularly concerned with generic “Zionist” control over the community and the ensuing strengthening of Jewish nationalist identity in the diaspora. Zionism itself was broadly defined as “intransigent chauvinism.” Taken together, these reports constitute a singular body of discourse that, despite internal differentiation, demonstrates how Greek authorities viewed a generic Zionism as the major force of Jewish opposition, if not reaction, to state policies and assimilation.

The very production of these reports—the systematic monitoring of Zionist views and activities, their methodical documentation, the compilation and circulation of substantiated official and standardized documents, the constitution of an archive of surveillance and repression, and finally the ensuing production of a discourse—was a means of delegitimizing Zionism. For the Greek state authorities, Zionist organizations represented not a legitimate political force but an anti-Greek movement threatening the integrity of the state. As such, Zionism was placed beyond the spectrum of acceptable politics, in that grey zone of spurious, quasi-illegal political activity that had to be monitored. Moreover, the fact that one of the recipients of these reports was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs further indicates that the Greek state treated Zionism, and by extension Salonica’s Jewry, as a matter of foreign and not just domestic policy. Representing the liminal, potentially Greek but demonstrably “alien,” Jews blurred the boundaries between the internal and external enemies of the country because of their inherently indefinable nature. The process of assimilation was simultaneously a process of dissimilation. The production of Jewishness as difference was a corollary of integrationist policies, of making Jews Greek, and instrumental to this process was the perception of Zionism as the principal embodiment of opposition and resistance. The most recent Greek othering of Jews relied on a certain notion of Zionism.

Zionism, that is, was very much treated like communism and foreign propaganda, even though the Greek authorities never likened Zionism to Bolshevism as was the trend elsewhere in Europe. Ironically, this happened during a period in which Zionists themselves were raising the specter of communism and advocating Jewish nationalism as an antidote to the imminent “reddening of the community.” Zionism, they argued, could function as a shield protecting the exposed and vulnerable lower classes of the community from communist infiltration and assisting Greek authorities in their anticommunist crusade. However, this strategy of political and national legitimation failed. The anticommunist argument did not integrate Zionists into the forces of order, stability, and, eventually, Greekness. Rather, state authorities continued to associate both Zionism and communism with foreignness and to view them as equally suspect political movements.

Thus, the state apparatus performed a thorough and systematic, impersonal and bureaucratized policy of exclusion at the same time that Zionist MPs joined Liberals in the parliament, Maccabi scouts and their brass band participated in state-sponsored national commemorations, and the Liberal government and prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos were careful not to condone the harsh anti-Zionist language of Salonica’s liberal Greek press. Anti-Zionism was a phenomenon neither exclusively local nor solely contained in popular discourse. Rather, it was shaped by concrete policies emanating from the center and woven into the very fabric of the state.

The surveillance logic of the security state thus lay behind this methodical and quasi-systemic anti-Zionism. In dealing with Zionism, that is, state policies were not a mere response to Judeophobic pressure from below nor simply shaped by widespread antisemitic beliefs. State-emanating anti-Zionism was more than state-endorsed popular antisemitism. It was proactive rather than reactive, relatively independent rather than reflective of societal trends. No causal link bound state and societal anti-Zionism together. However, they were nevertheless linked, for the men staffing the competent government bureaus also included prominent members of the local society, as the case of Ioannis Minardos indicates. Director of the press bureau at the General Government of Macedonia between 1926 and 1932, Minardos was previously editor of Makedonia. A man of fiercely antisemitic views, he controlled the flow of information about Jewish activity in Salonica for six critical years and thus indirectly shaped the views and policies of his superiors in Athens. His passage from journalism to administration, from opinion making to information gathering, and no less his pivotal involvement in a host of anti-Jewish activities in Salonica, suggests that Greek anti-Zionism was neither state nor society driven but molded at the point where state and civil society met and where para-state mechanisms developed.

The antisemitic fixations of government officials like Minardos were no doubt important, but they cannot obviously explain the logic behind the anti-Zionist zeal of Greek authorities. Rather, it makes more sense to view it as one more aspect of a broader process of state and nation building taking place in interwar Greece. By constructing Zionists as an internal-external enemy, the Greek state placed the Jews next to a wide array of other similarly suspect and purportedly subversive groups, such as communists, foreign nationals, old-calendarists, bandits, ethnic and religious minorities, and even refugees. Anti-Zionism was spoken through a common lexicon of intolerance. Such intolerance was not new in modern Greek history. However, the chronic weakness of the Greek state to impose its authority over the entire population and territory long after its establishment in 1830 meant that particularisms of all kinds, local or foreign, religious or linguistic, were unwillingly tolerated. Only in the interwar period did intolerance come to determine state policies to such an extent. Greek expansion after the Balkan Wars of 1912-13; the Greco-Turkish exchange of populations in 1922-23; the daunting task of accommodating 1.2 million refugees; and, no less, increasing regional instability in the 1920s and 1930s (marked by Italian expansionism in the eastern Mediterranean and Bulgarian revisionism in the Balkans) necessitated the rapid incorporation of non-Greek (or liminally Greek) populations. As a response to these threatening developments, state power expanded, particularly during the exceptionally long and stable Liberal Party administration of the late 1920s. Biopolitics, in the form of population management, became the guiding principle of government policies evident in such otherwise diverse projects as refugee resettlement and public health initiatives. Moreover, the state now sought to monopolize mechanisms such as education that were crucial for the formation of modern and loyal citizens, for example by limiting the jurisdiction and outreach of foreign educational institutions. Overall, modernizing the country was linked to the formation of a singular social body. In the minds of the governing liberal elite, this process was predicated on the elimination of alternative sources of power and forms of attachment. Zionism, with its plea for a culturally distinct Jewish identity, was therefore perceived as an alienating force, as were foreign schools, foreign nationals, other ethnic and religious minorities, and, eventually, communists.

Viewed as part of a broader production of difference in Greece, of establishing a new “regime of difference,” Greek interwar antisemitism, articulated as a critique of Zionism, should be considered a modernist rather than an antimodernist ideology. This differentiates it from both previous and contemporary forms of antisemitism in Greece and Europe. In nineteenth-century Greece and the wider Greek diasporic world, anti-Jewish hatred was primarily rooted in religious Judeophobia and occasionally in economic rivalry. Meanwhile, in interwar France and Germany antisemitic discourses stressed the role of Jews as agents of a malevolent, disruptive modernity. Exceptionally, such antimodernist antisemitic tropes were virtually nonexistent in Salonica, where conspiratorial references to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or demonizations of the Jewish capitalist seldom appeared in the press. Rather, popular anti-Zionist discourse and the surveillance practices of the Greek liberal state were distinctly modern in their orientation. It was the Liberals’ will to modernize state and society by eliminating every resistant particularity that fed reactions against Zionism and by extension against Jews as a whole. Anti-Zionism and antisemitism were modernist ideologies, and this explains their adoption by the country’s liberal forces, Venizelist and beyond. It is no coincidence that in Salonica, next to Makedonia, the center-leftist Efimeris ton Valkanion, a newspaper with avowedly progressive views on the social question, was also hostile to Zionism, considering it to be begotten by the “spirit of narrow fanaticism.” By contrast, the antimodernist, conservative, royalist, and inward-looking anti-Venizelist political parties were largely indifferent or even accommodating to Zionism. This also explains why the Venizelist elite was so hostile to Zionism as a nationalism of the diaspora but was so much in favor of “compulsory Zionism” encouraging the emigration of Greek Jews to the future Jewish state. An independent state of Israel would not only obliquely contribute to Greece’s national homogeneity, it would also advance Jewish modernization and European civilization in the Middle East, a project condoned as similar to the Greek project. This exceptional anti-Zionist stance set Greece farther apart from anti-Zionist views in other western European countries.

Liberal and modernist, Greek anti-Zionism excluded Jews from the national polity. Importantly, however, the Zionist “question” also impacted non-Jews by facilitating the emergence and legitimization of authoritarian politics. Monitoring Zionist activities in Salonica necessitated the establishment of a surveillance mechanism composed of a press bureau and local police officers and administrators. This in turn generated a flow of information and expert opinion on Jewish politics to be studied by the competent authorities in Athens. Such intense data-gathering activity was part of a broader policing of politics in interwar Greece. Surveillance of several diverging or subversive political groups lay behind the restructuring of the police force and the establishment of information and investigation bureaus all over the country. The operation of a press bureau in Salonica and the overall structure of its responsible administration, the General Government of Macedonia (tellingly enough, a unit modeled on British colonial administration), indicates that authoritarian politics emanated as much from the periphery as they did from the center. Greek anti-Zionism and by extension antisemitism might therefore not have been particularly violent and extreme, but together with anticommunism, anti-Macedonianism, and the fight against foreign penetration and propaganda, Greek anti-Zionism sustained the introduction of authoritarian modes of government and enabled the swift weakening of liberal democracy in interwar Greece. The anticommunist state was also an antiforeign and anti-Jewish state. Ironically, while Zionism struggled to build a modern and Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine, anti-Zionism was much more successful in building a modern and authoritarian state in Greece proper.


It remains an open question whether Greek interwar anti-Zionism was similar to or distinct from anti-Zionism in other eastern European countries, which faced equal or even graver minority questions and introduced comparable policies of assimilation or national preference. A preliminary survey of the scant existing bibliography indicates that anti-Zionism in Greece shares several characteristics with Poland and Bulgaria, chief among them a common fear of the authorities that Zionists aimed at the recognition of Jews as a national rather than solely a religious minority. Still, only systematic and comparative research will allow for a more conclusive answer. Either way, the existence of a strong anti-Zionist current in interwar Salonica problematizes the currently dominant understanding of anti-Zionism as a strictly postwar development intimately related to the establishment of the state of Israel and points to the importance of further historicizing it. Western anti-Zionism is a much more multifaceted phenomenon. It transforms over time and space and has a long historical depth and a wide geographical span. Moreover, it is open and malleable. Historians of the interwar period have focused almost exclusively on Jewish anti-Zionism and intracommunal ideological conflicts. However, the coexistence, interaction, and overlapping of Jewish and Christian anti-Zionist discourses renders necessary the study of the local, national, and transnational contexts.

In the interwar period, popular anti-Zionism in Greece was a local phenomenon, limited to Salonica. Salonican anti-Zionism did not draw from either traditional or modern antisemitism. Rather, it related to party politics and interacted with a broader nationalist, antiminority, and antiforeign discourse. As such, it actually shaped antisemitism in Greece, becoming the basic trope through which the Jews were othered as an alien and inassimilable element. Following Shulamit Volkov, one could therefore argue that anti-Zionism, and by extension antisemitism, was a “cultural code,” an index of a broader anxiety over national integrity, national identity, and state power. It came packaged together with broader issues and ideas, in fact with a sweeping political project: the modernization of Greece by strengthening the state and securing national homogeneity. This project was predicated on a new regime of difference, according to which every particularity had to be either redressed or smoothed out. Political anti-Zionism was liberal, not conservative or rightist as elsewhere in western Europe at the time. Ironically, however, liberal anti-Zionism informed the broader surveillance policies of the state. It defined who was in and who was out and hence facilitated the marginalization of Jews as well as the slip into authoritarianism. It might have been a local phenomenon, but it had a decisive impact on the building of the modern Greek state and important implications not only for Jews but also for Christians. And this is perhaps something we should keep in mind.