A first in Greece: Ioannina elects a Jewish mayor

A first in Greece: Ioannina elects a Jewish mayor

Unless there is a dramatic swing in the general trend, the present leftist government of Alexis Tsipras in Greece is heading for a defeat in the next snap general elections expected on July 7. The humiliating defeat of the Syriza party during last week’s elections for members of the European Parliament, as well as for the offices of mayor and local government, allowed 11 of the country’s administrative regions and all municipalities to pass over to the center-right opposition party of New Democracy. Its leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and his team are now counting days before they sweep into power in a month.

Tsipras’ government, with just a few days left before its official resignation next Monday, is pushing its last bills through Parliament, ignoring the objections of the opposition that it is a government “under resignation,” hence without legitimacy to legislate.

Predictably, the mood among the followers of the Tsipras government is that of bewilderment, anxiety and disbelief although the outgoing prime minister appears optimistic that the “battle is not lost yet.” Kyriakos Mitsotakis by now with an air of “a prime minister in waiting” is characteristically vague about his recipe for kick-starting the economy, although his slogan - “less taxes-new investment and more decent jobs” - already sends a strong message for drastic cuts among public service jobs, including health and education.

But let us not dwell on these matters at the moment; there will be enough time to do so in the following weeks.

Let us look into an individual case of a candidate who managed to be elected as the mayor of his city who, against a background of political polarization and harsh bickering, managed to unite everybody under the consensus that local societies sometimes defy current trends and preferences and make their choices motivated by a more profound sense of history.

Moses Elisaf is a member of a handful of remaining Greek Jews living in the city of Ioannina. An eminent professor of medicine at the University of Ioannina Medical School, he is in his mid-sixties with an impressive record in medical research and hundreds of publications. He ran as an independent mayoral candidate for his city, which was also the center of a thriving ancient Jewish community until the Second World War. Elisaf, who lived all his life in Ioannina, was elected in the second round by just over 50 percent of the votes, thus becoming the first Jewish mayor ever elected in Greece.

Elisaf’s election sent multiple messages to a country where nationalism often mars patriotism and has during the last years led to the creation of an official pro-Nazi party, the Golden Dawn. His electoral message was for a “new era in Ioannina which would unite citizens beyond parties or business interests and transform the provincial city of Ioannina into a hub in the wider Balkan region, a modern European city, taking advantage of its geographical position” and “the city’s rich cultural, educational and historical heritage.”

The new mayor of Ioannina is an endangered species. He is a Romaniote Jew, a member of the oldest Jewish community in existence in Europe, whose presence is traced back to the Byzantine Empire or even earlier. Their language, Yevanic - a mixture of Greek and Yiddish - separated them from the Sephardim who entered the Ottoman Empire in 1492. Elisaf’s Romaniotes community in Ioannina used to be a thriving community of several thousand in a city where Jews lived for centuries side by side with the Greeks during Byzantine and Ottoman times. But their centuries-old existence came to a brutal end when almost the entire Jewish population of the city (1,725 people to be exact) were rounded up by the Nazi occupation forces on March 24, 1944, who loaded them on trucks and sent them away to concentration camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau to become yet another community exterminated by the Holocaust. 

The fact that a descendant of the survivors of the Holocaust is now elected as the mayor of his city is a success that “causes admiration and deep emotions,” announced the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, underlining that the citizens of Ioannina showed that they condemn hate, intolerance and anti-Semitism by valuing people who are worth it.

Elisaf’s “New Age” movement for Ioannina wants to give new life to this mountainous city of some 70,000 inhabitants. But it would be difficult to revive the dwindling Jewish community presently consisting of just 50 mostly elderly members and where the last Bar Mitzvah took place in the year 2000. 

At a time when not only in Greece but all-around Europe anti-Semitism has become once again a part of the ultra-right political rhetoric, the presence of Elisaf in the old city of Ioannina sends a powerful message, over and above the partisan politics of Greece.

Ariana Ferentinou,