May 27, 2011

A new 'multicultural' city

Click here for an interesting article discussing the problem of silence regarding the history of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki back in 1996, one year before the city became Cultural Capital of Europe.

Despite the many difficulties the Jewish community survived the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Greek nation-state and continued to be a important part of the city although it never again was the leading force it were in the Ottoman era. It will be devastated however, by Word War II and the Holocaust. After that, for the majority of the city's population, its history, not even spatially evident, will be lost to oblivion for many decades. A rediscovery of the community's history and a breaking of silence regarding the Holocaust will begin in the 1990s and many papers continue to be published since. Aggelopoulos notes that the rediscovery will emerge by intellectuals and activists discussing the wider problem of immigrant rights and also by the fact that in 1997 the city will become Cultural Capital of Europe.

In a city where different ethnic and religious communities are again becoming a reality the gaze of many is turned in the past, back to the multicultural past of the Ottoman Empire, when different religious communities lived 'peacefully' in the city. A new identity of citizenship is being constructed in the city, one that stresses the importance of 'multiculturalism' in a time when immigration seems such a big threat for the European Union. Thessaloniki seems to want to open more to the world and events such as the Film Festival could contribute to the promotion of it as a 'world' city in the imagination of people, although a concentrated effort for such a process doesn't seem to have began yet (and with the economic crisis it seems even more difficult), as in Istanbul for example. New ideas are most of the times based on 'pre-histories', they try to search in the past and find a similar pattern in order to justify their existence and claims for the present. However, when looking in the Ottoman past for a 'harmonious' way of co-existing, we must not forget that the circumstances back then were very different from today's reality of citizenship in the modern nation-states of a world characterized by globalisation, neoliberal capitalism and the revolution of communication technologies, a secular western world (in our corner of the planet anyway) where religion is seen more as a part of a person's 'culture'. In the Ottoman Empire however, as in other empires before, religion was an institutionalized way for people to be organized and ruled by monarchs. What the millet system of the empire imposed was that the different religious communities of Thessaloniki where living in same space but they were not really intermingling with each other and their social and 'cultural' life was in a big extend separate. Moreover, competition between them was evident and also conflicts from time to time.

When thinking about the matter and researching, apart from Aggelopoulos' paper, I also found a very interesting paper by Henriette-Rika Benveniste, entitled "The Coming Out of Jewish History in Greece", where she discusses the wider meta-narratives that have developed different discourses concerning the history of the Jews in Greece. In the end she proposes a new way under which the history of Jews in Greece can be seen and she concludes:

It would not be unreasonable to argue that we are currently going through a second phase in Jewish history in Greece. The first phase coincided broadly with the 90’s, when we witnessed a new interest in the study of Greek Jewry, an interest due to many factors, as I tried to show. People coming from a variety of backgrounds, contributed with their work and their questions to the charting of Jewish presence in the past. In the end I would say that a field of study has gained at least some legitimacy, it has nourished a more self-consciously critical stance for history making and it has also positively complexified modern Greek historical consciousness. If the 90’s were the years of “coming out”, I would say that the current second phase is “post-celebratory” and more demanding of reflection.

“Οι πολλαπλοί χρόνοι της πολυπολιτισμικότητας στη Θεσσαλονίκη”, Γιώργος Αγγελόπουλος
”The Coming Out of Jewish History in Greece”, Henriette-Rika Benveniste


  1. Dear yorgos-courseblog,
    If you want more original material on your research you may contact me at

    Paul Hagouel