The history of Jews in Greece may date back thousands of years to the Babylonian exile, around 585-549 B.C.E. When the Persian king Cyrus the Great allowed the captive Judeans to return home, some may have settled in Greece instead. Until around the 3rd Century B.C.E, there were only scattered and isolated Jews living in Greek cities. The establishment of a permanent Jewish community in Greece coincided with Alexander the Great’s conquering of the former Kingdom of Judah and absorption of the territory into his empire. Under his rule, the Jewish communities flourished and many lived a largely Hellenized lifestyle, speaking Greek and not Hebrew. Many Jewish immigrants began settling in Hellenist cities along the Aegean Coast and Greek mainland during this time, and they too became part a growing class of assimilated, pro-Greek Jews.
Despite such developments, a majority of Jews in Greece retained monotheism. In 167-164 B.C.E the famed Maccabean Revolt took place, as a Jewish revolt, led by Judah Maccabee, defeated the Greeks and restored Jewish worship to the Second Temple. After the revolt, many Hellenized Jews left Judea for more Hellenistic destinations, such as Alexandria and Antioch. The people in these communities were called “Romaniote” and translated Jewish prayers into Greek. Romaniote communities developed throughout the Byzantine era and became linchpins in various industries throughout Greece.
Many Jews completely assimilated into Greek culture while others attempted to maintain Jewish traditions, such as Hebrew. As a result of violence due to the Crusades, many Ashkenazi Jews from Central Europe arrived in North Greece, and found refuge in the city of Thessaloniki. The capture of Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, by the Ottomans in 1453 marked a shift in Jewish communal life in Greece, as the Ottomans governed based off of Islamic law, which afforded Jews religious and (often) legal autonomy over their own communities. As a result of such practices, Greece became a haven for persecuted Jews fleeing the Inquisition. They found Ottoman Greece to be religiously tolerant and extremely welcoming (Ottoman authorities encouraged Jewish immigration because it improved the economy). This signaled the beginning of a Sephardic Jewish presence in Greece.
Greek Jews in the Ottoman Empire were extremely successful, occupying administrative posts and being active in the development of intellectual and commercial life throughout the region. In fact, the arrival of these Jewish refugees also changed the nature of the communities as many of the refugees were leading intellectuals, academics and scientists. by the end of the 16th century the community in Thessaloniki (Salonika) had attained 30,000 members, equal to half the city's population. At first, there was friction between these new Sephardic arrivals and the already established Romaniot Jews, but eventually each group came to accept one another and Ladino, the Sephardi language, became the official language of Greek Jews.
Over the course of successive centuries, Jews from many other countries also moved to Thessaloniki, introducing German, French, Dutch, Egyptian and Italian Jewish traditions. The Jewish community’s existence continued to be largely comfortable, though there were a few disturbances, such as when the Ottoman’s introduced a special tax that affected the Jewish residents of Greece. More profoundly, the general support of the Ottoman Empire espoused by Greek Jews was seen with disapproval by the Christian Orthodox Greeks. During the Greek War of Independence, thousands of Greek Jews were massacred alongside the Ottoman Turks, with the Jewish communities of Tripoli, Kalamata, and Patras completely destroyed. Some of the survivors moved north, to lands still ruled by the Ottomans after Greece gained its independence in 1832.
After the formation of an independent Greek state, trade routes changed and the port of Thessaloniki, once a staple of trade and commerce, began to decline in importance. This, along with a movement towards the “Hellenization,” acceptance of Greek culture and language, of Jews and other ethnic groups in the late nineteenth century, saw fortunes negatively change for the Jews of Greece. Dismal trade and forced assimilation saw many Jews began to leave Greece. Moreover, the establishment of the British Mandate of Palestine after World War I saw a number of Jews emigrate.
Yet, the Jewish community still constituted a significant portion of Greek society. In Thessaloniki alone, more than half of the town’s population was Jewish and almost 50 synagogues were located throughout the city. When Greek economic and political life became centered around Athens, many Jews moved there. In 1936, Léon Recanati, member of Consistoire Israelite de Grece represented the Greek Jewish Communities at the WJC founding Plenary in Geneva. On the eve of the Shoah, over 70,000 Jews lived in Greece and were part of the country’s everyday life and culture.
The Holocaust absolutely devastated the Greek Jewish community and after the war, more half of the 10,000 Jews who were in Greece when the Axis occupation ended, including the remnants of Macedonian and Thracian communities, made their way to Israel and other countries. Those who remained found themselves engulfed in violence, as Greece was plunged into civil war from 1946 to 1949. Jews fought on both sides of the conflict, with the British and US-backed Greek government army and the Communist-backed Democratic Army of Greece. When the Greek government army emerged victorious, the supporters of the Communists, including members of the Jewish community, were hard hit by the repression exerted by the government after it had regained control.
Greece was the first European country to return property confiscated during the war to its Jewish community, with a royal decree establishing a foundation for Jewish survivors and their heirs to present claims in court for restitution or compensation in 1949. Property of murdered victims was placed into a common fund to aid Greek Jews impoverished by the war.
In recent years, the rise of the neo-Fascist Golden Dawn Party, which is represented in the Greek Parliament, has been especially worrisome to Greek Jews. Golden Dawn has links to other European parties of the extreme right, espouses an openly anti-Semitic policy and engages in Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial is legally prohibited in Greece and can incur jail-time. The debt crisis in the late 2000s saw a small number of Greek Jews emigrate, but overall the Jewish community in Greece has remained stable. Today, Greek Jews are well integrated in Greek society, working in a variety of professional occupations and industries. relations between the Jewish community and the state are good, and Judaism is an officially recognized religion.