ATHENS, city in Greece. In ancient Jewish history, Athens occupied a position of secondary importance, especially when compared to Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, even Cyrene, and other known cities in Asia Minor. Nevertheless, it must be noted that relations between Athens and Palestine can be traced as far back as the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E. Large quantities of Attic dark-visaged and red-visaged potsherds have been found in various places in the region which was exposed, during the Persian era, to the economic influence of Athens. Coins minted during the occupation of Judea by Persian governors were inscribed “Yahud,” and had the image of an owl imprinted upon them, bearing a definite likeness to the Attic drachma.
After the conquest of
Palestine by Alexander
the Great, there was, apparently, an
increase in the activities of the Athenians
in the conquered land, though there is
only limited information on this phase.
The presence of an Athenian in Palestine
is evidenced by a contract entered into
by an Athenian in the purchase of a female
slave in Transjordania, dating to the year
259 B.C.E. Among the signatories
who witnessed the document, appears the
name of “Heraklitus son of Phillip
the Athenian” (Tcherikover, Corpus,
1 (1957), 119–20), who was in the
service of Apollonius, minister of the
treasury under Ptolemy II.
There was an Athenian in command of the
With the establishment of the Hasmonean state, Athens was one of the cities to enter into relations with the new state. Josephus records (Ant., 14:149 ff.) a resolution adopted by the Athenian people in honor of Hyrcanus the high priest, ethnarch of the Jews. The decree stated that Hyrcanus had always maintained friendly relations with the Athenians, and always received them cordially when they came to him, and therefore it was resolved to bestow upon him a crown of gold, and to place his statue in bronze in the temple of Demos and the Graces in the city. Josephus himself relates this document to Hyrcanus II, but most modern scholars are inclined to attribute it to Hyrcanus I, specifically to the year 106/5 B.C.E. (the year in which Agathocles served as archon in Athens). Herod also continued the traditional friendship with Athens, to the advantage of the city (Jos., Wars, 1:425). There are documents extant substantiating the existence of friendly relations between Athens and the House of Herod.
Concrete information about a Jewish community in Athens is available only from the beginning of the first century C.E. Agrippa I, in a letter to Gaius Caligula, mentions the land of Attica among other places inhabited by Jews (Philo, Legat., 281). Similarly, when Paul came to a synagogue in Athens, he found there, beside the Jews, many devout Gentiles who revered the Jewish religion (Acts, 17:17). Inscriptions testify that Samaritans lived at Athens (I.G., ed. minor, vol. 2–3, part 3/2, nos. 10219–22) as well as Jews (no. 12609) including one Jerusalemite (no. 8934).
Much attention has been lavished in Judeo-Hellenistic literature on Athens as the most celebrated city in Greek civilization. Philo refers to Athens with profound respect, in a style customary with Greek writers (see Prob. 140); he also mentions famous figures in the history of Athens, such as Solon (Spec. 3:22), as well as historic events relating to Athens, including the conflict between the Athenians and the Lacedaemonians (Spartans; Mos. 2:19). Josephus often refers to Athens and its customs especially in his Contra Apionem.
Athens also occupies a place in the talmudic-midrashic literature. The Midrash on Lamentations contains in its introduction many stories the intention of which is to emphasize the superior wit and wisdom of the Jerusalem Jews over the Athenians. Many such stories begin with the phrase: "An Athenian came to Jerusalem." The Babylonian Talmud relates the story of the tanna, Joshua b. Hananiah, who at the advice of the Roman emperor came to Athens and challenged the elders of the city to a dispute and defeated them (Bek. 8b).
Turkish Period and Greek Independence
After the Turkish conquest of Athens (1456) Muhammad II the Conqueror granted its inhabitants the right to prohibit Jewish residence. However, a number of exiles from Spain and their descendants took refuge there after 1492. In 1705 a French traveler found some 15–20 Jewish families living in Athens.
The Jewish community in Athens was one of those destroyed at the time of the Greek uprising against the Ottoman Empire (1821–29). A community with a corporate identity and interests developed after 1834, with the establishment of Athens as the capital of independent Greece . A number of Jewish families from Germany were attracted to Athens; the financier Max de Rothschild was included in the retinue of the new king, Otto I. A large site for building a synagogue was acquired (1843) through the duchess of Plaisance, Sophie Barbé Marbois, who settled in Athens in 1831 and developed a deep sympathy for Judaism through her intensive Bible studies. In 1847 the Greek authorities banned a popular religious procession during which an effigy of Judas Iscariot was customarily burned, since it might have offended the Baron de Rothschild, then staying in Athens. In revenge, an angry mob sacked the house of David Pacifico, a British subject and honorary consul of Portugal, who was responsible for the completion of the duchess' plans. The British government pressed for his indemnification, and finally the foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, sent a fleet to Piraeus in 1850, which seized a number of ships. In 1852 the municipality rescinded the gift of the site for the planned synagogue.
Jewish settlement in Athens increased from 60 in 1878 to about 250 in 1887. The Athens community was officially recognized in 1889. In 1890, Charles de Rothschild (1843–1918) became its president, and three small synagogues were established in Athens. In the first decade of the 20th century, as the Ottoman Empire deteriorated, economic decline set in, and there was a fear of political instability and eventual military conscription; many Jews migrated from Ioannina to Athens, eventually establishing their own synagogue.
As a result of the improved economic situation following the Balkan Wars (1912–13), a number of Jews from old Greece and Asia Minor – in particular from Salonika – moved to Athens. The migration increased after the great Salonika fire of 1917, and by the eve of World War II there were 3,000 Jews in Athens. Most of the wealthier businessmen were Ashkenazim while the Sephardi immigrants, originally from other parts of Greece and Turkey, were often peddlers, rag dealers, or small shopkeepers.
Holocaust and Postwar Period
The numbers of Jews in
Athens increased with an influx of refugees
from Salonika who fled the Italian air
raids of 1940. When Germany invaded
Greece in 1941,
Greece was subdivided into German, Italian,
and Bulgarian zones of occupation; Athens
was under the relatively benign rule of
the Italians, who, despite their alliance
with Germany, were less interested and
less disciplined about imposing the
Solution.” After July 1942,
when the Nazis carried
out a manhunt of Jews in Salonika until
August 1943, about 3,000 fled to Athens.
Though Athens was under Italian occupation,
the Gestapo began
arrests of Jewish leaders in the city,
expropriated the congregational records,
and requested that the Italians surrender
When Greece was liberated from German occupation, about 4,500–5,000 Jews emerged from hiding to reassemble in Athens, but over 1,500 later immigrated to Ereẓ Israel in 1945–46 via illegal immigration boats from the Sounion coast. The Joint Distribution Committee enabled Athenian and Greek Jewry to recover economically from their losses in World War II. In 1957–58 there were over 2,500 Jews in Athens, and in 1968, 2,850, about half the total Jewish population of Greece. Many of those who returned were able to build themselves good positions in business, industry, and the professions. The community had a synagogue (Sephardi), a cemetery, a club, and an elementary school, and an ORT vocational school and welfare institute as well. In 1979, the Jewish Museum of Greece was established in Athens, and a Holocaust memorial was established in the late 20th century. At the outset of the 21st century there were about 3,000 Jews living in Athens.
[Joseph Nehama /
Yitzchak Kerem (2nd ed.)]
C.S. Clermont-Ganneau, Recueil d'archéologie orientale (1888), 9312–9900; L. Robert, in: Hellenica, 3 (Paris, 1946), 101; L.B. Urdahl, in: Symbolic' Osloenses, 43 (1968), 39 ff.; Schuerer, Hist, index; Juster, Juifs, 1 (1914), 187; C. Bayet, DeTitulis Atticae Christianis Antiquissimis… (1878), 122 ff.; H. Kastel, in: Almanac Israelit (1923), 49–58; Rosanes, Togarmah, 4 (1935), 37, 412; J. Nehama, In Memoriam: Hommage aux victimes Juives des Nazis en Grèce, 2 (1949), 155–7 and passim; M. Molcho, in: J. Starr Memorial Volume (1953), 231–9; Friedman, ibid., 241–8. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Y. Kerem, "Nisyonot Haẓalah be-Yavan be-Milḥemet ha-Olam ha-Sheniyah, 1941–1944," in Pe'amim, 27 (1986), 77–109; B. Rivlin (ed.), Pinkas Kehillot Yavan (1999), 67–86.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.