Meet Moses Elisaf, The First Jewish Mayor In Greece, The Cradle Of Democracy

Matt Hanson

The municipal elections of a small city may seem like an unlikely way to make history after 2,300 years of history, but that’s what happened in June when the Greek city of Ioannina elected a Jew as mayor — the first ever in Greece, despite widespread anti-Semitism.

The mayor-elect of Ioannina, from a region subject to the Ottoman Empire until 1913, is named Moses Elisaf. He’s 65 years old and a Romaniote Jew, descendant of the oldest Jewish diaspora in Europe, founded by Jews receptive to Greek culture who built their earliest known synagogue in the 2nd century B.C.

Despite the community’s long history, and in Elisaf, the political victory of a native son, the question of how long Ioannina will be home to Jews is ever-present.

“We have to work to keep the traditions, the monuments. I have a lot of obligations now to honor the citizens of my city, and also as a Jewish leader,” said Elisaf, adding, “I’m not sure that this community can stand for a long time.”

Ioannina is a bustling university town on a mountain lake; its landlocked charm is one of the best-kept secrets in Greece, which famous more for its telegenic Aegean islands. The acropolis rises from Byzantine castle walls near the square where the Nazis deported the Jewish population on March 25, 1944. The mayor’s office would not recognize these facts until 2006, when research made headlines.

Indeed, a vote for Elisaf was not a statement in favor of multiculturalism. He is a doctor and a professor of medicine; independent financially and politically. People voted for him to stand against corruption, and even then, his victory was a narrow one — by 200 out of 40,000 votes cast. Elisaf is married and has no children.

“The people know who they voted for. I was elected despite the growing anti-Semitism all over the country. It is well known that Greece is a country with a great rate of anti-Semitism, but it is verbal. It’s not violent,” said Elisaf, relieved not to have heard slurs directly during his campaign.

Elisaf, who served on city council twice in 2006 and 2014, is outspokenly Jewish. He does not separate his Greek and Jewish identities, nor does he see a conflict in remaining president of the Jewish community, a position he has held for nearly 20 years.

A week after the election, Elisaf sat confidently in his community’s Old Synagogue, which was saved during World War II by an Ioannina mayor who convinced the Nazis it was a library. Sunlight stretched over the empty wooden benches in the oldest and largest synagogue in the Balkans, full only once a year now for Yom Kippur. A Romaniote cantor named Haim Ischakis flies in from Athens, proud of his Ioannina roots.

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