I was in Greece with my husband on September 11, when terrorists attacked New York, my home. The news about the World Trade Center reached us in a surreal setting: driving to Nick’s birth-city, Salonika, on a road high in the mountains of north central Greece, a craggy, hostile terrain that had sheltered the Greek resistance during World War II. Stopping at a cafe, we gaped at a television news station, airing what would be the endlessly-replayed footage of the planes slicing through each of the Twin Towers. Nick and I, Americans and New Yorkers, stared in disbelief.
“When you’re a bully, expect to have your hand slapped,” one local man offered. Over the next weeks, I would hear similar sentiments voiced across the spectrum of Greek society, insults that cut to the core of each of my identities—as a woman, a Jew, and American. In the ubiquitous cafes, leftwing intellectuals said imperialist America had it coming. Talking heads on Greek television predicted the imminent demise of American hegemony. Meanwhile, at a soccer match in Athens 11 days after the attack, fans jeered during a requested moment of silence for the terrorism victims in New York. They also burned an Israeli flag and tried to burn the American one too.
Greek anti-Americanism is inextricably tied to anti- Israel sentiments. This dates largely from the late ’60s and ’70s, when the United States misguidedly supported a seven year military dictatorship. In the ’80s, Andreas Papandreou, the American-educated Prime Minister whose rule lasted for 15 years, exploited these feelings to the hilt. An entire generation of Greeks grew up on such slogans as “American Bases Out of Greece,” even as Arab terrorists were staging hijackings from the Athens airport, and local terrorist groups were throwing bombs at American and Israeli targets in Athens. In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, Papandreou sent the ship that ferried Yasir Arafat to Athens, where he received a hero’s welcome. In 1985, the United States officially warned its citizens not to travel to Greece.
A week after the WTC attack, my husband returned to New York. I stayed in Greece another five weeks, researching a book in Salonika about this city’s once-great Jewish community, annihilated in the Holocaust. When Americans began to bomb Afghanistan four weeks after the attack, demonstrators marched through the streets of Athens and Salonika every few days. In Salonika, they often stopped in front of the American consulate, where they sprayed graffiti on the walls to vent their anger.
I felt angry too. On the one hand, I was angry at the Greeks who were making me feel defensive about America’s retaliation for the loss of thousands of lives back home. But mixed in with my fury was shame over the frequent shortsightedness of American foreign policy, which I was now being forced, all alone, to confront. Greece was only one of numerous countries where the U.S. had backed a corrupt government. Embarrassing examples abound: Chile, Central America, and at present, Saudi Arabia. Nor was my discomfort confined to my being American; this being Greece, it also included my Jewishness.
The Greeks’ feelings towards their own Jews, most of whom died in the Holocaust and today number no more than 5,000, are decidedly ambivalent. In Salonika, where over 50,000 Jews—20 per cent of the city—were deported to Auschwitz in 1943, the memory of them has been deliberately erased. In Greece, editorial writers even in respected newspapers use the term “Zionism” as a synonym for “imperialism.” The vicious rumor that began circulating a few days after September 11, implicating Jews in the terrorist plot by saying that Jews had stayed home from the World Trade Center on that day, found its way into local news broadcasts in Greece and everyday conversations.
Maria, a young woman with whom I was taking Greek lessons, asked me one day whether Americans supported the bombing of Afghanistan. When I said yes, she looked at me askance. Then she went into a diatribe of complaints about America: that we are arrogant, greedy, selfish.
“I’ve been dying to talk to an American since the bombing began,” Maria said. She insisted I come to dinner, with her and her British husband. I couldn’t bring myself to turn her down, though they would, I knew, serve me on a platter.
Over the next several days, I pondered what I would say to Maria. “Americans are defending their way of life,” I explained patiently, three nights later, as I sat at the dining room table of their beautiful apartment.
They looked disapproving. “Way of life? What do you mean?”
I explained about the Constitution and the First Amendment and our open society, constantly replenished by the never-ending flow of immigrants eager also to become Americans.
And as I talked to my hosts about feminism, I realized that I had felt marginalized during these several weeks not only as an American and a Jew, but also as a woman. “It’s not the Taliban who are the terrorists. It’s the imperialists!” leftist marchers had chanted one night as I was walking about the streets of Salonika. And I had wanted to yell back at them, you who are so eager to protest perceived injustices, why are you not protesting the Taliban’s dehumanizing of women?
But in Greece I am Xeni, a foreigner, and my New York Jewish woman’s voice is not welcome.