Local and Extra-local Community: Some Thoughts and Considerations
In conversations with visitors at the Etz Hayyim synagogue and cultural center in Chania, Crete, where I spent a year as an artist in residence in 2022-2023, the most common questions were about locality. “How many Jews live here in Chana?” people would ask, many of them bewildered at the thought that there should be any at all. “Not too many,” I would answer, “but this community isn’t shaped around residence—something different is happening here.” And I would describe something of what I have learned about Etz Hayyim’s distinctiveness: if prevailing conceptions of Jewish community are based on the expectation that people form community when they live near one another, the corollary expectation is that when Jews do not reside in a place in large numbers—or no longer reside there because of catastrophic loss—Jewish community is impossible. In this logic, a rededicated synagogue must mostly be a monument to a bygone era of Jewish life, as if a pleasing cenotaph.
From the first step through Etz Hayyim’s door, however, it is obvious that this is not the case. The beauty of the place is immediately palpable—not only its physical beauty, but its feeling of openness and its spirit of invitation, which are in fact its spiritual beauty. People come through the doorway and they realize—I have seen it over and over—that Etz Hayyim is a place where they are welcome to linger, to get absorbed, to discover something, to join a conversation. And in this way, a bold experiment unfolds, what I would call a reimagining of how to make Jewish community after genocide: if people come and make a meaningful connection with the community’s values, they will return as and when they can. When enough people do this over enough years—next year will be the community’s twenty-fifth anniversary—the result is an international chavurah: an ocean-crossing, border-crossing circle of friends and kindred spirits.
It is worth being explicit about what I mean by “values.” Etz Hayyim is not formed around a common Jewish creed or doctrine or identity or ethnicity or background. It is equally a cultural center and a religious gathering place, Sephardic by default and in practice open to all manner of forms of Jewish observance. Highly unusually for a Jewish community, it makes little distinction between Jew and non-Jew. The community includes many people who are not Jewish at all, but who find meaning and sustenance in this kind of Jewish world. It is not surprising that its ethos attracts a large number of writers, artists, musicians, seekers, creative people of all sorts, people whose self-understandings are in some way alternative to the majority, and Jews for whom Israel and Zionism are not the center of Jewish life. Etz Hayyim is, in other words, a place of diasporic Jewishness: intersectional, anti-essentialist, adaptive. In my view, it is exactly these things that make it Jewishly exciting and relevant, future-facing in its orientation, without the defensive and preservationist modes of other communities and institutions in other places.
On one hand, Etz Hayyim’s experiment could not be undertaken just anywhere—rather it is specific to Chania, connected to the many other reasons people also come to the city, and to the city’s own terrific spirit of hospitality. In this sense, Etz Hayyim is decidedly local—it is a place of this place. On the other hand, its localness is self-transcending or self-undoing—depending on which way we look into it—because the form of community it hosts is precisely extra-local. The extra-local localness is equally of-the-elsewhere and just-here, a dynamic situation that I think is elemental to the community’s vitality. (In the Yiddish of my own ancestors, Etz Hayyim might be called a community founded in “doykayt,” “hereness,” a rejection of Jewish separatism and an affirmation that there is no Jewish history or community or movement apart from the societies in which Jews live.) However, in ways I did not expect, a good deal of my work in the last year turned out to test the strength and resilience of the local-extra-local braid. I wish to reflect on two episodes.
The first stems from an initiative to develop a traveling exhibition about Etz Hayyim for North American audiences—a collective project on which I took the lead. In a photo-text format, the exhibition consists of five sections. The first introduces contemporary Chania and its deep intercultural past; the second focuses on Evraiki and the historical Jewish community; the third tells the story of Etz Hayyim, Nikos Stavroulakis and the community’s renascence; the fourth shows many other places of current and former Jewish life in Greece; the fifth—the only section with human figures—shows the lifeworld of the international chavurah. The exhibition is at this writing essentially completed, though not physically produced.
In early February 2023, as part of a public program I helped to design for International Holocaust Remembrance Day—the most extensive such program ever held in Chania, before a large audience at the Mikis Theodorakis theater—I presented photographs from section four of the traveling exhibition. Part of my purpose was to make continent-wide connections on the destruction of Jewish heritage during and following the Holocaust, and I showed new photographs I had made during several weeks of travel across mainland Greece—in Patras, Arta, Ioannina, Veria, Thessaloniki, Kavala, Serres, Xanthi, Volos, Larisa, Athens, and other places—alongside earlier photographs of mine from Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Romania, and Hungary. My presentation drew the ire of Victor Eliezer, Secretary General of KIS, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece, who was in attendance. Eliezer disputed that many of the locations I showed were in fact destroyed and built-over Jewish cemeteries, and he publicly accused me of lying and spreading false information. In fact he was simply unfamiliar with one of the principal sources of my research, the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, https://www.esjf-cemeteries.org/, though it has been operating since 2015 and is well known in Jewish heritage research circles. After the event ended, Eliezer approached me and attacked me even more vehemently, before heatedly denouncing me before the staff of Etz Hayyim. I hasten to add: KIS owns Etz Hayyim and Eliezer sits on Etz Hayyim’s board.
Eliezer’s perspective was that of a certain kind of local—not a person from Chania, but a Greek Jew whose task is to protect, defend, and represent Jewish interests to Greek society at large and to the Greek government in particular. My perspective is that of an extra-local, a Jew for whom Greece is one place among other places in the diaspora, and for whom local politics does not trump critical inquiry. From Eliezer’s perspective, it is bad for Jews publicly to examine the ways that the widespread and normalized destruction of Jewish heritage in Greece resembles the widespread and normalized destruction of Jewish heritage in other places wrecked by the Holocaust. From my perspective, it is right—even necessary—to do so. From Eliezer’s perspective, Jews should avoid publicly drawing attention to the wrongs committed by the larger society against Jewish memory—for example, the city of Chania’s destruction and overbuilding of the ancient Jewish cemetery here. From my perspective, it is important to do exactly that, and even to go further—as I did—and link the social logic that destroyed Chania’s Jewish cemetery to the destruction and overbuilding of Chania’s Muslim cemetery (what is now the 1866 square and its environs). For Eliezer, such lines of examination are potentially hazardous to Jewish interests, and pertinent to public discussion only as, for example, part of an appeal for the building of commemorative monuments—which Eliezer thought should have been the focus of my presentation. In fact I find many of those monuments, which I have photographed extensively, to be paltry, and sometimes worse than no monument at all. It is no wonder that Eliezer was especially provoked by my comments on the monument not long ago placed next to the destroyed Jewish cemetery of Veria, whose text in my reading dissimulates the city’s destruction of the site while insinuating that the Jews bear responsibility for the resulting decades of neglect. For Eliezer, this monument was very much an accomplishment and a testament to his leadership. Etz Hayyim’s welcome of my extra-local perspective turned out, in the end, to be on a collision course with the local interests of its titular boss.
The second episode concerns the major project of my year at Etz Hayyim, concerning the centenary of the 1923 Greek-Turkish Population Exchange, an episode of profound social violence that wrecked Crete’s centuries-old intercultural world. The Population Exchange mandated that Muslims leave Greece and that Christians leave newly-created Turkey (with a handful of places given exemption), and represented the first time in history that the international community forced the expulsion and resettlement of large populations. In historical perspective, it was the dry run for the partition-driven humanitarian crises that emerged later in the 20th century, notably the UN Partition Plan for Mandatory Palestine in 1947, the Partition of India in 1948, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. In this way it provides an ur-example of the social pathology characteristic of puritanical nationalisms, which see social homogeneity as a desirable response to the challenges of inter-communal societies. Needless to say, it remains a key touchpoint in the enduring conflict between Greece and Turkey.
In the summer of 2022, I proposed to Etz Hayyim a collaborative artistic project remembering the Population Exchange, for exhibition in the summer of 2023. The project would contemplate the Population Exchange from the standpoint of the expelled Cretan Muslims, who were not ethnic Turks but preponderantly ethnic Cretans whose ancestors had converted in large numbers to Islam during the Ottoman period. Their descendants now live across the sea, especially in western Turkey, where they are known as “Giritli,” “Cretans” in Turkish. The proposed exhibition was not a didactic project. Rather it was an artistic encounter with difficult history, including a humanistic response to the exilic longing of the Giritli. The main part of the proposed exhibition was a sound installation designed specifically for the historic Yiali Tzami on Chania’s Old Venetian Harbor, supplemented by photographs and video messages from the Giritli, plus a text providing basic historical, ethnographic, and artistic information. The exhibition was entirely in keeping with the values of Etz Hayyim: not to normalize silence and indifference, rather to remember the stranger, and to act for reconciliation in collective memory. Etz Hayyim agreed in the summer of 2022 to support the proposal, and work began in earnest after the Jewish holidays.
The exhibition was ill-fated. Working with the municipality of Chania to gain permission to use the Yiali Tzami was exceptionally difficult, a labyrinth of bureaucratic rabbit holes and dead ends, bad communication, rank unprofessionalism, and connivance. The local/extra-local disparity appeared as a double set of rules, more starkly disparate than I have ever seen: one set for insiders and one for outsiders. In this case, Etz Hayyim was in the position of a relative outsider, representing a pure outsider in the figure of me. We had a date, then we did not, then we did again, then we did not, until ultimately we did but with a very substantial fee attached to the synagogue’s use of the historic mosque.
The greater problem turned out to be disagreements within the synagogue working group itself. These concerned the supporting text, part of which focused on historical demographic shifts among Cretan Muslims in the 19th century. These disagreements emerged in the process of translating the text from English into Greek, and unexpectedly revealed volatile local/extra-local differences of perspective. One local in the working group, originally from Chania (out of respect for confidentiality, I will not use names) objected that it is illegitimate to address Cretan Muslim experience on its own terms. Doing so, this person asserted, is essentially to take the Turkish side in the ongoing conflict between Greece and Turkey, of which the Population Exchange was just an earlier phase. (His logic: collective memory is ultimately war by other means.) He insisted that the text must be “balanced” by reciting certain key Greek nationalist grievances of the 19th century, enough to invoke the standard Christian Orthodox martyrology of the anti-Ottoman struggle in Crete. I disagreed, arguing that it is indeed very possible to speak of historical events, especially demographic changes, without engaging in nationalist polemics, and it is possible generally to address difficult history in other ways than the mode of competitive victimhood—which is precisely what the project sought not to engage. This person and I never came to a mutual understanding. For him, I was an outsider falsely claiming historical neutrality, and for me he was a person lacking in the basics of critical historiography. He was, for me, an ideologue in Marx’s simple sense of the word: not a fanatical believer but a person who unselfconsciously identifies with the dominant ideas of a society, and naturalizes them in such a way that they are not even “ideas,” rather just normative truths. Eventually he removed himself from the working group, then condemned me and the project, telling me it amounted to little more than an anti-Greek provocation. He declared to me that the project would certainly be a failure, but at least it would be my failure and not the synagogue’s—because Etz Hayyim had the good sense not to attach its name to it.
Another local insisted that Cretan anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim bigotry in Chania must be honored and, in his word, “embraced” before any sympathetic perspectives on Muslims could be introduced in Chania. While I have serious misgivings about honoring bigotry, I accepted this point, and revised the text several times to accommodate it. When I and others questioned whether local right-wing opinion was as hyperirritable and superorganized as he claimed, he warned with increasing stridency of greater and greater threats that the text posed to local chauvinistic sensibilities—the text having become for him no longer a supporting part of the exhibition but effectively its centerpiece. His importunate style had the effect of casting on the project a verdict in advance, which could only be lifted through more and more strenuous appeasements to potential haters. The debate veered in the direction of the speculative: is Greek national identity durable or fragile, capable of managing its own inbuilt enmity or a tinderbox waiting to be ignited by, say, art? As the project’s imagined adversaries waxed and waned in perceived stature and strength, the working group splintered into factions. On one side were those who found the text fair and were reasonably confident in the mechanisms of civil society to handle possible controversy, and on the other were those who feared a scandal or worse from audiences that might read the project as anti-Greek. Feelings in the group became increasingly bitter, and fellowship was seriously damaged.
Eventually the chair of Etz Hayyim’s board, also a local from Chania though now mostly not a resident of the city, became concerned that the project posed an existential threat to Etz Hayyim, that it could undo a quarter century of work normalizing the Jewish community’s relations with the city. She weighed in by censoring the text, unilaterally rewriting it and removing virtually all historical references, and anything that could remotely be construed as provocative to Greek patriotism. Implicit in the censorship was the altered status of the project: what had started out as a courageous undertaking involving some risk was now a fundamentally dangerous one with some potential benefits. In the background of her censorial response, I later learned, was Victor Eliezer, whispering into her ear that the connections I had made in Turkey were suspicious, poised somehow to lure Etz Hayyim into liaisons with militant Turkish nationalists. The suggestion was preposterous, but like all gossip, once heard it could not be unheard. For my part, I rejected the censorship, both the act of censorship and the content of it. Censorship is, for me, the worst way of dealing with the challenges of artistic expression, not to mention the ways it violates Etz Hayyim’s own core values. The chair did not respond to my counter-offers about the text, but instead accused me of unwarranted distrust of her and the community. Mutuality collapsed, and the project died. In its place—as a kind of cenotaph, perhaps pleasing—is a web version of what could not be.
I offer these thoughts without a resolution. I cannot say when I will return to Chania or whether I will ever work with Etz Hayyim again, but I can say that my own tribulations are not the larger point. (Standing now in my mind before the Ehal, I ask the source of teshuvah: that our foibles not be the measure of our work, our dreams, our memories.) It remains true that Etz Hayyim is a remarkably innovative experiment in community building after genocide, based in a vibrantly diasporic understanding of Jewish life specific to Chania. It is also true that there are fracture lines running through that vibrancy: competing types of historical consciousness concerning Crete’s turbulent past, anxiety about majoritarian hatred lodged within Greek national memory, and anxiety about the continued vulnerability of Jews in Chania. It seems to me that though Crete is a warm society, it is not, in certain key regards, an open society. In 2022-2023, it was the extra-local resident—me—who unwittingly stepped through the doorway of that distinction, and entered the conversation-filled courtyard carrying not just a camera and a notebook, but trouble.