Haggadah, Crete, 1583 © Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

The Jews have a unique and turbulent history on Crete, one of the most important islands in the Mediterranean. Under the Byzantine Empire, Cretan Jews believed the hour of the final redemption had rung: in 430 C.E., a false messiah, the rabbi Moses, promised to lead them all to Jerusalem; they then threw themselves en masse into the raging sea and drowned. Several centuries later, the hand of Venice reached the island, and the Jewish community was forced to live in ghettos. Under Ottoman domination, they were treated more peacefully. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Greeks themselves protested against grating them a seat in the local chamber of deputies. After a major uprising, punctuated by anti-Semitic incidents, Crete’s autonomy was decreed, a prelude to its reattachment to Greece in 1913. On 6 June 1944, on the very day the Allied army landed in Normandy, 269 Jews from Canea were deported by the Nazis. They all perished at sea in a ship sunk by German planes or, more likely, by an English submarine.

And if the Jews had been of Cretan origin?

Ancient Roman historian Tacitus did not hesitate, in the second century C.E., to voice such a hypothesis. These “Judaei”, he wrote in Book V of the Histories, “might once have been, judging by their name, Idaei”- that is, “neighbors of Mount Ida”, the Cretan mountain towering 8200 feet above the island.


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