Letter from Athens: The Twilight of Theodorakis: Anti-Semitic, and Sad

Few people will ever have to endure the suffering of Greece’s greatest musical composer Mikis Theodorakis, a giant of a man who, because of his leftist ideologies, was exiled to an island by the military junta backed by the United States from 1967-73. He was tortured, twice buried alive, and suffered the ignominy of his family being detained. The Colonels who ran the country with the backing of people as evil as U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger issued Army Decree No. 13, which banned playing, or even listening to his music, because his genius was such it could jumpstart a heart and create fervor and passion for justice that was undeniable and unstoppable. I know. Ten years ago I saw him perform his incomparable, soaring musical showpiece of Nobel Prize winning poet Odysseas Elytis’ Axion Esti, at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus Theater, built 1,850 years ago under the Acropolis. Theodorakis was in rare form, aging arms still lifting the spirit of freedom and Hellenism, proving himself the greatest Greek composer. When the music he put to Elytis’ Sun of Justice began, and the words flowed forth, it put the lie to the rule of the Colonels and those who think ideas can be imprisoned. Theodorakis carried the banner of justice in his baton, even as he held hate in his heart for those who tried to stifle Greece, and for the American government that was his co-jailer.
{35740}So it’s all the sadder that now, at 85, he has lapsed into inexplicable rage, perhaps seeing demons lurking in the shadows of a mind at once brilliant and tormented. For good reason, he is vehemently anti-American, although he speaks English, but for no good reason unknown to anyone but himself has he become an avowed anti-Semite, using language akin to that of Hitler and Goebbels, to vilify Israel and Jews. When you find your heroes have feet of clay, it punctures your hope in them. When you find they have vitriol in their heart and murder in their mind, if only figuratively, it destroys any remaining illusion of idolatry. What happened? Is this the same man who moved the musical world with genius, whose Greek works will last as long as the Parthenon, who composed the music for the other Greek Nobel Laureate poet George Seferis’ Epiphania, who gave back to Greek music a dignity it had lost, who developed the concept of Metasymphonic music that mixed symphonies with popular songs, western symphonic orchestras and Greek popular instruments, and, who wrote Zorba the Greek, the song that, for all the derision of critics as too popular, is the musical symbol of Greece. How could the mind that creates such music have such discordant notes at the same time, out-of-tune with all that his work had represented: compassion, justice, tolerance, and freedom.
Is this the same Theodorakis whose stirring rendition of The Ballad of Mathausen, who peformed it at that concentration camp, moved so many souls? The same man who said then that, “Mauthausen still exists; Hitler is alive and well; so are concentration camps; the songs are very real and their heroes are our brothers.”
He is that rarest of Greek artists, revered around the world, who put music to the greatest of Latino poets such as Pablo Neruda, who was the symbol of Greek resistance against the dictatorship. He has always combined his art with his indelible love for Greece, was committed to raising international awareness about human rights, the environment, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. He had reached out to the renowned Turkish author, musician, singer, and filmmaker Zulfu Livaneli to form the Greek–Turkish Friendship Society. Why then does he see Israel and Jews as the enemy? Their people suffered as much, or more, than did Greeks under the Nazis and Turks of the Ottoman Occupation, and even under their own people during the dark days of the dictatorship. Did some worm of hate inveigle its way into his heart and reach his mind? His rants against Israel and Jews shock the same way it would if Gandhi had suddenly spouted bile, if Martin Luther King had taken up arms with the Black Panthers, if Nelson Mandela had put burning tires around the necks of his enemies. Because of his stature, Theodorakis’ increasingly zealous attacks against Israel and Jews have been overlooked for years.
The respected Athens newspaper Kathimerini wrote in 2003 that during a news conference at his home Theodorakis said: “We are alone. But without the fanaticism and self-knowledge of the Jews. We are two nations without brothers in the world, we and the Jews. But they have fanaticism and manage to get their way. Today we may say that this small nation is at the root of evil and not of good, which means that too much self-knowledge and too much obstinacy causes harm. The reason that we (Greeks) are laid-back and have not become aggressive is because we had more weapons. They had Abraham and Jacob – shadows.” Sadly, he was allowed to drone on: “We had someone of the stature of Pericles here. Can you imagine what the Greeks could have become if we had … the aggression of the Jews! That’s how laid-back we are. We are ashamed to say who we are.”
In February, Theodorakis said in a television interview that he was an “anti-Semite and anti-Zionist,” the kind of code words you associate with people who think there is an international Jewish conspiracy to rule the world, those types who stand outside the White House in dirty, unpressed suits and cockeyed hats holding signs. “Everything that happens today in the world has to do with the Zionists,” he said, adding that, “American Jews are behind the world economic crisis that has hit Greece too.”
The hate speech, a crime in some countries, came as more than 60 prominent American Jewish leaders came to Greece to meet political leaders, and went to Thessaloniki, whose Jewish population was decimated by the Nazis. “We are in danger. In a few days the Zionists will gather in Greece for a conference,” he said. “Zionism and its leaders are here, meeting in our country! This is no laughing matter,” he railed, berating Zionism and its “control over America and the banking system that Greece is now a victim of.” Theodorakis, a member of the Greek Communist Party for 60 years, once was a supporter of Israel but gradually became a major critic, but his tirades are such you have to wonder if he has gone off the deep end, as it is said of those who are no longer lucid. How else can you explain why he also said during a television interview that, “I’m an anti-Semite, but I love Jews.”
Theodorakis blasted Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou for meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, who the composer says is a persona non-grata in Greece due to his “war crimes in Lebanon and Gaza,” as the composer has identified more with the Palestinians suffering under Israel’s blockade. Strong words, though not crazy, but what will he say next? Theodorakis put the music to Zorba, but he must not have read Nikos Kazantzakis’ book or seen the movie, or he would have noticed the part where Zorba takes off his shirt to wash, and the Englishman who is his friend notices scars and asks who put them there. “The Turks,” Zorba says. Does he hate the Turks then? No, says Zorba, turning to show scars on his chest and who put those there. “The Greeks,” he sayes, but putting aside hate. “What do I care if a man is Greek or Turk? All I care is if he is a good man.” That’s something for Theodorakis to think about, if he still can.