Cyprus Jewish cemetery damaged headstone
Cyprus Jewish cemetery damaged headstoneUzay Bulut

Cyprus has a special place in Jewish history. Jews are deeply rooted in this island country, whence they once obtained wine to soak some of the spices used in the incense used in the Temple (Jerusalem Talmud Yoma 4), possibly produced by Jews living there. Jews have lived in Cyprus for millennia, according to historical records. Hadassah Magazine reports:

“Cyprus and Eretz Yisrael had trade relations by the third century B.C.E., and Jews began to settle the island. In the first century B.C.E., the Roman emperor Augustus gave Herod, king of Judea, part of the management and revenue of the island’s copper mines. Jews were among the miners and copper workers. After Herod’s death, his granddaughter Alexandra married a Cypriot Jew.

“The community prospered, and synagogues existed in at least three locations: Golgoi, Lapethos and Constantia-Salamine. Some Cypriot Jews moved to Jerusalem, and the Talmud mentions imports of cumin, wine and dried figs from Cyprus.”

The European Jewish Congress gives further information:

“In 142 BCE, Cyprus was one of the countries that safeguarded Jewish rights at the request of the Romans. Cypriot Jews seem to have participated in a rebellion in 177 CE against Emperor Trajan. After the revolt was crushed, Jews were strictly forbidden to set foot on Cyprus, but this prohibition did not last long.”

"Jews returned to the island shortly thereafter," adds the World Jewish Congress. "Jewish community in Cyprus continued to thrive throughout the centuries, and between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, there were more Jews in Cyprus than on any other Greek island."

Cyprus today is a majority Christian country, and its patron saint is a Cypriot Jew: St. Barnabas, who, accompanied by Saul (Apostle Paul) and Mark, sailed to Cyprus to preach there (Acts: 13).

Today, the relations between Cyprus and Israel are thriving. “Throughout the history of Cyprus, Jewish people have always lived on the island,” the project manager of the Jewish Museum of Cyprus, Skevi Philippou, said. “There has always been a bond between Israel and Cyprus, especially now between tourism and business cooperation. Being so close to the Holy Land, Cyprus is a popular place for Jews to visit or make their home. Today, there are over 6500 Jews living in Cyprus. Most are from Israel, UK, Eastern Europe and Russia.”

The Chief Rabbi of Cyprus, Arie Zeev Raskin, has been officially serving the community since 2005. The rabbi and his wife, Shaindel Raskin, together with their four children, arrived in Cyprus in 2003. Five years later, their fifth child was born in the island country. The Chabad house – “Chabad of Cyprus” – was opened in 2005.

Today, the Cyprus Jewish Community Center in the city of Larnaca is open to serve the community all year around. And the Jewish Museum there raises awareness about the Jewish ties to the island. The museum's current exhibit is the “Nissen hut,” an original WW2 artefact.

According to its website, the museum aims to educate the public concerning the important role played by Cyprus and Cypriots “in assisting Holocaust victims escaping Europe after World War II as they made their way to Israel.”

From 1878 to 1960, when Cyprus became independent, the island was under British rule. After the rise of Nazism in 1933, hundreds of Jews escaped to Cyprus. The British government then set up 12 detention camps there for Holocaust survivors who had immigrated or attempted to immigrate to the then British Mandate of Palestine. The camps operated from 1946 to 1949 and held over 53,000 internees. Once the State of Israel was established, most refugees moved there.

“Conditions in the camps were horrific,” reported the newspaper Cyprus Mail. “But there was one ray of light for those on the long journey home: the local Cypriots who, for three long years, helped to feed, clothe and nurture the interned at their own expense. The brainchild of Rabbi Arie Zeev Raskin, the Chief Rabbi of Cyprus, the museum is the Jewish Community’s way of thanking those who helped the interned."

“Rabbi Raskin felt an overwhelming need to thank the people he sees as heroes,” Philippou said.

“Ordinary people – farmers, workers, people who barely had enough to feed their own families – gave food, water and medicine to the refugees in the camps. And the next generation of Cypriots must know and remember what their ancestors did, so that the cycle of kindness will continue.

“Those 53,000 Jewish refugees and their descendants owe their health and wellbeing to Cyprus and to the compassion of the Cypriots; by aiding those who were starting a new life, the Cypriots not only played an important role in assisting Holocaust victims escaping Europe after World War II, but they were also responsible for helping to promote the re-birth of Jewish life, culture, religious observation and Jewish heritage around the world.”

Meanwhile, the tradition of opposing antisemitism is ongoing in Cyprus. In 2019, Cyprus endorsed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. Then-Jewish Agency chair and current president of Israel Isaac Herzog praised the move, as did American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris.

Many Cypriot municipal leaders have also signed the American Jewish Committee's (AJC) Mayors United Against Antisemitism statement. More than 500 European and U.S. mayors, including 22 mayors from Cyprus, joined the initiative.

"The relations between Israel and Cyprus have never been stronger than today," AJC Jerusalem Director, Lt. Col. (Res.) Avital Leibovich, said. "They are not only based on mutual interest but also on strategic challenges and cooperation on many levels - from cultural to academic, tourism to startups. In a changing Middle East, such partnerships are important and cherished.”

Since 1974, however, around 40 percent of the Cypriot territory in the north of the island nation has been illegally occupied by Turkey. That year, Cyprus was invaded by the Turkish military twice and exposed to an ethnic cleansing campaign which forcibly changed the demographic character of the island country.

Many crimes were committed by Turkish troops against indigenous Greek Cypriots. Civilian targets such as hospitals were bombed. Greek Cypriots, including children, were murdered. Civilians were arbitrarily detained by the Turkish military authorities and were put either in prisons or concentration camps. Some were made to perform forced labor. The European Commission on Human Rights documented the rape of women and children aged 12 to 71, including those who were pregnant or mentally retarded. The rapes were so widespread that the Church of Cyprus was compelled to relax its previous strictures on abortion.

Nearly 200,000 Greek Cypriots were forcibly expelled from their homes by the Turkish invasion forces and were replaced by illegal settlers from Turkey and Turkish Cypriots. Lands, houses and other properties belonging to Greek Cypriots were seized, looted and distributed to Turks. As a result of this ethnic cleansing, northern Cyprus, which was for millennia a majority-Greek area until 1974, has been turned into a Turkish colony.

Historically, large Jewish population groups lived across coastal towns in Cyprus such as ancient Salamis in the city of Famagusta, which is today under Turkish occupation. Sadly, the invasion campaign has brought widespread destruction to all non-Muslim Cypriot historic sites.

To this day, the occupying forces continue to plunder and destroy the Cypriot cultural heritage, including the Jewish heritage of the occupied area. The Jewish cemetery there, for instance, has been destroyed. According to the 2012 report "The Loss of A Civilization: Destruction of cultural heritage in occupied Cyprus,"

“The historic Margo Jewish Cemetery, a national monument for the Jewish people, southeast of Nicosia, has been desecrated and destroyed in the same way as Christian cemeteries in the area occupied by Turkish troops have been desecrated and destroyed.

“The Margo Jewish Cemetery is home to the graves of Jews of the diaspora of 1885 and of Jewish refugees who came to Cyprus after the Second World War.

“The cemetery is located in a strictly controlled military area and is guarded by an armed Turkish soldier. Jewish organisations and other groups have persistently petitioned for free access to the cemetery to conduct religious ceremonies, but these requests have not been granted by the occupying power and its puppet regime.”

“We have visited the cemetery several times,” Philippou confirms. “But we haven't been able to hold any religious ceremonies, just a quick visit under supervision. We would like to have it restored, but no permission was given thus far.”

See a video of the destroyed Jewish cemetery in the Turkish-occupied part of Nicosia here.

Cypriot-Dutch author, cultural campaigner and activist Tasoula Hadjitofi became a refugee at age 15 when Turkish troops invaded Famagusta, the city of her birth, in 1974. For several decades, she has collected artefacts and other symbols of cultural heritage that has been looted and stolen to bring them back home to Cyprus. Referring to the liberation of prisoners from Nazi concentration camps in 1945, Hadjitofi said:

"Cypriots fought alongside the allies as British troops during the liberation of the Jews and other prisoners, for Cyprus was then a British colony. There are no poppies for those heroes on Holocaust Memorial Day in the United Kingdom or in Cyprus and little is known anywhere about them. Most of these forgotten heroes died quietly and took with them so many untold stories. Perhaps a handful are still around? Their stories must be told and their courage must be honored."

"The historical ties are strong between Israel and Cyprus," added Hadjitofi. "I do hope that our Jewish brothers and sisters worldwide are watching attentively the Islamisation of northern Cyprus by Turkey, as well as the destruction of the Christian and Jewish sites in the occupied area. And for the sake of our shared heritage, historical and current struggles for freedom, as well as fundamental principles, they must do their best to stop them."

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara.