Middle East Eye / May 8, 2023
Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power was welcomed in Athens, but it’s also fueling a real estate buying spree by the Israeli middle class.
Bearded men in crisp black T-shirts and women in mini-skirts glide through a sleek door to a bar where house music beats. Bauhaus apartments and concrete balconies cast a shadow on the street outside.
Watching the crowd with a drink in one hand and a joint in the other, Shira* exudes tranquility.
Listening to her and a group of friends chat in Hebrew, one could easily mistake the scene for Tel Aviv. But they are actually in Athens, 750 miles away, across the Mediterranean Sea.
“You think we could live like this in Israel today?” the 28-year-old designer asks Middle East Eye. “Women don’t dare dress like this there. Israel is becoming extremist, but here in Greece we are free.”
Shira* relocated to the posh Athenian neighbourhood of Kolonaki from Tel Aviv six months ago. And she is not alone. The Greek capital is emerging as a magnet for Israelis looking to escape a cost of living crisis at home, and more recently, Israel’s political turmoil.
Hebrew now peppers the background chatter in boutiques around the Acropolis, cafes in the seaside suburb of Glyfada and sybaritic, late-night Bouzoukia clubs. While data on the number of Israelis moving to Athens is hard to come by, evidence points to a sizeable wave crossing the Mediterranean.
“It’s a huge number,” Dimitris Melachroinos, CEO of Spitogatos, Greece’s leading online real estate platform, told MEE.
In the last 12 months, searches from Israel for homes on Spitogatos increased 55 percent, propelling Israelis from 17 on the list of users to eighth place, according to data shared with MEE.
When Israel was struck by massive protests in March over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the country’s judiciary, searches broke all records, hitting 48,000 compared to 24,000 in the same period last year.
“It wasn’t normal,” said Melachroinos, explaining that interest in Greek real estate usually pops after the busy summer tourist season. “At first I thought there was an error in the data. Israeli demand is growing rapidly, it’s just crazy.”
Moti Kahana, an Israeli American who once specialized in bringing Jews from countries like Syria and Afghanistan to Israel, has now switched roles to facilitating emigration from Israel over what he calls the country’s “slide into fascism”.
“The number one destination for Israelis wanting to leave Israel right now is Greece,” Kahana said.
“Greece shares a Mediterranean culture with Israel and its close. You can live in Greece, work in Israel, and even visit your mom on the weekends,” he told MEE.
‘Israelis believed in Greece’
Israelis are drawn to Greece by a number of factors.
Both Mediterranean countries face a housing crunch. In Greece, where the minimum wage is €780 ($859) a month and the effects of a brutal financial crisis still linger, about 48 percent of locals struggle or are unable to pay rent. Likewise, wages in Israel have failed to keep up with skyrocketing rents and house prices.
But affordability is relative. Residential property prices in Athens are the lowest in all of Europe. A home in the Athens area costs an average 2,070 euros ($2,280) per square metre, compared to 9,769 euros ($10,762) in Tel Aviv. But the cities are just a two-hour flight apart.
“So many people in Israel are priced out of the housing market,” Dean Farache, founder of Esc Social Club, a real estate firm in Athens, told MEE. Intrigued by Greece’s slower lifestyle and sensing opportunity, the 27-year-old moved to Athens from Tel Aviv three years ago.
“Athens felt like how Tel Aviv was described 30 years ago. It has the same edge and Mediterranean feel,” he said, sipping an iced coffee at an Athens cafe while greeting passersby in Hebrew.
Real estate prices dropped significantly during Greece’s decade of economic crisis after 2008. The industry was hallowed out and governments on the political left and right doubled down on tourism – which generated a record €20bn ($22bn) in revenue last year. Real estate development and gentrification fuelled by platforms like Airbnb have gone hand in hand with the growth.
After the onset of the crisis, Israelis began investing in Greek real estate at a time when other foreigners remained skeptical about the country’s prospects.
Hospitality chain, Brown Hotels, led the way, scooping up assets on the cheap in dilapidated Athenian neighborhoods like Omonia near the city centre. They were followed by other groups like Pame Hotels which bought in Psyri, a former working-class neighbourhood turned popular nightlife spot.
“People don’t realise that big Israeli players were some of the first ones to believe in Greece and they cleaned up during the crisis,” George* a well-connected Greek businessman who works with Israeli investment funds told MEE. “They bought enormous properties in an EU capital for 400-500 euros a square metre.”
Israeli middle-class splurge
But the new boom is being driven by ordinary Israelis and smaller investors. Real estate insiders tell MEE that the average price for Israelis looking to purchase a property in Athens is between 90-200k Euros ($99-$220k) in gentrifying neighbourhoods like Exarchia, Kypseli and Omonia.
“Most of my clients aren’t rich people. They are ordinary Israelis who can’t buy back home or are tired of the rat race in Israel. Athens is a great option,” Farache said.
MEE visited Omonia recently, where the streets buzz with motorbikes and the smell of diesel chokes the air. The neighbourhood of crumbling neoclassical mansions has a reputation for danger and Greeks tend to avoid it, complaining about drug dealing.
Low rent prices have attracted mainly migrants from the Middle East and South Asia. But now Omonia’s falafel and shawarma shops are filled with Israelis.
“This is the same food I would eat in Israel,” Liat Groner, an Israeli who opened Kin Kibbutz, an art space in the neighbourhood, told MEE, motioning at a spread of hummus, foul and mutabal at her table. “We are regulars.”
MEE tried to ask Ahmed, a waiter from Aswan, Egypt, how he felt about the new arrivals, but he was too busy working. The response was a turned-up chin and click of the tongue, the regional slang for “No”.
Emmanuel Tsaferis is a Greek Jerusalemite who traces his family roots in the city back to the time of the Ottoman Empire, when Greeks were scattered across the Levant. Today, he is capitalizing on his Hebrew language skills and knowledge of Israel to ride the Israeli real estate boom.
His company, Nadlan 1on1 Properties, has offices in both countries. “If you have $100,000 in Israel you can’t do anything with it. But in Athens, you can buy a 50 to 60 square metre apartment.”
“The Israeli middle class is powering the real estate buying spree now,” Gabriel Haritos, a Jerusalem-based expert on Greek-Israeli ties at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (Eliamep), told MEE.
“Although the Israeli middle class is being hallowed out, when you look across the Eastern Mediterranean region to Greece’s neighbours – Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt – they are the only ones that can still afford to invest,” added Haritos, who teaches a course on Greek-Israeli ties at Ben Gurion University.
The real estate boom is unique because it coincides with a strengthening of bilateral political ties.
From pipelines to property
“This is the best period of time for Greek-Israeli relations in history,” said Haritos, the author of an upcoming book on Israeli-Cypriot relations.
The UAE’s decision to normalize ties with Israel under the Abraham Accords eclipsed Israel’s burgeoning relations with Greece, but their newfound cohesion has been quietly impacting the region.
When Greece established official diplomatic relations with Israel in the 1990s, it was the last European Union country at the time to do so. For years, ties remained frosty. Greece has historically been a champion of the Palestinian cause and once gave refuge to Yassar Arafat with shouts of ”Down with Zionism, victory to the PLO!’’
But the two found common cause in their shared concern over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s muscular foreign policy, particularly after a failed 2016 coup in Turkey.
They began to cooperate militarily. Israeli commandos train in Cyprus where the terrain resembles parts of Lebanon. In 2021, Israeli defence contractor Elbit Systems inked a $1.65bn deal with Greece to build an air force training school.
The discovery of potentially lucrative gas deposits in the Mediterranean Sea gave them a new prize to cooperate over. With US backing, Greece and Cyprus formed a trilateral mechanism with Israel. And in 2019, they founded the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum.
As plans to build a gas pipeline between them stalled, their focus shifted to boosting LNG deliveries. Europe’s rush to wean itself off Russian gas amid the war in Ukraine and Israel’s recent maritime agreement with Lebanon have given their efforts a boost.
Those developments grabbed news headlines, but the growing number of Israelis moving to Greece, and investing in property, underlines how the strengthening political relations have also trickled down to local economies and everyday life.
“Israelis are coming to Greece because they feel safe. There is also a new shared affinity where they see themselves as the two minorities in the wider region,” Haritos said.
Netanyahu’s return to power last year was welcomed in Greece. “In Greece, they like Netanyahu because he is seen as more anti-Turkish, and the big concern for Greece is what do we do about the Turks,” Haritos added.
Ironically, Netanyahu is also helping drive interest in Greek real estate. His partners in government are once fringe, far-right lawmakers like Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, and Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister.
Their ascent to power is a sign of the waning influence of left-leaning Israelis in a country where 62 percent of voters identify on the right and the population is becoming more religious.
Today, the ultra-orthodox community, or Haredim, accounts for about an eighth of Israel’s population and is the fastest-growing group due to higher birthrates. By 2030 they are expected to account for 16 percent of the population, and a third by 2065.
Farache said his real estate business saw solid growth over the last three years, but enquiries skyrocketed after the judicial showdown in March. “Before we would field two to three calls a week for property investment, then it just blew up – now it’s 15 a week.”
“As the environment in Israel becomes more toxic, people are looking for an escape,” he said, adding that he also sees the political tensions deterring domestic investment. “People with excess capital are more cautious about putting it into Israel today, so they are eying deals in Greece.”
‘Betting on Athens’
Gabriel Negrin appears lean and spry in a grey sports jacket. His hobbies are urban poetry and electronics, but his day job is as chief rabbi of the Athens’ Jewish Community.
Negrin’s family are Romaniote, or Greek-speaking Jews. Greece was once home to a sizable number of Jews. The largest community, mostly Ladino speakers, fled the Spanish Inquisition and settled in Thessaloniki – more than 90 percent were killed during the Holocaust. Today, there are about 5,000 Greek Jews.
“Israel is a spiritual home, but Greece is our country. I served in the Greek army, not the Israeli one,” he told MEE.
As chief rabbi, Negrin has recently taken on a new task: navigating the influx of Israelis to Greece.
“I never would have expected Israelis to relocate here before. It’s something new and it has posed some challenges.”
Greek Jews are assimilated into the Hellenic Republic. Unlike other European countries, Athens never had a Jewish quarter. Negrin estimates that 90 percent don’t speak Hebrew.
He says that 1,000 Israelis have settled permanently in Greece recently, but the number living in Athens part-time, taking advantage of Israel’s proximity to the country, is likely higher.
Some decide not to partake in religious life, making it hard to nail down an exact number. “I just did a Bris (Jewish ceremony) for a family that settled here from Israel, but I didn’t even know them. They found me on google,” Negrin said.
The new arrivals also have different expectations about the community. “For Greek Jews, religion is very much a part of our cultural experience, but for some Israelis, this isn’t necessarily true,” he added.
Many of the new arrivals he meets are younger and secular. Very few speak Greek.
“It’s definitely a trend. People are coming. They see Greece as a potential base or temporary escape. I think a lot of intellectuals are going to places like Berlin and Athens is attracting remote workers and people in real estate,” said Negrin.
Like other Greeks, he is concerned about how a wider influx of foreigners to Athens is pricing out locals, but he is also concerned by the exodus of young people from Israel. “I think the country needs diversity.”
“I had money in Israel and a good life. The fact that Greece is cheaper isn’t why I left. I didn’t feel free there,” Shira* the designer in Kolonaki said.
Tsaferis, the real estate broker, doesn’t specialize in relocation but says he is asked more frequently by Israeli clients how to obtain a Greek visa or enroll their children in school. Greece offers a golden visa to those who spend 250,000 euros or more on property. The price tag will double in three months.
“What started three or four years ago purely as an investment play is clearly being influenced by the political situation,” Tsaferis told MEE. “Israel is torn into two opposite sides.”
Israelis aren’t the only ones in the Middle East looking to Athens as a base, or potential back-up plan because of political and economic push factors. Lebanese who still have access to their cash amid a historic financial implosion have turned to Athens, as have upper-class Egyptians, Athens real estate insiders and experts say.
“Around the Eastern Mediterranean, Athens now has a reputation as a safe bet, and the word is out. Israelis are one of several nationalities from the region moving in,” Cameron Bell, a research fellow focused on the Eastern Mediterranean at the Athens Institute of International Relations, told MEE.
The Israeli influx also underlines how ties with Greece have taken root beyond the political space, at a time when some in Athens are concerned about rapprochement between Israel and Turkey after the latter’s elections.
“I think the warm ties between Greece and Israel are here to stay,” added Haritos, but he expressed a note of caution about Israelis scooping up Greek real estate.
“Greece is absorbing middle-class investment from Israel, but Greeks aren’t investing in Israel. When economic activity is one-sided, it’s not always a good thing,” he said.
Sean Mathews is a journalist for Middle East Eye writing about business, security and politics