Ari Shavit
Ha'aretz, August 27, 2004


Twenty-four hours before the opening of the 2004 Olympic Games, we sat on the penthouse roof. The Acropolis hovered above us. A white security blimp hovered above the Acropolis. And when the burning August sun disappeared in the west, when the orchestra began to play, when the Olympic torch was about to arrive, Mikis Theodorakis placed his hand on mine. And said, look how beautiful. Look how beautiful. And just as Goethe wrote: It's like frozen music, the Acropolis. It dominates all of Athens like frozen music.

Afterward he spoke about his music. How his music comes to him. He hears notes in his sleep. He turns on the light and jots down the notes on a piece of paper. He turns out the light and goes back to sleep, until more notes awaken him. So that toward morning, he gets up and gathers the pile of papers from the night. And when the silhouette of the Acropolis emerges from the darkness, he sits at his desk and tries to understand the main thing. The dominant idea. And he checks himself on the grand piano. Slowly but surely he carves out the proper shape from the chaos. The musical structure
that will remain.

I'm close to the German spirit, says Theodorakis. Very romantic, but very disciplined. Swept up completely in great feelings, but hard-working and orderly. I admire Beethoven and Wagner, have reservations about Schoenberg. I don't believe in intellectual music. I don't believe in what is cut off from myth, from religion, from human pain. From the terrible pain of death.

Does he think about death a lot? Every day. Every day. Only when he is into music does he feel immortal. But he doesn't delude himself. He celebrates this life, because beyond it there is no other life. And in recent years, his body's betrayal distresses him. Insults him. All his life he was so strong, and suddenly he needs this walking stick. Suddenly he has to lean on me when he rises slowly from his chair.

He is still very tall. He still has his mane of hair as well. A little sparser, a little grayer, but still there. And in his eyes the mischievous glint of a young boy. The self-deprecating humor. And the strong desire to take advantage of every moment. Every thought. Every living thing. Even his great love of women refuses to die. They're so beautiful, your women, Theodorakis whispers to me. Like in the Bible. Flowing with milk and honey.

The root of evil
Question: Mr. Theodorakis, on November 4, 2003 you said in this house the words that shocked Jews and non-Jews across the world. You said that the Jewish people are at the root of evil. What did you mean?

Answer: "For me the root of evil today is the policy of President Bush. It is a fascist policy. I cannot understand how is it that the Jewish people, who have been the victims of Nazism, can support such a fascist policy. No other people in the world support those policies but Israel! This situation saddens me. I am a friend of Israel. I am a friend of the Jewish people. But the policy of Sharon and the support for the policy of Bush darkens the image of Israel. I am afraid that Sharon is going to lead the Jews - just as Hitler led the Germans - to the root of evil."

Even today, 10 months later, you don't think you made a mistake when you uttered those words?

"No, but it's important for me to emphasize that I never said that the Jews are the root of evil. I said they are at the root of evil."

So you have no regrets?

"No. And I was very much hurt by the Jewish reaction to what I said. It was not a civilized reaction. I got hundreds and hundreds of poisonous e-mails from Jews all over the world. I couldn't understand this hatred toward me. I fought against racism all my life. I was for Israel. I wrote "Mauthausen." After all that, how could I become from one day to the next an anti-Semite?"

Let me explain to you the context for this reaction. Many Jews have a renewed fear of Europe. We are afraid that there is a new kind of anti-Semitism in Europe. So when you said what you said there was a feeling of thou too, Brutus. There was a feeling that even our old friend Theodorakis turned against us.

"I don't believe there is anti-Semitism in Europe. There is a reaction against the policy of Sharon and Bush. I think it's artificial to think there is a new anti-Semitism. It's an excuse. It's a way to avoid self-criticism. Rather than ask themselves what is wrong with the policy of Israel, Jews say the Europeans are against us because of the new anti-Semitism. Because they don't love us. And even Theodorakis says we are at the root of evil. This is a sick reaction."

Why? In what way is it a sick reaction?

"Because this kind of reaction is relevant to the psychopathology of the Jewish people. They want to feel victims. They want to have this comforting feeling. We are in the right, we are again victims. Let's create another ghetto. It's a masochistic reaction." 

The Jews are masochists?

"There is psychological masochism in the Jewish tradition."

Is there sadism as well?

"I'm certain that when Diaspora Jews talk among themselves, they feel satisfied. They feel that now, when we are so close to the greatest power in the world, no one can do anything to us. We can do whatever we like. This is why the claim of new anti-Semitism is not only a sick reaction, it's a sly reaction as well."

In what way is it sly?

"Because it really allows the Jews to do whatever they want. Not only psychologically, but also politically, it gives the Jews an excuse. The sense of victimhood. It gives them a license to hide the truth. There is no Jewish problem in Europe today. There is no anti-Semitism."

Tales of childhood
Let us go a bit deeper. Let us go back in time. When you were a child, before the Holocaust, what were your impressions of the Jews?

"The Jews of Greece were not different from the Greeks. They were entirely Greek. They loved their work and loved their family. At school they were the best. Good friends, good neighbors. No problems."

But there must have been something problematic as well. They were the other. They were different.

"The Jews were picturesque. I remember that for the old women, the Jews were the ones that crucified Christ!

"In 1932 I was in Ioannina. There was a very big Jewish community there. I played with the Jewish boys all the time. My grandmother was very religious. She had a room full of icons. She sang psalms. Much of my music was influenced by her religious singing. And I remember that in springtime she said to me: Now that it's Easter, don't go to the Jewish quarter. Because during Easter the Jews put Christian boys in a barrel with knives inside. Afterward they drink their blood."

Was this story imprinted in your young mind?

"It was a very powerful image. Years later, before I became a communist, I was a member of a fascist youth movement. It was a state-sponsored movement during the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas. We walked up and down the streets in uniform and heiled all the time. It was a bit like the Hitler Youth but comical. One day they gave me an assignment: to talk the next day about communism. I went home and asked my mother what is communism. She said she didn't know but she thinks it's something evil. What kind of evil, I asked. Evil like the Jews, she said. So I asked her if the communists also put little boys in barrels with knives and drink their blood.

"What do I want to say by telling you all this? These things exist. I wasn't aware of it before, but now, through your questions, I realize it is there."

Would you agree with me that for Christian Europe the Jewish people is not just another people. The Jews have a unique role in the inner theater of the European mind.

"I don't know about Europe. It's different than Greece. Different religion, different culture. We don't have religious dogmas. We are not fanatic."

Do you think the Jews are fanatic?

"Something that is very negative can also be positive. If the Jews didn't have fanaticism, they wouldn't have existed. There is no evil without good. The Jews need this fanaticism. What one might call Jewish fanaticism has more to do withself-defense. It was through their religion that Jews were interconnected and kept together."

You seem to be fascinated by the Jews. Why?

"To be a community that disregards all dangers and remains true to its origins - that's a mystery. Look at France, for example. There is a huge community of Jews in France where there is a great civilization. But do the Jews become French? No. They speak the French language perfectly. They succeed in their work. But they are not French. They always think of going back to Jerusalem."

So there is something unique about the Jewish way of existence?

"It's a metaphysical phenomenon. It cannot be explained."

In your opinion, what is it that holds us Jews together?

"It is the feeling that you are the children of God. That you are chosen."

Do you think Jews have a feeling of superiority because of this intimate relationship with God?

"There is that element too. Not all Jews have it. But very religious Jews do."

Is there something a bit arrogant and aggressive about the Jews?


Do you see in Sharon's Israel an expression of that element of the Jewish psyche?

"No, I wouldn't say that. But this question of superiority is not just a feeling. Because in the Jews' battle for self-defense they became distinguished. There are 200 Jews who won Nobel prizes. Christ, Marx and Einstein were Jewish. The Jews offered so much to science, art and music. They hold world finance in their hands. So it's only natural that they would see themselves as very strong. This gives them a feeling of superiority."

The Jews have international finance in their hands?

"They control a great deal of the world's finances."

So today's globalized capitalism is controlled very much by the Jews?

"Since we speak frankly, I will tell you something else. The Jewish people control most of the big symphonic orchestras in the world. When I wrote the Palestinian national anthem, the Boston Symphony was planning a production of my work. It is controlled by Jewish people. They didn't allow the concert to go on. Since then I cannot work with any great orchestra. They refuse me."

You ran into this problem with other orchestras too?

"Wherever there are Jews. Wherever there are orchestras controlled by Jewish people, they boycott my work."

You really feel Jews control much of the music world?


And the same applies to world finance?

"In America the Jewish community is very strong. It controls much of the economy. Certainly the mass media.

"Let me make myself clear: When the State of Israel was established, we were on the side of Israel. There was great sympathy toward Zionism because of what they suffered in the war. This is one side of the Jews. But the international Jewish community is also a negative phenomena. The Jewish people now appear to control the big banks. And often the governments. So whatever bad or evil comes from the governments, it's natural for ordinary people to associate that with the Jewish people."

You yourself think that the Jews, the international Jewish community, have control of the banks, Wall Street, the mass media?


And you say that now, through its influence on Bush, it has control of world affairs?


What is the Jewish influence on the Bush policy?

"I believe that the war in Iraq and the aggressive attitude toward Iran is greatly influenced by the Israeli secret services."

The Jews have so much power that they can direct the policy of the world's only superpower?

"There is a group of Jews who surround Bush and control the policy of the United States."

So the Jews pull the strings behind Bush?

"No. They are in the front."

America, the great superpower, is actually controlled today by the Jews?


What are the intentions of the Jews who control President Bush?

"The main front is the Arabs. They believe that by hitting the Arabs they could help Israel survive. They give a military solution to the problem of the future existence of Israel."

But the present American policy is a reaction to 9/11. It's a response to the threat of bin Laden.

"First you have to ask who is bin Laden. There are peculiar things here. He worked for the Americans in the past. Even when 9/11 happened, he could have been working for the U.S. secret services.

"I don't want to say that those who hit the Twin Towers were Americans themselves. It would be madness to say it. But American technology was used in 9/11."

Is it possible that it was a provocation?

"In the U.S., there are many forces. There are super patriots there. I think the part bin Laden played is suspicious."

What you are saying is that there was some sort of American conspiracy here.

"I don't believe that these barefoot men of Afghanistan did it. That's a joke. Not even Japanese technology could do it. Not even German technology."

Is it possible that the Mossad played a part in 9/11?

"The Mossad has the technology. But even they are not a superpower. American controls everything."

Divulging the family secrets
After a few hours of conversation, he was already Mikis. I was Ari. He asked about my son and my daughter, told me about his son and daughter. Entrusted the greatest family secrets to me. And when he tired of talking, he said now we'll hear some music. And when he sat in the leather armchair, his feet on the footrest, Theodorakis enthusiastically conducted the stereo system by means of the remote control in his hand. When the powerful sounds flooded the room, when the hymnal music filled everything with profound, heart-shattering emotional pathos, the interviewee smiled excitedly. And he turned and stared with wet eyes at the Carmel-like landscape outside: dry pine trees, dusty cypress trees, the ancient rocky soil of Athens.

I don't understand, he said angrily. I don't understand why God has to be such a strict judge. Why is the Judeo-Christian religion so judgmental? And why does it try to implant fear in man? Why does it cause him to feel that he was born in sin? Is making love to Eve a sin? Love is the most beautiful thing there is. And if there is a God, he gave us our lives so that we would live them. Live them with our bodies. With our eyes, with our ears, with our sexual organs. And so we could celebrate this life, which is so short. And so we could say thank you for this life. Let's thank God and dance with the women.

I look at him. He's impressive, he's full of life, he's totally lucid.

Although only two days ago he left the hospital to which he is scheduled to return, he is gaining strength before my eyes. As though these conversations are doing him good. Are lifting some heavy burden from him. And when he lectures me on his thoughts about life, about love and about death, something in his presence emanates a profound human warmth. Emanates existential density. Maybe even greatness.

But this charismatic man he says the things he says about the Jews without any sense of how they sound. How they reverberate. And to the strains of the music that he plays for me, the entire matter becomes clear. All that lies there between Christian Europe and its Jews. This profound tragedy. This perverted intimacy. This 1,000 year saga of loving hate. Of hating love.

Theodorakis cuts me off. He says that he misses the Israeli audience very much. That there's no audience in the world like the Israeli audience. Once, after a performance in Caesarea, a senior army officer approached him and said: If you tell us now to march into the sea, we'll march into the sea after you. And he asks about Yael Dayan. He really loved Yael Dayan.

And he tells me about Moshe Dayan. How Moshe Dayan offered him help on the day of the colonels' coup in Athens. He also speaks of Yigal Allon. About the heart-to- heart talks that he had with Allon on the shore of Lake Kinneret. And how it was Allon who sent him to Arafat. Sent him with a message of peace and determination to Arafat.

Theodorakis plays the Palestinian anthem for me twice. Once in a vocal rendition, once in an orchestral rendition. And he bangs out the beat of the march on the floor with his walking stick. The beat of a justified struggle for liberation. And he tells me how Arafat pressured him for years to write an anthem for the Palestinians. And how, when he brought the tape with the anthem to Beirut, the members of the revolutionary council rose and cheered and cried. He composed the anthem based on a Greek partisan song. Based on a song of sacrifice sung by fighters against the Nazi regime.

Mikis Theodorakis, on several occasions, when criticizing Israeli policy, you used the Nazi analogy. Criticism of Israeli occupation is justified. But why use terms such as "Israel's Nazi mentality" or "Israel's Nazi barbarity"?

"To me it seems very natural to make this comparison because Israel is very much connected with Nazism. I wrote this to you this morning: After the Holocaust, the Jew is the anti-Nazi. Forever. You are condemned to be that. Six million voices are calling on you. They are calling out, never again camps. They cannot even imagine that Israel would adopt similar methods. There is no need for Israel to create the gas chambers. If you kill women and children, it's a similar thing."

Israel is doing wrong in the West Bank and Gaza. No argument about that. But why not compare it to the French in Algiers or the Dutch in Indonesia. Going for the ultimate analogy of evil seems to prove an inability to accept the Jews as gray. If they are not white, they are the darkest black. If they are not victims, they are murderers.

"Until the Holocaust the Jewish people were victims. One day they said, I don't want to be a victim any longer. I'll create a state. I'll show that I'm strong. The question is whether this is not a historical trap. If you didn't embark on the road to revenge."

What do you mean?

"After World War I, the Germans were victims. The Germans felt they were victims. They felt they were just. Others did them wrong and they were just. That was the seed of Hitler."

So the Jews of today are like the Germans of the twenties and thirties?

"Hitler, too, said we are not going to be victims any more. We'll arm ourselves and we'll have revenge. Look where it led. That is something that could happen to Israel."

That's exactly my point. You want us as sheep. You even love us as sheep. But you cannot come to terms with the idea that we may use force like any other nation.

"The Jews escaped from the wolves' teeth. And you got on boats to go to the land of your ancestors. Who wasn't with Israel then? I was. We all were. You took a barren land and you turned it green. You created the kibbutz, which is the only successful example of democratic communism. You created a civilized nation. And when we saw you defend yourselves after half of you remained in the gas chambers, we were with you. You were David and we stood by you.

"But this changed. Israel became a superpower. It has nuclear arms. It is very strong. And whom are you fighting? A million women and children and poorly trained Palestinians. So you are Goliath now. Palestine is David. And I am with David."

But it goes further than that? You think there was a dramatic transformation here. You think the Jews were transformed from being the Nazis' victims to being the new Nazis.

"It was a gradual process. The fact that the Jews were led to the gas chambers in a peaceful way, almost like lambs, troubled them deeply. They wanted to show that they are not sheep. That they can become wolves.

"Up to a point this is natural. It's human. But you should have become wolf dogs, not wolves.

"I think there is an element of racism here. You Israelis begin to think that you are superior to the Arabs just because you have financial power and a strong army and an alliance with the superpower."

Do you think we developed a Nazi-like superiority complex? 

"When you go and blow up houses, what is it? It's similar to Nazi behavior. When you uproot trees, what is it? It's Nazi behavior. When you order people out of their homes within an hour, what is it? It's Nazi behavior. It's Nazi mentality."

Let's leave politics aside. When you look at us Jews as a whole, what do you find impressive and what is intolerable?

"When I was in Israel, I loved the madness of the people there. The brains. The joy of life. The drunkenness. A normal person gets drunk when he drinks wine. A Jew gets drunk without wine. You too. You don't have to drink at all. You are drunk already.

"I also loved the girl in the kibbutz who would wake up in the morning to work the land and have her gun with her. She knew how to protect her country and fight for her country. I found that very attractive. She was a beautiful girl. Like honey, and when she was holding the gun, she was even more beautiful. I was much younger then. I was attracted to the heroism of Israel. The Jews are a historic phenomenon that attracts me enormously. I am envious of it. I don't think anyone can be indifferent to it."

And what don't you like about us?

"On a personal level, nothing. You are not different to me or anyone else. But what I don't accept in the Jewish people is what I don't accept in the Freemasons. The Masonic Lodge is a group of people who help each other just because they are members of that lodge. That happens among the Jews as well. Especially in sensitive areas like art and music. I don't accept that."

The Jews have too much power?

"In certain areas - yes. I don't like these small groupings that support one another. I view them as expressions of a racist approach. National or religious or Mafia clans are cancerous growths."

What troubles you is that Jews maintain a ghetto attitude even when they are not weak anymore. When they are powerful.

"Yes. I ran into it in music, but it happens elsewhere. Especially in finance. And in the mass media. This is what makes the Jews unattractive."

You think there is a Jewish tendency to dominate?

"To dominate? Yes. And it comes with a superiority complex."

So the sense of superiority and the tendency to control are a feature of the Jews?

"Yes. Yes. I think that the Jewish religion that teaches a child from a very young age that our God is very strong gives him a sense of security. So there is a contradiction there: The people that were historically the most fearful, are mentally the less fearful because of their religion. But now, when they have great power, this attitude becomes dangerous."

Learning from the Greeks
From the point of view of the Israeli peace camp, Mikis Theodorakis' practical political views are at least reasonable. He recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. He believes in a two-state solution. He also thinks that the Palestinians should learn from the experience of the Greeks, and understand that return is impossible. About 2 million refugees from Asia Minor were absorbed in Greece in the 1920s, including the family of Theodorakis' mother.

As opposed to a significant proportion of his colleagues on the European left, Theodorakis doesn't think that Zionism is a colonialist movement. He is aware that the Jews needed a country of their own, which had to be established in their homeland. Since he is a romantic Greek, he says, he has a romantic weakness for the romantic dimension of Zionism. In his eyes, the fact that the Children of Israel returned to the historical womb from which they emerged is very beautiful.

In the future, when the occupation comes to an end, he will support Israel's joining the European Union. Europe has a moral obligation to the Jews, he says. From a cultural point of view as well, Israel is part of Europe. Therefore, Israeli membership in the EU will be only natural.

One night he wrote me a letter. The conversations between us had aroused thoughts that caused him insomnia. In his handwriting, in pencil, in cramped Greek letters, he wrote that he's afraid of the rise of a new Nazism. That he thinks the role of the Jews is to come out against the new Nazism. And that therefore, Israel stands today at a critical crossroad. It must choose Europe rather than America. Peace rather than war. It must be faithful to its historic destiny.

Afterward he admitted that his relationships with Jews are love-hate relationships. And again he described to me the audience that hung from the rafters of the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv in the early 1970s. And he played the song that the Israelis most liked to hear. And translated the words for me (So profound is the sorrow). And played the requiem that he wrote after the death of his father. Said that he wanted to die after his father's death. Until suddenly the sounds of this religious music came to him. That's how he started to compose: Every Sunday he would write a new work for the church choir. Just like Bach, he laughs. And that's why now, after the death of his father and the death of his mother and the death of his brother, he has found some consolation in this Passion. Because although he isn't religious, he has some religion in him. He doesn't believe in the Church, he doesn't believe in an afterlife, but he loves Jesus' love. Is moved to tears when he thinks about Jesus' sacrifice. His sufferings on the cross.

With your permission, I'd like to go back to your upbringing. To what you were taught at a very young age. How do you explain your grandmother's fear of the Jews?

"I think it came from religion. From the priests."

It had to do with the killing of Christ?

"Yes. My grandmother was not a well-educated woman."

I am trying to understand her. Not to judge her. Perhaps the fear of the Jews had to do with the fact they killed the son of God. If someone has the power to kill the son of God, he has enormous power.

"I think that the attitude of the Greeks toward the Jews has its roots in the way the Jews behaved themselves. In small communities like ours, there were no secrets. We knew that among the Jews there were secrets they did not share with us. They wanted to be different. To keep separate. I understand that. It comes from a need for self-defense."

Can you give me examples?

"Very often there were love affairs between Jews and Greeks. But the Jewish families did not want their young to marry Christians. But this closeness and secretiveness, it provokes. They never invited me to a Jewish home. I had Jewish friends. They came to my house. But I was never invited to their homes. I wanted to go in and I was not allowed. So I began wondering why not. What's happening there. The Jews paid a price for trying to keep their Jewishness. Their closed society."

Were there other reasons for the special attitude toward the Jews?

"Yes. There was something else. When a Jew progressed, especially to control commerce or to have economic power, it provoked envy. You have that kind of envy for successful Greeks as well. But in the case of the Jews, the perceived wisdom was that he became rich not because of his talent but because he was a Jew. And the Jews could pull strings to help one another to progress."

So for you it was the secretiveness and closeness of the Jews that was the most troubling. Not the role of the Jews in the Jesus story.

"At that time, that story did not interest me. For the Greek Orthodox Church, it was important. Anyway, during the war the Jews were chased like animals. And we in the progressive movement saved tens of thousands of Jews. The Jews of Thessaloniki were the victims of the rabbis who didn't let them come and hide in the mountains with us. For us, the Jews of Greece were not different from the Greeks. They were entirely Greek."

Later you did become preoccupied with the Jews. Why? When? 

"When I started searching for the springs of humanity. I realized the importance of the two streams, the Jewish and the Hellenic. I realized that these are the two pillars of western civilization. Judaism had two contributions to civilization. One was positive: morality. The other was negative: an autocratic mental structure. The idea that there is one God that we must obey comes from Judaism. Later it was exploited by secular powers. It created a society that is vertical. Hierarchical. Very different from the Hellenic democracy."

What are the consequences of this mental-autocratic structure of Judaism?

"You have traditions of pride. It derives from your religion. The belief that God loves you and you are the chosen people. This gave you the power to survive against all odds. Every time you emerged as heroes. But it also created a great danger. It gave birth to racism."

So we have to learn from the Greeks?

"In Greek mythology, there is no evidence of the concept of Hellenic superiority. In the Bible, you find the seed of the concept of superiority. Of Jewish superiority. The whole Bible wants to prove that God loves only one people, and that is the Jewish people."

Do you think that the seeds of Sharon and Bush lie in this biblical tradition? 

"It could be possible."

And what is the story that shaped your mind? Was it not the Jesus story?

"The myth of Christ inspired all big composers. In the end, the story of Christ is the most important. It's more important than the tragedy of Sophocles."

But the role of the Jews in the story is problematic. It is not pleasant.

"This is very strange. Christ was Jewish. But the Jewish people for some reason are against a Jew that all the others love. So the position of the Jews is very special. Very special. Suppose Christ was Greek, and everybody likes Christ but we Greeks don't. It's very strange. Very strange."

The Jews rejected the most important Jew?

"Yes. They are very special. The Jews are the most important. Millions and millions of Catholics and Orthodox believe in a Jew, Christ, whom the Jews don't like. I think this explains your position.

"The world is as it is because the Jews were not listening at the right time. It's difficult.

"Yes. It's difficult. This is the drama of the Jewish people in this world. You are against yourselves. I don't know why you are against the message of love of Jesus."

Mikis Theodorakis, this is a great moment for Greece. You are Greece's great cultural hero. And here you are, spending four days with an Israeli journalist. Why?

"I owe it to Israel. Especially to my friends in Israel. I know they are very upset. The false interpretation of what I said in November 2003 deeply wounded a whole people. The Jewish people."

And now, as we bring this interview to a close, would you say that you want a reconciliation with the Jews? Do you want to shake their hand once more?

"I never withdrew my hand. Throughout my life I paid a great price so I could always look at myself in the mirror. It would be tragic for me to remain an enemy of your people. It is unjust. It is very very unjust. I am a true friend of the Jewish people."

A life of acclaim and struggle
Mikis Theodorakis was born on July 29, 1925. At the age of 12 he began to compose. In his youth, he belonged to a fascist youth group, but in 1942, after he was arrested by the Italian occupation regime, he became a communist. He took an active part in the struggle against the Germans, and in the Greek civil war. Time after time he was sent to jails, detention camps and remote islands. He was injured and tortured, and he fell ill. During all this, he didn't stop composing.

During the 1950s, Theodorakis studied in Paris. He composed classical music, wrote works for the ballet. In the early 1960s he returned to Greece and developed his unique musical style, which immediately enjoyed sweeping success. Theodorakis also composed music for many films. The most famous of them is "Zorba the Greek" (1964). After the murder of opposition leader Grigoris Lambrakis, Theodorakis became a political activist and a left-wing member of parliament. After the colonels' coup in 1967, he went underground, was arrested and detained on a remote island. Three years later he was released and left for exile in Paris.

During the 1970s, the exiled composer made a series of visits to Israel. His concerts in Caesarea, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem attracted huge crowds. Theodorakis became a favorite of Israel's upper crust, and an ally of the peace movement. Later on, when he identified with the Palestinian struggle, he was harshly criticized by right-wing circles. His visits to Israel tapered off until they stopped altogether.

In Greece itself, Theodorakis is considered a provocative public figure. His transition from left to right to left drew quite a lot of criticism. In spite of that, his name is still mentioned as a possible candidate for president. His status as the most important Greek musician is unquestioned. Even in France, Germany and the Scandinavian countries, Theodorakis is a cultural figure of the first rank. Some consider him a person whose work and life embody the spirit of the contemporary European left.

In recent years, Mikis Theodorakis has adopted a militant anti-American approach. He criticized the NATO bombings in Serbia, and opposed the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. In 2002 he led the mass anti-Israel rallies in Athens and in Thessaloniki. In November 2003, he aroused an international furor when he was quoted as saying that the Jews are the root of evil. Since making that statement, Theodorakis has not agreed to grant an interview to any Israeli media outlet.