Tunisia’s Jews: The road to Djerba

Posted on By E.B. The Economist May 1st, 2013 FOR centuries, the tiny Tunisian island of Djerba played host to thousands of Jews on an annual pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba'omer. Muslims, eager to share the festivities, joined in too. Pilgrims sang songs as they made their way through the streets towards the synagogue, the oldest in Africa. Locals sold almonds and deep-fried savoury pastries called brik. Tunisia’s two-thousand-year-old Jewish community, which numbered 100,000 when the country gained independence from France in 1956, has now dwindled to around 1,600. Years of emigration, and a suicide bomb attack on the synagogue in 2002 which killed 21 people, have dampened the annual affair. In 2011 it was cancelled for security reasons, following the jasmine revolution which ousted the then-president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The occasion drew a few hundred foreign pilgrims last year; but this time the organizers, and Tunisia’s tourism ministry, were determined to stage a revival. In fact, attendance was only slightly up on last year. Most of those on the three-day pilgrimage, which concluded on April 28th, were locals—Jews (and some Muslims) from Djerba or nearby Zarzis on the mainland. Jewish émigrés, nostalgic for the home country, came mainly from France, but also Canada and Israel. The French ambassador, François Gouyette, made a surprise visit. Surrounded by twitchy bodyguards, he joined the pilgrims’ procession and declared that French tourists should not hesitate to visit the country. Amid a struggling economy, Tunisia’s government, led by the Islamist Nahda party, was especially keen to show tourists, as well as friendly foreign governments with oil interests in the region, that it has the security situation under control—particularly in the wake of last week’s car bomb attack on the French embassy in Tripoli, the capital of neighboring Libya. The daunting level of security provided by the government for what in the event were just a few hundred pilgrims, was designed to demonstrate its commitment to defending Tunisian Jews' rights to operate as a community, despite the fact that the country’s proposed new constitution makes no reference to minority rights. The pilgrims, meanwhile, proudly displayed their Tunisian patriotism, waving flags and singing the national anthem. Most Tunisian Jews say they continue to feel at home here. Yet they remain, to some extent, hostage to international relations. Though the proposed constitution does not mention minority rights, it does refer to Tunisia’s opposition to all forms of racial discrimination “especially Zionism”. Graffiti scrawled on the wall of the tourism ministry in Tunis, the capital, in reaction to the Jewish pilgrims’ arrival, reminded passers-by that Palestinians are still waiting for their “right of return”. Djerbans, proud of their island’s historical diversity, are well aware that their Mediterranean-style convivencia, is, like jasmine, a fragile bloom.%A %B %e%q, %Y No Comments

By E.B. The Economist May 1st, 2013 FOR centuries, the tiny Tunisian island of Djerba played host to thousands of Jews on an annual pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba’omer. Muslims, eager to share the festivities, joined in too. Pilgrims sang songs as they made their way […]

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‘We’ve been in Tunisia for 2,500 years. It’s our country still’

Posted on By Kouichi Shirayanagi March 28, 2013 The Jewish Chronicle The Israeli Foreign Ministry recently issued a travel warning for Israelis visiting Tunisia over Passover. In addition, the Israeli government will probably again tell citizens not to visit Tunisia for the annual El Ghriba pilgrimage to Djerba at the end of April. However, since the Tunisian revolution in 2011, only a few Jewish families have emigrated from Tunisia. Many may wonder: if the Jewish community is really in such grave danger, why have so many Jews decided to stay? There are differing views in the community on how the changes in the country will impact Jews, and the tales of two Djerbian brothers encapsulate two sides of the story. Raphael Cohen, a former resident of the Jewish neighbourhood of Hara Kabira, Djerba, was shaken by the changes in government in the summer of 2011, five months after Tunisia’s revolution. Back then, he said that his biggest concern was the civil war in neighbouring Libya. “Does Obama know that once Gaddafi falls, men with beards will be emboldened and made much stronger here? I don’t think the Jewish community has a future here once they become strong,” he said. Gaddafi’s regime fell in October and, by January, 2012 Raphael was on a plane to Israel to make aliyah. His emigration coincided with the week in which Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh went on a speaking tour of Tunisia, on the invitation of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party. Haniyeh was greeted at the airport by a crowd chanting “death to the Jews”. Raphael now lives in a Merkaz Klitah in Beer’sheva with his family. Raphael’s brother, Rabbi Daniel Cohen, however, came to a different conclusion. He lives in the Tunis suburb of La Goulette and is the rabbi of the Beit Mordechai Synagogue. He has said many times that he is Tunisian, holds no other nationality and would always stay in Tunisia, his “holy land”. “We lived for many years under a dictator and, now that we are trying democracy, why am I supposed to leave?” he asked. He insisted that the victory of the Ennahda party was not a threat. “Jews have lived in Tunisia for more than 2,500 years and we are still here, because Tunisia is not just a Muslim country, it is a Jewish country too.” There are synagogues and graves of venerated rabbis in nearly every town and city in Tunisia, totalling over 300 sites, but many are relatively abandoned because Jews no longer live in many outlying regions. Still, the tradition of making pilgrimages (or seudah) to holy sites remains. Unlike the governments of Egypt, Iraq and Syria, Tunisia has never stripped citizenship from a single Jew for immigrating to Israel, and it emerged this week that the drafters of country’s new constitution are considering allocating parliamentary seats to Jews. In January, a video circulated on Facebook of Daniel on Tunisian TV celebrating the barmitzvah of his son, Moshe, in Tunis. In Tunisia, large parties are usually open affairs with no invitations. Although only time will tell what will happen to the Jews of Tunisia, for now, the majority still think like Daniel. Kouichi Shirayanagi is the Communications Director of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa%A %B %e%q, %Y No Comments

By Kouichi Shirayanagi March 28, 2013 The Jewish Chronicle The Israeli Foreign Ministry recently issued a travel warning for Israelis visiting Tunisia over Passover. In addition, the Israeli government will probably again tell citizens not to visit Tunisia for the annual El Ghriba pilgrimage to Djerba at the end of April. However, since the Tunisian […]

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Jews head to Tunisian island for annual pilgrimage

Posted on Jewish leaders hope the three-day pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue, Africa's oldest, on the island of Djerba is regaining momentum after attendance plummeted in the wake of a 2002 al-Qaida bombing. April 27, 2013 By Reuters Ha'aretz Africa's oldest synagogue is playing host to that rarity in the Arab world - a religious gathering of hundreds of Jews drawn from Europe and Israel. Guarded by armed Tunisian police, Jewish revellers chant and dance in a three-day pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue at an island resort 500 km south of Tunis. In 2011, after the uprising that toppled former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the annual celebration was cancelled and in 2012 only a few dozen Jews attended out of fear of possible attacks by hardline Islamists. In 2002 militants linked to al-Qaida attacked the synagogue with a truck bomb killing 21 Western tourists. Security for this year's pilgrimage is tight, with hundreds of police on duty. "The strong presence of security is a positive step and sends a message to the Jews in the world that Tunisia protects us even if its leaders are Islamists", Perez Trabelsi, the head of the Jewish community in Djerba, told Reuters. "Jews in the world will see the government's efforts to make the celebration safe and will return in their thousands over the next few years and will not pay attention to any threat," he added. On Sunday Tunisia's tourism minister is due to take part in the celebrations, which have attracted dozens of Tunisian Muslims. "We are here to send a message of peace and tolerance embracing everyone," said a Tunisian woman named Zahayra Lakhel, putting on a Jewish head scarf before she entered the synagogue. "We also want to change the image of Muslims who have been associated with violence and terror. The Jews have been our friends for years and we are here to remember old and beautiful memories away from religious and political tensions." Mainly Muslim Tunisia is home to one of North Africa's largest Jewish communities. Though they now number less than 1,800 people, Jews have lived in Tunisia since Roman times. The Ghriba synagogue, home to most of Tunisia's Jews, is built on the site of a Jewish temple that is believed to date back almost 1,900 years.%A %B %e%q, %Y No Comments

Jewish leaders hope the three-day pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue, Africa’s oldest, on the island of Djerba is regaining momentum after attendance plummeted in the wake of a 2002 al-Qaida bombing. April 27, 2013 By Reuters Ha’aretz Africa’s oldest synagogue is playing host to that rarity in the Arab world – a religious gathering of […]

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اخر المتبقين من يهود تونس

Posted on مستقبل واحدة من أهم الجاليات اليهودية العربية مهددة بخطر الانقراض ، و الخطر هذه المرة ليس من الدولة الاسلامية “داعش” . جربا ، تونس شواهد القبور المتصدعة والمنتشرة في محيط المقبرة وراء الكنيس الكبير ترسخ حياة المجتمع اليهودي التونسي الصغير. المئات من اليهود الذين انتقلوا بعيدا على مدى العقود الخمسة الماضية أخذوا رفات أقاربهم معهم، ولم يتبق سوى هذه الألواح من الرخام منقوش عليها بالعبرية. “هناك رفات عمرها أكثر من 80 أو 90 عام و هي صعبة النقل لعتقها ” يقول يوسف صباغ 43 عام و هو مهتم بشؤون نقل رفات اليهود التوانسة الى اسرائيل حيث هاجر معظم أقارب أصحاب الرفات . هذه الرفات كانت يوماً ما للجالية اليهودية النابضة بالحياة التي بلغ عددهم يوماً 100000 في جميع أنحاء تونس. ولكن اليهود اليوم في جربة 1100 نسمة بعد أن تركها اليهود بسبب الاضطهاد الذي تعرضوا له عام 1940. أولئك الذين بقوا يشكرون جزيلاً على اصرارهم على البقاء في تونس و تركيزهم على بناء عائلات كبيرة بقيم أبوية. ولكن المجتمع يواجه الآن تحدياً آخر: النساء اليهوديات يستاءون من القيود والرجال يعانون من الاقتصاد التونسي المنهك. الانتقال إلى إسرائيل، حيث لليهود الحق في الجنسية تلقائيا، يمكنهم من حل هاتين القضيتين ولكن يكونوا بذلك أيضا قد قضوا على واحدة من اخر المجتمعات اليهودية في العالم العربي. في أواخر شهر مايو، ملأت الحشود المزخرفة باللونين الأبيض والأزرق شارع شاغيرا المغطى وفيه كنيس في اخر الحارة، و شاغيرا هو واحد من اثنين من الجيوب اليهودية في جربة، ويعتبروا جزء من رحلة الحج السنوية التي اجتذبت الغرباء إلى الجزيرة. جموع الحجاج أوقدوا الشموع في الحرم وو ضعوا البيض المغطاة بأمنيات مكتوبة بخط اليد في كهف في طابق الكنيس. في الشارع المرصوف غنى المحتفلين وأكلوا الكسكس مع السمك، وشربوا الخمر و التين والبيرة في فناء مشمس مزين بالأعلام التونسية الحمراء. وكان هذا الحدث بمناسبة عيد لاج باعومر، الذي يكرم القرن الثاني لليهود الصوفي الحاخام شمعون بار يوشاي، و هذا تقليد تونسي بامتياز. الا أنه تم إلغاء هذا الاحتفال في عام 2011 وسط أحداث الثورة التونسية التي أطاحت بالرئيس زين العابدين بن علي، وهو الذي كان حامي السكان اليهود في البلاد . تم اعادة احياء هذا التقليد في ظل الحكومة الحالية في البلاد، والذي تثمن هذه الفعاليات و تعتبرها رمز للاستقرار ولكن ثلاث هجمات إرهابية كبيرة حصلت منذ بداية العام 2015 من قبل جماعة الدولة الإسلامية المتطرفة في موقع يبعد ساعة بالسيارة إلى الجنوب من جزيرة جربة مما أثار مخاوف السياح و المراقبين للوضع. في اليوم الأول من الحج جاء عبد الفتاح مورو، نائب رئيس البرلمان ونائب رئيس حزب النهضة الإسلامي المعتدل، عانق الحاخام والمقيمين في جربة بالقرب من كنيس غريبة اليهودي.”، وقال مورو. “تونس حمت يهودها و ما يؤدي إلى التطرف هو وجود الثقافة الواحدة فقط. ووجود العديد من الثقافات يسمح لنا قبول الآخر”. شعور بالأمان زوار الحج مشوا من خلال جهاز الكشف عن المعادن ومروا بنقاط تفتيش تشرف عليها القوات الخاصة اضافة الى الشاحنات العسكرية التي كانت مدججة بالسلاح الثقيل. طائرة هليكوبتر كانت كذلك تستطلع من فوق. وكانت إجراءات أمنية مشددة قد اتخذت منذ تفجير شاحنة 2002عام قتل اثرها 21 شخص معظمهم من السياح في الكنيس. إلا أن كل ذلك لم يمنع الحكومة الإسرائيلية، في الأسابيع التي سبقت مهرجان غريبة اليهودي، من إصدار تحذير السفر لمواطنيها لتجنب تونس، ولكن يقول بيريز الطرابلسي، الرئيس البالغ من العمر 74 عاما لمهرجان غريبة اليهودي أن إسرائيل تصدر التحذير ذاته في كل عام منذ قيام الثورة. ويضيف بيريز”ليس هناك حقا أي خطر ، لدينا حرية المغادرة لكننا لن نذهب إلى أي مكان.” ومع ذلك، نقل طرابلسي قبر والده إلى إسرائيل قبل ثلاث سنوات. ويعيش أبنائه الستة في باريس. وقال منذ الثورة التونسية حوالي 30 من اليهود غادروا جربة الحاخام بيتان وغيره الكثير يفكرون في الانتقال الى اسرائيل ولكن ليس بسبب الخوف. حجر أساس في القدس بني كنيس غريبة اليهودي على الأسس التي يقول سكان محليون أنها تشمل حجراً من الهيكل الأساسي في القدس ولذلك لا تزال القدس حجر الزاوية في عقول يهود جربة. شيران الطرابلسي (23 عاما) تدرس الصف الرابع في الحارة الكبيرة و هي أكبر حارات جربا اليهودية. تتذكر شيران زيارة جديها في المدينة الساحلية عسقلان في عام 2006. وتقع معظم أعضاء الجالية اليهودية في تونس في اثنين من الاحياء في جزيرة جربة. تقول شيران “كنت في عالم مختلف كان هناك أشجار وكل شيء مزدهر وأخضر ونظيف وعندما وصلت إلى هنا، شعرت وكأنه لا يوجد لون في المدينة.” وقال الطرابلسي “يهود جربة يجب أن يتحركوا إلى إسرائيل بشكل جماعي “- على الرغم من ان شيران اعترفت انها لن تتحرك من دون والديها أو زوج المستقبل. يقول الحاخام المرأة يجب أن تعمل فقط داخل المجتمع، وهو أمر يهدف للحد من تعرضهم للعالم الخارجي. هذه القاعدة تقيد عملهم في التعليم ورعاية الأطفال، قص الشعر، وخياطة الملابس. وقالت معلمة رياض الأطفال يسكا مامو، 24 عاما، درست الاقتصاد في المدارس العامة، ولكن مثل معظم اليهود في جزيرة جربة، لم تذهب إلى التعليم العالي، “أنا أيضاً رغبت في الانتقال لإسرائيل، لأنه بعد العمل هنا لا يمكننا القيام بأي شئ سوى العودة الى الدار و التنظيف”. و هذه مرثية ترددها العديد من النساء اليهوديات الشابات، الذين يشكل وجودهم المفتاح لبقاء المجتمع الذي ينمو بفضل ما لا يقل عن 30 حالة ولادة في السنة. الشباب، أيضا يحلمون بالتحرك و الانتقال لكن مع التركيز على الأمن الاقتصادي. الاقتصاد يلهم للهجرة مثل الكثير من الرجال اليهود في جزيرة جربة، يوني حداد يعمل في تجارة المجوهرات. ومن المعروف أن المجتمع يعمل في الفضة،و أغطية الرأس المطلية بالذهب للزفاف والقلائد التي تحظى بشعبية عند العرائس المسلمين. وهي حرفة التي تم تناقلها من جيل إلى جيل .لكن في الزيارة الأخيرة لم يدخل سوى عدد قليل من الزوار الناطقين بالروسية للسوق المتواضع . أصحاب المحال التجارية اليهود والمسلمين على حد سواء عانوا من خسائر فادحة حيث تخلى السياح عن تونس خوفا من الأوضاع الأمنية بعد أن هاجم مسلحون ينتمون لتنظيم داعش فندق بيتش في سوسة في الشمال في صيف عام 2015، مما أسفر عن مقتل 38 شخصا، معظمهم من السياح البريطانيين. أما حداد فلديه أقارب في القدس لكنه متردد في ترك منزله و أعماله في جربة. مع ذلك يفكر في الانتقال بالطبع، إلى إسرائيل اذ إنها المحطة الأخيرة. وقال يغال بالمور المتحدث باسم الوكالة اليهودية، وهي منظمة شبه الحكومية تشجع على الهجرة إلى إسرائيل، “هناك مستقبل ضعيف جدا لأي مجتمع يهودي في أي بلد عربي إلا إذا تغيرت الأمور بشكل كبير.الا أنه لا يعتقدو أن لليهود مستقبل حقيقي هنا. والجالية اليهودية في المغرب هي الوحيد في العالم العربي الأكبر من جالية تونس – ومعظمهم من كبار السن. بينما تضاءلت المجتمعات المصرية واللبنانية والسورية لبضع عشرات. كما رحل اليهود تماماَ من ليبيا والجزائر. منزل في مكانين بعد ظهر يوم الخميس، نظفت إلينور حداد، 16 عاما، مطبخ منزل عائلتها تحضيراً لعطلة نهاية الأسبوع. وكان أخوها الأكبر قد عاد قبل يوم واحد من رحلة لاسرائيل، وارتدت إلينور سوار جلبه لها أخوها من هناك. وقالت لا يمكنني القيام بنفس الرحلة لأن الحاخام بيتان حكم ضد سفر الفتيات السفر وحدهن. ولكن حان الوقت لزيارة إسرائيل. لتجنب الاندماج التام في المجتمع التونسي، تتعلم الفتيات في المدرسة الثانوية منهج إسرائيلي. حداد يتحدث العبرية بطلاقة إلى جانب العربية كما تسربت الأعراف الإسرائيلية إلى حياتهم المنزلية كذلك حيث ليلة الجمعة عشاء في منزل حداد و هو عبارة عن وجبة الكسكس اليهودية التونسية التقليدية أما غداء يوم الخميس فهو شرائح الدجاج وهي وجبة إسرائيلية مشتركة ومستوردة من قبل المهاجرين اليهود الأوروبيين. ليلة الخميس تجلس ايلانور مع الأصدقاء وراء الأبواب المغلقة و تقول الحج هو فرصة لرؤية الناس واذا أتيحت لي الفرصة للانتقال إلى إسرائيل واود ان اذهب، لكن كل شيء على مايرام هنا أيضا. أما صباغ فيفكر في الانتقال إلى إسرائيل ولكن تردد بسبب ارتفاع تكلفة المعيشة وعندما توفي والده طار صباغ وإخوته لإسرائيل ودفنوه في القدس و يرى صباغ ضرورة دفن موتى اليهود في اسرائيل أما بالنسبة للمقابر القديمة، فقال: “أعتقد أن على عظام البقاء في قبورهم”.%A %B %e%q, %Y No Comments

مستقبل واحدة من أهم الجاليات اليهودية العربية مهددة بخطر الانقراض ، و الخطر هذه المرة ليس من الدولة الاسلامية “داعش” . جربا ، تونس شواهد القبور المتصدعة والمنتشرة في محيط المقبرة وراء الكنيس الكبير ترسخ حياة المجتمع اليهودي التونسي الصغير. المئات من اليهود الذين انتقلوا بعيدا على مدى العقود الخمسة الماضية أخذوا رفات أقاربهم معهم، […]

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Jewish community leader in Tunisia tries to maintain strong ties with post-revolution gov’t

Posted on JTA July 9, 2012 Kouichi Shirayanagi TUNIS (JTA) -- Sitting beside his collection of Tunisian menorahs, spice boxes and jewelry, with Danish Impressionist paintings on the walls, Roger Bismuth was recalling his days as a Nazi slave laborer -- and the dramatic change in his life since that time. Bismuth said that between November 1942 and May 1943, he built bunkers and harbors for the Nazis in the nearby port of La Goulette, a suburb of Tunis. He had left school in 1940 at age 14 to become a construction worker. “The Germans knew I was Jewish. The major who was in charge of building the bunkers was a nice man -- he would pick me up every morning and take me to work,” Bismuth, 86, remembers. After the war, Bismuth worked for the French building barracks for the colonial soldiers stationed in his port city. At the same time, he was active in the Tunisian independence movement against the continued French colonization of Tunisia. A product of an almost-lost era, when most Jews living in metropolitan Tunis became doctors, lawyers and businessmen while those on the island of Djerba studied to be rabbis, Bismuth amassed his wealth by developing a major product distribution conglomerate that distributes food, electronic and cosmetic products, including L’Oreal, across North Africa. He also is president of the Jewish Community of Tunisia. After spending decades developing a good relationship with Tunisia’s old government, which he served as a member of parliament, he hopes to build a strong relationship with the new Islamist-leaning government of his small North African country, keeping the aging Jewish community from further decline. Tunisia at the time of Bismuth's birth had more than 100,000 Jews. Today there are fewer than 2,000 Jews in the country, and many of them are elderly. According to historians, Tunisia has had a continuous Jewish presence for more than 2,600 years. When Tunisia was a French colony, the Tunisian Jewish Community Council was a government within a government – operating its own court, issuing marriage licenses and overseeing education for the Jews. Following the North African nation’s independence in 1956, Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, dissolved the council and created a new organization with a dramatically altered role. Most of the country’s Jews live on Djerba, which always has maintained a separate organized Jewish community from the mainland. Thus the majority of Tunisia’s Jews don’t use the services of the Tunisian Jewish Community; Bismuth has been its president since 1996. “There is no poor Jewish person in the street, we look after everyone, no one goes hungry,” he said. Elderly Jews are provided with visits from the doctor, given food, clothes and assistance no matter where they live in greater Tunis, Sousse or Sfax. The community worked to build the Center for Aging People in La Goulette, which provides kosher food and assisted living to 20-25 residents. A 12-person staff of doctors, nurses, cooks and medical specialists provides round-the-clock care for the residents. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee once provided half the operating costs for the center but with funding from abroad reduced, Bismuth says the Tunisian Jewish community works diligently to get by. Bismuth maintains ties with the World Jewish Congress and American Jewish Committee. "Roger has played a tremendous role in supporting Tunisian-American relations and his country's continued openness, moderation and support for women's rights,” said Jason Isaacson, AJC’s director of government and international affairs. "During his time in and out of government he has always supported our initiatives of Tunisian-American bridge building." It’s difficult to gauge, however, the significance of Bismuth’s role in Tunisia’s Jewish community. Both Bismuth and Chief Rabbi Haim Bittan acknowledge that they have a cold working relationship, and congregants at Bismuth’s synagogue, Beit Mordechai Synagogue in La Goulette, are reluctant to speak about him on the record. Beth Mordechai Rabbi Daniel Cohen, however, calls Bismuth “a nice man who does his best to care for the community.” Jo Krief, a retired fashion designer who is involved with the association to preserve the Borgel Jewish cemetery in Tunis, says Bismuth was named president of the Jewish community only because of his close ties to the old regime. Krief claims the Tunisian Jewish Community operates under an old, outdated structure that lacks transparency, separates Djerba from the mainland community and concentrates all decision making into one leader. “The Jewish community needs a revolution just like the rest of Tunisia,” Krief told JTA. Bismuth, who says he meets regularly with the community’s four-member board and provides assistance to Djerba as needed, denies that he supported the former regime. "I was associated with my country,” he said. Bismuth asserts that the old Tunisian government itself was not corrupt, saying that talented technocrats ran the state apparatus. “We spent years building a good government here. It was just the head, the president and his family, that made Tunisia hell,” he said, explaining why Tunisians took to the streets in massive protests in January 2011, forcing Zine El-Abddine Ben Ali to leave and the regime to change. Until the revolution, he was the only Jewish parliamentarian anywhere in an Arabic-speaking country. In 2005 the Tunisian employers association selected him as one of seven representatives to serve in the Tunisian Senate. “When we had people shouting kill the Jews in the street of Tunis and at the airport, the whole world called me,” Bismuth said, referring to incidents in January when Islamists made violent threats to the Jewish community while greeting the arrival party of visiting Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and in March when an imam at a downtown Tunis rally in support of Islamic law called on Tunisian youth to kill Jews. As a businessman, Bismuth has found himself working with the new government. “It’s not just Jews but everyone in Tunisia’s business community who has to change from working with the old to the new governments,” he said. Bismuth frequently meets with ministers in the new government, particularly after each of the recent incidents of incitement. He says the government has responded positively after each incident. He acknowledges, however, that he has greater ideological differences with the new government. “I have a problem with this government because I don’t believe in mixing religion and state," Bismuth said. "I think religion is a private matter.” With his wife, Aase, a Dane who converted to Judaism through the Masorti (Conservative) movement -- a conversion that has brought Bismuth harsh criticism from some in the Jewish community who are more observant than he -- Bismuth has six children (only two of whom remain in Tunisia), 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. And while life for Tunisia’s Jews remains uncertain, Bismuth has no plans to leave his native land. Read More%A %B %e%q, %Y No Comments

JTA July 9, 2012 Kouichi Shirayanagi TUNIS (JTA) — Sitting beside his collection of Tunisian menorahs, spice boxes and jewelry, with Danish Impressionist paintings on the walls, Roger Bismuth was recalling his days as a Nazi slave laborer — and the dramatic change in his life since that time. Bismuth said that between November 1942 […]

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The Last Jews of Tunisia

Posted on World Affairs June 20, 2012 By Michael J. Totten Jews lived all over the Middle East and North Africa for thousands of years, and they lived among Arab Muslims for more than 1,000 years, but they’re almost extinct now in the Arab world. Arabs and Jews didn’t live well together, exactly, but they co-existed five times longer than the United States has existed. They weren’t always token minorities, either. Baghdad was almost a third Jewish during the first half of the 20th century. Morocco and Tunisia are the last holdouts. In Tunisia, only 1,500 remain. What happened? What changed? Islam didn’t happen all of a sudden, nor did the arrival of Arabs in Mesopotamia, the Levant, and North Africa. Both have been firmly in place since the 7th century. A far more recent cascade of events transformed the region, and for the worse: the occupation of Arab lands by Nazi Germany and its puppet Vichy France, the Holocaust, post-Ottoman Arab Nationalism, Israel’s declaration of independence, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a consequence of all that, rather than the Arab invasion or the rise of the Islamic religion, almost the entire Arab world is Judenrein now. And since the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic regime in Iran, relations between Arabs and Jews are worse than they were at any time during the entire history of either. Yet 1,500 Jews hang on in Tunisia. The ancien Ben Ali regime kept them safe, as has Tunisia’s relatively tolerant and cosmopolitan culture. But what will become of them now that Ben Ali is in exile and his government is overthrown? I met with Haim Bittan, the chief rabbi of Tunis. My colleague Armin Rosen joined me, as did our fixer and translator Ahmed Medien. “You should say something to the rabbi in Hebrew,” Ahmed told Armin. Armin is Jewish and speaks a bit of the language of Israel. “It will make him happy.” The three of us met the rabbi and his assistant in an office behind an enormous synagogue in central Tunis. I wanted to take a picture of the synagogue, but the police wouldn’t let me. They’re worried someone might bomb it. I found one on Wikipedia, though. Armin took Ahmed’s advice and greeted the rabbi and his assistant in Hebrew. Their faces lit up. It was an interesting moment. There were five of us in that room. Three Jews, one nominal Christian (me), and one nominal Muslim (Ahmed). For the first time since Armin arrived in the country, he wasn’t the token Jew in the room. “How has the situation here changed for the Jews of Tunisia,” I said, “since the fall of Ben Ali?” “Nothing has changed,” the rabbi said. “It’s the same situation since Ben Ali’s fall.” “This is a country ruled by an Islamist government,” Armin said. “Do you feel that presents any problems for the Jewish community? “There’s no problem between the government and the Jewish community,” the rabbi said. “But I have seen photographs of Salafists with their black flag in front of the synagogue here intimidating people,” I said. “Was that a one-time event, or are you worried they might become increasingly dangerous?” “They don’t bother me,” the rabbi said. “They lived with us before. That incident was their business, not ours.” What kind of answers were these? Ahmed, our Tunisian translator and fixer, had a question of his own for the rabbi. “Does it bother you that some people want Islamic law in the constitution?” he said. “There’s no problem at all,” the rabbi said, “because the constitution is not written.” “He doesn’t want to answer,” Ahmed said quietly to Armin and me as he leaned back in his chair. I’m not even sure why the rabbi agreed to be interviewed. He answered almost all of our questions this way, as did his assistant. They answered as though the entire Arab world would judge them for what they said and pounce if they uttered a peep of complaint. They reminded me of citizens of police states who are asked on the record what they think of the government. I didn’t want to get them in trouble or give them the third degree, but I needed something other than packaged boilerplate answers, so I chose a question that couldn’t be easily dodged. The rabbi’s assistant wore a black yarmulke or kippah on the top of his head, which marked him out as an obvious Jew, and I addressed my question to him. “Do you walk around, either of you, on the street wearing the kippah?” He vigorously shook his head. “We don’t,” he said. “People might think we’re Zionists and we don’t want that, so we wear a hat.” They had at least one problem then. They felt the need to be closeted, at least on the street. That’s never a good sign. Christians don’t have to hide the fact that they’re Christian. Everyone in Tunisia who so much as glanced at me surely assumed I’m a Christian (that is, if they gave the matter any thought in the first place) since I look European. Nearly all were perfectly friendly. They were perfectly friendly to Armin, as well. His complexion makes him look ethnically ambiguous. He could be Hispanic, Arab, Italian, Israeli. He could be many things. He received no more and no less hospitality than I did. But what if he walked around wearing a kippah or a necklace with a six-pointed star? The rabbi’s assistant wouldn’t dare. It’s hard to say, though, how much trouble Armin actually would have faced had he done that. Israelis can and do visit Tunisia. They can do so on their own passports. They don’t have to use second passports from a country like Britain or the United States the way Israeli visitors to Lebanon do. And here’s the thing: when you visit Tunisia you have to produce your passport a lot. You have to produce your passport every time you check into a hotel. You have to produce your passport to rent a car. You have to show your passport to police officers and the national guard at checkpoints. (That happened to me a number times.) So Israelis—not just Jews, but Israelis—can and do wander around all over Tunisia and announce to the police and to the staff at hotels, airports, and car rental offices that they’re Israelis. And supposedly they don’t experience any problems. I’m not sure what to make of it. I’d like to report that the Jews are doing just fine, but if that’s the case, why were the rabbi and his assistant so cagey? And why wouldn’t they go out in public looking like Jews? Ahmed didn’t even blink when Armin told him he’s Jewish, nor did he mind in the slightest that Armin and I have both been to Israel. Ahmed, though, is a well-educated tri-lingual professional, and his own views of the Arab-Israeli conflict are, shall we say, unconventional compared with those of his neighbors. Armin asked the rabbi why Libya and Algeria are entirely free of Jews while Tunisia is not. “Jews in Tunisia don’t have any problems living with other people,” the rabbi said. “In the other countries they did.” And that’s all he had to say about that. “But a lot of Tunisian Jews did leave and go to Israel,” I said. “Why did they leave while you stayed?” “Only a few Tunisian Jews went to Israel,” he said, “but they went for economic reasons. Maybe they didn’t have a lot here and they wanted to go there for the economic opportunities. Those who had good lives here stayed.” Such cautious answers! Move along, nothing to see. He might have answered differently had I not been a reporter, but who knows? There’s always a chance he has internalized what he’s saying to keep his stress level down, but I don’t think so. I can’t psychoanalyze the man, but his tone of voice and body language suggested he was extremely reserved and not entirely sincere in what he was saying. “What’s the Jewish community’s view on relations between Tunisia and Israel?” Armin said. Tunisia had low-level diplomatic relations with Israel during the 1990s, but Ben Ali severed those relations during the Second Intifada. “There’s talk of banning normalization with Israel in the constitution.” “That’s a matter for the government to decide,” the rabbi said, “not the Jewish community here.” “But the Jewish community surely has an opinion,” Armin said. I understand that he has to be careful, but we wanted the truth even if we couldn’t quote him. “You can answer off the record,” I said. “I’ll turn my voice recorder off if you want.” He didn’t want me to turn off the recorder, but he understood that I didn’t like his evasiveness so he gave me a better answer. “If Tunisia normalized relations with Israel,” he said, “then the Muslims here might bother Jews. So we would rather Tunisia not have normal relations with Israel.” That was an on-the-record response. So at least he was willing to acknowledge the potential for trouble for Tunisia’s Jews. I don’t mean to suggest that they’re oppressed and that the chief rabbi of Tunis answered questions with a gun in his back. I do not believe they are oppressed. At least I’m unaware that they are oppressed. But it’s hard to be a minority anywhere in the world. And it has been so hard to be a Jew in the Arab world lately that there are almost none left. The rabbi can’t be entirely wrong. Tunisia’s Jews are not prisoners. They’re free to leave if they like. They can visit Europe without any problems. They can visit Israel without any problems. Since they can visit Israel, they can make aliyah and receive citizenship automatically upon arrival. All a Tunisian Jew has to do if he wants to permanently relocate to Israel is buy a one-way ticket to Tel Aviv for 200 dollars. That’s less than an average month’s salary, so coming up with the money wouldn’t be hard. Even if it’s more difficult to live as a Jew in Tunisia than the rabbi and his assistant let on, it’s possible to live there as a Jew. More than a thousand do so voluntarily. That’s something. Isn’t it? I wanted to know if Tunisian Jews and Muslims socialize with each other or if they live entirely separate lives. Do they visit each other’s houses? Do they hang out in cafes? The rabbi’s assistant answered by shaking his head. * It’s always a good idea to talk to minorities in the Middle East. They see things at a different angle from everyone else. The Jews I met in Tunisia, though, had no more to say about the revolution, the new government, or where Tunisia is heading than they did about their own circumstances. They were too cautious to say much of anything. Perhaps the Christians could help. They have fewer reasons to be wary than Jews. Christians are having a hard time in lots of Arab countries, but in most places they live in a multicultural paradise by comparison. Tunisia’s Christians, though, aren’t Tunisians. They’re foreigners. The number of Christian Tunisians is apparently almost zero. Nearly all are Europeans and sub-Saharan black Africans. There are quite a few churches around—and they’re full on Sundays, too—but you won’t find many Arabs inside. Armin and I spoke to Father John MacWilliam, a Catholic priest and missionary with the White Fathers movement. He’s from Great Britain and spent years in the inferno of Algeria before moving to Tunis. “Is it true that most Christians here aren’t Tunisians?” I said. “I’m British,” he said, “and I’m Christian, but most Tunisians, 99% or more, are Muslims, at least officially. If you go to any church on Sunday, all the people are foreigners.” “There isn’t even a little community of indigenous Christians here,” I said, “like the Copts in Egypt? What happened to them?” “By the 15th century there were no indigenous Christians living in this part of North Africa,” he said. They all converted to Islam. Judaism, though, kept a toe hold in the country, a toe hold it still has. Most Tunisian Jews are the descendents of Berbers, the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa before Arabs invaded in the 7th and 8th centuries. Two-thirds of Tunisia’s Jews live on the southern island of Djerba, a part of the country that is still more Berber and less Arabized. (Djerba, by the way, is the famous island of Homer’s Lotus Eaters in the Odyssey.) Father MacWilliam moved to Tunis from Algeria, where he lived for thirteen years. “Were you driven out?” I said, but he shook his head. “No? You were there during all that trouble? I know a lot of Christians were killed.” By “trouble” I was referring, of course, to the Algerian civil war in the 1990s when radical Islamists waged a ferocious terror insurgency that killed more than 100,000 people. “It was a black decade,” he said. “How many hundreds of thousands of people were killed, I don’t know, but only a very small proportion were Christians. In the Catholic church there were 19 altogether killed. Most people know about the six monks in Tibhirine. Four of my congregation in Tizuzu were killed. There were others. It was difficult, but in other ways it was enriching because we were there helping. I opened libraries and supported university students. A lot of foreigners left, a lot of embassies closed, a lot of companies left. The Catholic church didn’t leave. We stayed. When things get difficult you don’t leave your friends.” Westerners who live in Arab countries are often treated better than locals. They’re given a certain amount of latitude and liberty that governments sometimes think would be dangerous if enjoyed by everyone else. I’ve never worried that secret police would arrest me, for instance, if I insulted the president at a cafe. I don’t want to be tailed or spied on in my hotel room, of course, but if they bug my phone, at the end of the day, what are they going to do? The worst an Arab police state will do to me is arrest me, interrogate me, throw me out of the country, and put me on a blacklist. Citizens in oppressive Middle Eastern countries worry the police will show up at their house with a blowtorch and pliers, that their children will go missing, that they’ll be tortured to death. The people I need to worry about most in the Middle East are criminals and terrorists. Foreigners were right to leave Algeria during the 1990s. They were singled out for destruction along with liberals, artists, feminists, intellectuals, cosmopolitans, teachers—basically anyone who didn’t precisely fit the description of an ultra-conservative Salafist nutjob. So it’s rather extraordinary that only 19 Christians were killed during that time. My hat is off to Father MacWilliam. When things get difficult you don’t leave your friends. That’s what he said. But if I was in Algeria while Salafists were hacking thousands of people to death with machetes, I would have left. Almost anyone would have left. Maybe MacWilliam is a better person than I am. Maybe he’s nuts. Maybe he’s both. Either way, he grit his teeth and stayed through an unspeakable bloodbath. Tunisia must feel like Switzerland by comparison. Christians in Tunisia have it pretty good. They have a few restrictions placed on them, but they can basically do whatever they want, partly because as foreigners and they’re subject to less social pressure. What if they weren’t foreigners, though? What if they were Tunisians? Would they be second-class citizens like the Christians of Egypt? Probably not. The Jews aren’t. They clearly face a great deal of social pressure, but 1,500 live there by choice. And they’re equal under the law, at least on paper. Those facts right there are extraordinary even if the Jews do have to hunker down nervously amongst themselves. The question is: how long can they last? Will they still be there in 100 years? Perhaps Father MacWilliam could safely address that question more directly than the rabbi. “People here talk a lot about the religious extremists who are against the liberal values of other parts of the society,” he said. “But we have religious freedom. Religious freedom is important to Tunisians. This is a country with a long history as a civilization. Tunisians are proud of the fact that it’s a country with a multitude of civilizations. And since independence it has developed human rights. On the issue of women’s rights, for instance, Tunisia is more advanced than other Arab countries.” It’s true. Women and men have been equal under the law in Tunisia for decades. Ninety-five percent of Egyptian girls reportedly have their clitoris removed when they’re young, but female genital mutilation doesn’t even exist in Tunisia. Wikipedia has a page that lists the percentage of FGM incidence by country and Tunisia doesn’t even appear next to an asterisk. Ahmed, my fixer, told me a Salafist group brought Egypt’s notorious Jew-hating creepjob Wagdy Ghoneim to Tunis. The man proposed Tunisia start cutting off little girls’ clitorises and the entire country freaked out. Human rights activists sued him just for bringing it up. But what about the Jews? I had an awfully hard time getting straight answers. How are things really going these days? I asked Father MacWilliam about it directly. He, at least, eschewed sugar-coating. “I don’t know the Jewish community here,” he said. “There are Tunisian Jewish families who have been here for centuries. Their synagogue, of course, is protected. It functions, but I think they keep a fairly low profile. There’s an amalgam of what is Jewish and what is Israeli. Many Arabs assume that anyone who’s Jewish is also Israeli and Zionist and is oppressing the Palestinians and so on. That doesn’t make it easy for somebody who’s Jewish to openly be known as Jewish. They are probably a more oppressed minority.” But how oppressed are the Jews, really? It’s so hard to say. I can’t very well report that they’re oppressed when I have no more evidence for that than you’re reading here in this article. I also can’t say they’re perfectly fine because they say they’re perfectly fine. Not when the rabbi and his assistant were so reluctant to say anything. I’ve been in this business a long time. I know how people behave in interviews when they’re nervous. And those two were nervous. I did meet one Tunisian Jew, though, who spoke a little more freely. His name is Jacob Lellouche and he owns a kosher restaurant called Mamie Lily (after his grandmother) in the posh Tunis suburb of La Goulette. Ahmed took me and Armin there for dinner. Armin and I were both surprised to discover that we were the only non-Muslims having kosher Jewish food for dinner that night. Nearly all Lellouche’s customers are Muslims. Why? “Because Tunisia’s Jews are used to eating this food at home,” Lellouche said. The place was packed, too. We had to wait almost an hour for a table. Armin asked if his restaurant business has changed since the revolution. Has it gotten better or worse? “My clients here are the same,” Lellouche said. “A lot of Tunisians come here, and some people come from France also. But this isn’t a touristic place.” “So,” Armin said, “is there some appreciation then among Muslim Tunisians for the country’s Jewish culture?” “I’m not only the owner of this restaurant,” Lellouche said. “After the revolution I created the first cultural Jewish association. It’s called Dar al-Dekra, the house of memory. Ninety percent of the association’s members are Tunisian Muslims. The civil society sustains the Jewish community. An Arab Tunisian association whose name translates to ‘I’m Free and I Work for My Country’ is here tonight to write a communiqué, a press release.” Lellouche says his business is doing okay. That’s good, especially with the post-revolutionary economic depression. But how are Jews faring in general after the fall of Ben Ali? Are they doing better or worse? “I wouldn’t say better,” he said. “We have to live our lives and make our place in this country. That’s all. We have to keep our culture in Tunisia’s memory. We are its guardians. Our association will create the first Jewish museum in Tunisia.” He says he believes Jews will always remain in Tunisia. Not only are the Jews not enjoying their last days in the country, there won’t ever be any last days. Maybe he really believes that. Maybe he only wants to believe it. Maybe it’s even true, but we shouldn’t assume it. Muslim-Jewish relations are in the abyss. What will happen if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heats up again or if the mushrooming Salafists go on a rampage like they did next-door in Algeria? “Was it possible,” Armin said, “to have an organization like yours before the revolution?” “It was difficult,” Lellouche said, “because Mr. Ben Ali, our last president, instrumentalized the Jewish community. He wanted to project an image of tolerance and say to France and America that the Jews still live here because he wants them to live here. But I don’t think that was true. We don’t have problems with the society, though perhaps there is some trouble now with the Salafists.” Salafists haven’t threatened Lellouche or his restaurant, but mobs of them have been wrecking havoc in several parts of the country since the revolution, and they rhetorically declared war on “the Jews” a number of times. “Last week,” Lellouche said, “they held a demonstration in Tunis on Habib Bourguiba Avenue. They called for the killing of Jews.” “Were they referring to Israel, to you, or to both?” I said. “This is the third time they called for the murder of Jews,” he said. “The first time, we thought they were speaking about Zionists. And the second time, we thought they were speaking about Zionists. After the third time, though, it was clear that they meant the Jews.” Read More... %A %B %e%q, %Y No Comments

World Affairs June 20, 2012 By Michael J. Totten Jews lived all over the Middle East and North Africa for thousands of years, and they lived among Arab Muslims for more than 1,000 years, but they’re almost extinct now in the Arab world. Arabs and Jews didn’t live well together, exactly, but they co-existed five […]

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Tunisian Jews Seek Place in New Order

Posted on The Jewish Daily Forward June 10, 2012 By Nate Lavey A year and a half after the ouster of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the president of the Tunisian Jewish community is wistful for the one-party government that ruled the country for decades. “You cannot find a better government than what we had,” said Roger Bismuth, who has held the title of president for more than 10 years. Bismuth extended his praise to all the ministers of Ben Ali’s political party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally, calling them “good technocrats,” but he said that the dictator and his family had “ruined the country” through fraud and mismanagement. As Tunisia struggles to emerge from decades of dictatorship, just how well Bismuth is representing the consensus of the country’s small Jewish community may be an issue. The revolution that overthrew Ben Ali in January 2011 provided the spark that set off the Arab Spring, which, through civil protest, toppled authoritarian governments in Egypt and Yemen. Today, the surge continues to course through the region — most notably in Syria, where, according to numerous reports, civil protests have been met with massacres by government forces. The massacres, in turn, have led to a downward spiral toward civil war. The ultimate outcomes of the revolutions in Egypt and Yemen also remain in doubt. In both countries, civil protests continue to roil the streets and unresolved questions about the basic framework of post-dictatorship government continue to bedevil those jockeying for power. Just how democratic the final result will be, no one can yet say. But in Tunisia, voters went to the polls last October and peacefully elected a constituent assembly in a competitive election hailed widely as free and fair. The major parties all accepted the results, in which the Ennahda Movement, a so far moderate Islamist party, won a plurality of the seats. In December the constituent assembly, which is also tasked with developing a new, post-dictatorship constitution, elected as president Moncef Marzouki, a longtime secular human rights activist who was imprisoned by Ben Ali. The new order has affected Tunisia’s small community of some 1,500 Jews in a variety of ways. Among the urban elite, Bismuth’s sentiments are not unanimous, particularly among some younger members. Jacob Lellouche, owner of a kosher restaurant in La Goulette, a suburb some seven miles from the capital, Tunis, said: “The last government — Mr. Ben Ali and his troop — instrumentalized the Jewish community to give a good picture of Tunisia outside. But here in Tunisia they said: ‘You are here, but be quiet. Don’t make any waves.’” By “instrumentalize,” Lellouche said, he meant that Ben Ali pointed outsiders to his “protection” of Jews in Tunisia as evidence of his benevolence and a reason for Western governments to support his regime. But, Lellouche argues, Jews have lived in Tunisia for nearly 3,000 years, and though the Jewish population has declined greatly since World War II, there’s a sense that the strength of Jewish-Muslim relations owes more to individuals than to any state-imposed tolerance. The Jewish presence in Tunisia dates back at least to the Roman era. Since then, the community has survived and adapted to rulers ranging from the Muslim fundamentalist Almohade dynasty to the Spanish Inquisitors and the Nazis. Though Jews faced periods of persecution (alongside other minority groups), other Jews from Spain, Italy and elsewhere flocked to the country over the years and helped to grow the population. By 1942, the year the Nazis landed in Tunisia, the community was nearing its height of about 100,000. Five thousand of them were sent to labor camps, and 160 were sent to death camps. After World War II, pressure from the newly independent government and increased tensions surrounding the establishment of Israel motivated many Jews to leave for France, the country’s former colonial master, or for Israel, leaving only the small community that exists today. The largest Jewish community in Tunisia is the religiously observant group on the island of Djerba, some 200 miles from the capital. The community of about 1,000 benefits from the support of groups like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has helped fund religious schools and other programs there. Djerba’s Jews, who comprise the bulk of Tunisian Jewry, are geographically and culturally separated from the rest of the country. The revolution that overthrew the regime in Tunis and sparked the Arab Spring still seems far away. Residents said that they have seen little change in their relations with Muslims. Standing in front of a motorcycle repair shop in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Hara Kebira, Ezekiel Haddad said: “Here things are totally calm. People are equal. Each one of us respects the other.” Haddad, a Jewish father of six, had stopped by the motorcycle shop to meet with its owner, a Muslim. Haddad said that though each group led separate religious lives, they conducted business together normally. Hannah Sabban who teaches at an all-girls Jewish school, said that during the revolution, “there was a bit of a panic for everyone, but since then, things have remained the same.” Religious schools like the one at which Sabban teaches are principal recipients of aid from groups like the JDC. Though there seemed to be no tensions regarding this sort of international support, other shopkeepers in Hara Kebira said that under the Ben Ali regime, Jews were left alone, while Muslim businessmen faced occasional harassment from the police. Disconnected as Djerba is from the mainland, one event — the annual spring celebration of the Jewish holiday Lag B’Omer — is often seen as a sort of bellwether for the status of religious tolerance in Tunisia. Last year, right after the revolution, only 100 Jewish pilgrims from outside the country made the trip to El Ghriba Synagogue, which plays host to the event, signaling that tourism and Arab-Jewish relations were uncertain at best. This year, Youssef al-Qaradawi, a popular Islamist cleric from Qatar who has made statements condemned as anti-Semitic, was scheduled to visit the island just a few days before the Lag B’Omer celebrations. But the community was able to convince the government to relocate his rally. Though the numbers attending the Jewish celebration were still low — only 500 visitors, compared to 5,000 in 2010 — Jews saw the slight uptick and the support from the post-revolution government as a signal of its desire to retain the status quo on Djerba. Bismuth and Lellouche are secular Jews who live far more cosmopolitan lives in Tunis than their co-religionists in Djerba. Both hail originally from the seaside town of La Goulette, which used to have a significant Jewish population. But they are very much men of their respective, quite different, times. Bismuth, who was born in 1926, is a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Tunisia. He became a multinational businessman and is, perhaps, the most famous Jew in the country. As a major figure in the community, Bismuth was close to Ben Ali. In 2005 he was listed in U.S. diplomatic cables, later leaked via WikiLeaks, as a “notable” Ben Ali loyalist. His election in 2005 to the Tunisian Senate made him one of the few Jewish legislators in the Arab world, though the body itself was toothless. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bismuth has fond memories of the old government — and contempt for Tunisian revolutionaries. Speaking of Tunisia’s large numbers of unemployed college graduates, he said, “These are even more dangerous than the lower-class people, because the lower class can live with almost nothing, but these people, when they graduate, they expect they have a right to have a job.” High unemployment has been a central complaint for Tunisians with and without degrees, but not for Jews, Bismuth said. “The Jews work! These unemployed people… they don’t want a job, they want a salary. Working for them is not a need, where for us [Jews], we cannot think of not working,” he said. Lellouche, who is more than 30 years younger than Bismuth, believes that the revolution had broader goals and that it “was made in the name of dignity and democracy.” He believes it holds opportunities, too, for Tunisia’s Jews. Under the Ben Ali regime, “it was not really possible to create a Jewish association,” he explained. For years, Lellouche wanted to found a group that, unlike Bismuth’s, operated independently of the Ben Ali government to promote Jewish cultural heritage in Tunisia. And after the revolution, he did just that. In the past year, Lellouche has been busy promoting Dar El Dhekra, which means “house of memory.” The new group aims to promote Jewish art, culture and social practices throughout the country. Last October, Lellouche also ran for a seat in the Constituent Assembly as part of the tiny Union Populaire Républicaine, a small centrist party that placed him second on its candidates list. But the party only won enough votes to place its top candidate in the assembly. In early June, however, members of the constituent assembly’s Committee on Legislative and Executive Power, which is helping to develop a new constitution, came out in favor of a proposal to specifically designate two seats in the assembly for members of Tunisia’s Jewish community. “Tunisian Jews are Tunisian citizens like any others, and deserve a decent representation [in the Parliament],” Mehrezia Labidi, a Constituent Assembly member from the governing Ennahda Islamist Party and the vice-chair of the National Council on Tunisia’s Jewish Citizens, told the Arabic language Al Jarida news site, according to a June 6 JTA report. Bismuth dismissed the proposal as “just one of many of their stupid ideas …. Those members won’t be able to do anything significant.” Lellouche, on the other hand, speaks frequently in the press about the long history of good relations between Jews and their Muslim neighbors. But not everyone else in the country shares his commitment to pluralism. The new openness of a democratic society has allowed conservative Salafist groups advocating strict allegiance to Islamic law to demonstrate regularly throughout Tunisia. The largest of these demonstrations, in March, drew more than 1,000 people, who shouted “Death to the Jews” on the main avenue of Tunis. The protest drew quick condemnation from all major political parties, including Ennahda. Despite these occasional demonstrations and the election of an Islamist government, Jews in Tunisia seem fairly insulated from the aftershocks of the revolution or any religious violence — much as they were under the dictatorship. The difference, now, says Lellouche, is that Jews are free “to defend [their] interests in the Tunisian political system.” Read More... %A %B %e%q, %Y No Comments

The Jewish Daily Forward June 10, 2012 By Nate Lavey A year and a half after the ouster of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the president of the Tunisian Jewish community is wistful for the one-party government that ruled the country for decades. “You cannot find a better government than what we had,” […]

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Islamist rising casts shadow on Tunisian Jews

Posted on The Jerusalem Post May 17, 2012 By Gil Shefler LA GOULETTE, Tunisia – Over a dozen men meet on a Saturday evening at a house of worship tucked away in a quiet alley in this seaside suburb of Tunis. They pray and sing songs and break bread together in a building that most locals do not even know exists. And while the entrance to the sanctuary is diminutive and the service respectful of the Muslim- majority surroundings, they do so freely, merrily and without fear. This is Beit Mordechai Synagogue and its congregants are members of the country’s 1,500 Jews, the second-largest such community in the Arab world after Morocco. They are what remains of a group that numbered over 100,000 people at its peak in the 1940s and dates back to antiquity. They live good lives, working in commerce and development or providing religious services, but their prosperity, not to mention their continued existence as a community, has been called into serious question over the past year and a half. Since the uprising that ousted longtime autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, most Jews in Tunisia have been vacillating between hope and fear. Hope because the demise of a corrupt dictatorship – even if it protected them from physical harm – and the advent of democracy might help create a better, more just society. Fear because the subsequent rise in popularity of Islamists and of Salafists, who adhere to an even more radical form of Islam, might create an atmosphere hostile to Jews. The sweeping victory in the country’s first-ever democratic elections last October by Ennahda, an Islamist party formerly banned by the regime, had people talking at the synagogue in La Goulette. “I still feel safer here right now than I do in Paris where I often feel threatened by French Arabs,” says Maxime Journo, a Tunisian-born concert promoter who divides his time between Tunis and Paris. “Perhaps, but there’s no denying the situation is less certain for us than it was under Ben Ali even though he was what he was,” responds another congregant. “We must wait for further developments and see.” A big test of the Islamist-led government’s attitude toward religious minorities took place several days earlier in Djerba, the picturesque Mediterranean island where the majority – 900 – of the country’s Jews live. Last year the annual Lag Ba’omer pilgrimage to El Ghriba, the island’s ancient synagogue, was canceled due to security fears. The question this year is whether the new government will be willing or able to ensure the rite continues. “Celebrated for hundreds of years, this religious rite is an achievement that should not change, because it illustrates the openness of Tunisia to the world,” AP quoted Tourism Minister Elyes Fakhfakh as saying last month. “It is an achievement of the revolution, which established freedom of worship.” Still, an overbooking almost ruined the government’s painstaking efforts to prove they would protect the Jewish community. Youssef Qaradawi, a Qatari-based Egyptian radical preacher barred from the US, the UK and France, planned to hold a gathering in Djerba on May 5, just four days before the Jewish event. “We had to do something,” Roger Bismuth, a leader of the Jewish community in Tunis, says after the fact. “If [Qaradawi] had said anything wrong it would have gone badly for the pilgrimage, and they listened to us.” The cleric’s gathering was relocated to the mainland, the crisis was narrowly averted and the pilgrimage went ahead as planned. AT THE El Ghriba synagogue on Lag Ba’omer, a set of unique Tunisian traditions and superstitions are on display. Women who want to bear children write prayers on boiled eggs that are then placed in a small cavern in the center of the sanctuary. Men sprinkle boukha, a fig-based alcohol, on their faces, hands and inside their pockets. “It brings good luck,” says one. A few hundred worshipers dance with the Torah outside the ancient synagogue during the day and pray and feast within its sacred confines at night. “To me, there is something magical about Jews and Arabs living together like they do here,” says Guy Tzinmann, a French Jew who has come from Paris to participate.” If you don’t come with an Israeli passport they don’t give you any trouble and, unlike Algeria, where my mother is from, I can come here to visit.” The police presence, aimed at preventing attacks like the one carried out here by al-Qaida in 2002 that left 21 dead, is considerable. There are probably more security officers than there are worshipers. Like most religious pilgrimages, there is a strong commercial aspect here. For the Trabelsi family, which runs the synagogue and organizes the gathering, it is an important source of income. “We would have liked many more to come,” says Renee Trabelsi. “In the past thousands did, but we’re happy with the turnout.” It is telling that the most important guest this year is not Jewish. When the tourism minister, Fakhfakh, shows up on the second day, he is greeted by participants singing the national anthem. JACOB LELLOUCHE, the Jewish owner of the popular restaurant Mami Lily in La Goulette, looks like a musketeer. Porthos, the fat one, to be precise. And it’s not just because of his thick mane of hair, his carefully trimmed French beard or his big – not overweight – build, but because of the joviality, affability and joie de vivre he radiates. When he laughs the earth shakes a little, and when he does the rounds, speaking to almost every client who sits down for dinner at the old Italian villa he made into a restaurant, he moves with surprising agility for a man of his size. “When I opened this restaurant 15 years ago, I wanted to remind people of what was once here when many Jews lived in Tunisia,” he says, sinking down deep into his chair. “Almost everyone here has his own memory of living with Jews.” Lellouche specializes in the distinctive cuisine of Jewish Tunisians. Appetizers include homemade matbouha, piquant carrot salad and, of course, the ubiquitous baguette, part of the enduring French influence on this country. Main dishes include thin, spicy merguez sausages, whole grilled fish freshly plucked from the nearby sea and a thick, green stew whose name I do not catch. Rim Temimi sits at a table in the back of the restaurant, typing away furiously on her laptop. The co-founder of Dar el- Dekhra, a society documenting the Jewish heritage of Tunisia, has had a busy week. Its first-ever exhibition opened at an arts venue in the medina, Tunis’s old quarter, earlier in the week. “So far between 300 and 400 people came, and tomorrow is the last day,” she says. “Yesterday a black woman, someone from the lower class, came to the exhibition and cried. I asked her why and she said her parents used to listen to a song we were playing sung by a Jewish singer.” Starting a group documenting Jewish heritage in Arab-Muslim Tunisia is no simple matter. Tamimi’s project might be likened to Zochrot, the organization in Israel that commemorates Arab villages whose inhabitants fled in 1948. One may well wonder why a Muslim photographer would invest herself in such an endeavor, but to Tamimi the answer is as clear as a cup of boukha. “If you do not know your past, you know nothing about your present or future,” she explains. “My great-greatgreat- grandfather was Jewish, but I have been Muslim for seven generations. Knowledge of history and particularly Jewish history in Tunisia helps all Tunisian, regardless of their religion.” Tamimi’s sister-in-arms is Sonia Fellous, a Tunisian-born Jew living in Paris who researches religions. She is one of four Jewish core members of the society. The other 11 are Muslim. “This is the only organization promoting Jewish history that has more Muslim members than Jews,” she says proudly. Indeed, a short conversation with the two women reveals the extent of contributions by Jews to the country. The first filmmaker in Tunisia was Jewish. He also happened to introduce the bicycle to the country. Several important singers, such as the Semama sisters and Habiba Masika, were Jews. Members of the community were part of the country’s social and business elite. “It was easier for them to go between the East and the West,” Fellous explains. The Jewish community of Tunisia has a fabled past, but what of its future? Fellous sighs. It is clear she thinks that sooner or later her co-religionists will follow the path that led her out of the country, but it is Tamimi who gives a resolute and surprising answer to the question. “Yes, certainly there is a future,” she says. “Otherwise, what am I fighting for?” THE THORN in the side of Jewish-Arab relations in Tunisia is the same as it is throughout the Arab world: Israel. Conversations with Tunisians, rich and poor, religious and secular, educated and uneducated, seem to point toward a pretty uniform opinion: The Jewish state has no right to exist. At an upscale fish restaurant in La Marsa, a well-heeled coastal town near the capital, I meet a group of four friendly, educated and worldly Tunisians for dinner where they explain why Israel as we know it will sooner or later disappear. “Israel is a theocracy like Saudi Arabia and Iran,” explains Youssef, a former Fulbright scholar with an Ivy League education. “There will eventually be a one-state solution the same way it happened in South Africa. It is inevitable.” The group, consisting of human rights activists and policy wonks, is curious to learn about public opinion in Israel. They ask what will happen with Iran and what Israelis think about the possibility of the creation of a binational Jewish-Arab state. But they seem bitterly disappointed, even hurt, to hear that that kind of discourse takes place only on the fringe of Jewish society and is considered by the vast majority to be both impractical and undesirable. Nadia, one of the dinner guests, who has lived in Jerusalem where she worked with an international aid agency, has Israeli friends. “Many of them would support such a solution,” she says. It is hard to reconcile just how differently things are seen in the East and the West. Western military intervention in Libya against the tyrant Muammar Gaddafi, for instance, was harmful and unnecessary, they say. They reject the notion that Gaddafi would have crushed the insurgency had France and the US not launched strikes against his forces. Such action did more harm than good, as it did in Iraq and almost everywhere else the West has intervened in the Middle East, they argue. For those reasons they oppose any kind of military intervention in Syria’s civil war. While the group feels animosity toward Israel, they say their attitudes toward Jews in general are warm. “I would love all the Jews who left Tunisia to return,” declared Nadia. I ask her why she feels that way about Tunisian Jews whereas the roughly two million non-Jewish emigres leave her indifferent. She says it is because Jews contributed to a prosperous, vibrant and progressive society. Their return would help make the country a better place. The dinner ends somewhat sourly. Not even a shot of boukha manages to get rid of the bitter taste that the tense debate leaves. Half an hour later we are at a party at a bar by the beach where a band is playing the timeless hit, “La Bamba.” The partygoers are a good mix of young men and woman, straight and gay, locals and expats. It is an integral part of Tunisia, but at the same time it has nothing to do with the narrow alleys in the old medina of Tunis where veiled women shop for halal meat and bearded men leisurely walk to the mosque. The scene is yet another reminder that the Middle East has no problem containing countless paradoxes, and it makes me think of another country in the region that I know is similar in this sense. THE JEWISH community in Tunisia is roughly divided into three groups: Rich and secular Jews in Tunis, religious Jews of modest means in Djerba and a group of old people who remain here by virtue of having nowhere else to go. The Jewish oldage home is located in a stately residence around the corner from the synagogue in La Goulette. Roger Krief, 87, is one of the 40 or so residents at the home. The former jeweler says he has family in many places, including in France and Israel, but does not elaborate on his life story. The past can be a sore subject. Like most institutions for the sick and elderly it is not a happy place to visit, but it provides a very vital service to the community that could not exist without the help of their brethren overseas. “Our cooperation with the Tunis community is good,” says Yechiel Bar Chaim, an official with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “We don’t work independently there, but we work with them to help provide them with means.” Just around the corner at the tiny synagogue in La Goulette, the sounds of Hebrew echo loudly between the walls. The congregants sing: Shabechi Yerushalaim et adonai Haleli elohaich tzion Rabbi Daniel Cohen opens the synagogue’s door, letting the Mosaic melody spill into the empty alley outside, but cantor Eliyahu Sa’adon closes it instinctively. “Let them hear a little,” the young rabbi politely asks Sa’adon, his elder. They reach a Talmudic compromise without exchanging a word. The door is left half open – or half closed, depending on your point of view. The dilemma of the door at the synagogue is a good metaphor for the state of Tunisian Jewry. How openly can its members live in the country and how sure can they be that someone or something might not come through the door tomorrow, bringing their singing to an end The singing reaches a crescendo and then comes to an abrupt stop. “Everyone is talking about Islamists and Salafists all the time,” one of the congregants declares in French. “But let the world know that in Tunisia, the Jews are singing.” Read More...%A %B %e%q, %Y No Comments

The Jerusalem Post May 17, 2012 By Gil Shefler LA GOULETTE, Tunisia – Over a dozen men meet on a Saturday evening at a house of worship tucked away in a quiet alley in this seaside suburb of Tunis. They pray and sing songs and break bread together in a building that most locals do […]

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Some Tunisian Jews nervous about Hiloula security

Posted on Associate Press April 19, 2012 DJERBA, Tunisia (JTA) – Some Jews in Djerba are expressing concerns about security for the upcoming annual Hiloula Jewish pilgrimage to Tunisia. Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said recently that his government would work to attract a large Jewish contingent to Djerba’s El Ghriba Synagogue for the annual celebration in May honoring great Jewish sages of centuries past. In his opening remarks this week at the two-day International Congress of World Tourism in Djerba, Jebali said, "Tunisia is an open and tolerant country that will welcome Jewish pilgrims to El Ghriba, as is customary each year," the Tunisian newspaper Le Temps reported. But Gadi Uzan, a jeweler in Djerba, said that security fears remain 10 years after an attack on the area’s synagogue. "If the government can provide a lot of security, then great,” Uzan told JTA. “But if not, I don't think it's a good idea. The most important thing is the interest of Tunisia. When El Ghriba was attacked 10 years ago, the event had an impact on tourism in the whole southern region of Tunisia." In April 2002, al-Qaida terrorists claimed responsibility for a bombing near the synagogue that left 21 people dead. Last year, scores of Tunisians died in the revolution that swept the country’s longtime autocrat, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, from power. Perez Trabelsi, the president of the El Ghriba Synagogue, said the security situation has improved since last year. "We did not have a Hiloula last year because the security situation was uncertain and we wanted to respect the martyrs who died during the revolution,” Trabelsi said. "While the security situation was unstable in the past, now we feel secure. No one is irritating or bothering us,” he said. “I expect the Hiloula to be as big as it was in the years before the revolution.” Read More%A %B %e%q, %Y No Comments

Associate Press April 19, 2012 DJERBA, Tunisia (JTA) – Some Jews in Djerba are expressing concerns about security for the upcoming annual Hiloula Jewish pilgrimage to Tunisia. Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said recently that his government would work to attract a large Jewish contingent to Djerba’s El Ghriba Synagogue for the annual celebration in […]

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Tunisia: Annual Jewish pilgrimage an achievement

Posted on Associated Press April 17, 2012 TUNIS, Tunisia – The annual Jewish pilgrimage to the Tunisian island of Djerba should be maintained as a symbol of the North African nation's openness to the world, Tunisia's tourism minister said Tuesday. Elyes Fakhfakh's remarks come at a time of uncertainty for Tunisia's small Jewish minority, which has been alarmed by the rise of ultraconservative Islamist groups spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric since the country's longtime dictator was overthrown in January 2011. Jews have been living in Djerba since 500 B.C. and the synagogue there is believed to be one of the oldest on the African continent. The Jewish community in Tunisia itself numbered 100,000 in 1960s, but most left following the 1967 war Arab-Israeli war. The tourism minister told journalists on the sidelines of a Mediterranean tourism conference that the pilgrimage, set this year for May 9, should be protected. "Celebrated for hundreds of years, this religious rite is an achievement that should not change because it illustrates the openness of Tunisia to the world," Fakhfakh said. "It is an achievement of the revolution, which established freedom of worship." Tunisians overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last year, but in the unrest following his fall, the pilgrimage was canceled. The accession to power of Tunisia's moderate Islamist Ennahda party in October's election has been carefully watched by the country's remaining 1,500 Jews. Especially worrisome for them was the appearance of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis, some of whom have chanted anti-Semitic slogans at their rallies. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali of the Ennahda party said Monday, however, that "the Jewish pilgrims are welcome to Djerba." Tunisia's president also held a ceremony at the Djerba mosque on April 11 — marking 10 years since an al-Qaida truck bomb kill 21 people — and described Jews as integral members of the country. According to travel agent Rene Trabelsi, himself a Djerban Jew residing in France, some 500 Jews, mainly living in France, are expected to attend this year's pilgrimage. "The success of the pilgrimage could have positive repercussions on Tunisian tourism and attract thousands of visitors in coming seasons," he said. Tunisia's tourism sector, vital for its struggling economy, was hard hit first by the unrest following its own revolution, then by a civil war in neighboring Libya. The country saw 4.8 million tourists in 2011, down from 7 million the year before, according to figures given by Fakhfakh at the conference. He predicted 6 million tourists would come this year. Read more%A %B %e%q, %Y No Comments

Associated Press April 17, 2012 TUNIS, Tunisia – The annual Jewish pilgrimage to the Tunisian island of Djerba should be maintained as a symbol of the North African nation’s openness to the world, Tunisia’s tourism minister said Tuesday. Elyes Fakhfakh’s remarks come at a time of uncertainty for Tunisia’s small Jewish minority, which has been […]

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