Tunisian Jews Seek Place in New Order

In Arab Spring's Cradle, Democracy and Uncertainty Rule

By Nate Lavey

Published June 10, 2012, issue of June 15, 2012.
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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.

Jewish boys head home after school on the island of Djerba.
nate lavey
Jewish boys head home after school on the island of Djerba.

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.


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