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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page
Video: 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.

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.