Tunisian Jews Seek Place in New Order

In Arab Spring's Cradle, Democracy and Uncertainty Rule

Men pray at the El Ghriba synagogue on Djerba.
nate lavey
Men pray at the El Ghriba synagogue on Djerba.

By Nate Lavey

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

A man walks past a tank and armor vehicle surrounded by razor wire in downtown Tunis.
nate lavey
A man walks past a tank and armor vehicle surrounded by razor wire in downtown Tunis.

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.


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