Tunisian Jews Seek Place in New Order

In Arab Spring's Cradle, Democracy and Uncertainty Rule

A woman sits on a wall in the seaside suburb of La Goulette, which once had a large Jewish community.
nate lavey
A woman sits on a wall in the seaside suburb of La Goulette, which once had a large Jewish community.

By Nate Lavey

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

Jacob Lellouche, a kosher restaurant owner, ran for the Constituent Assembly following the revolution.
nate lavey
Jacob Lellouche, a kosher restaurant owner, ran for the Constituent Assembly following the revolution.

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.”

Contact Nate Lavey at lavey@forward.com. Follow him on Twitter @nate_lavey


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