Tunisian Jews Seek Place in New Democracy — as Tunisians

Letter From Tunis

One Nation: The Muslim owner of a kosher butchery in Tunis says the Jewish community should be accepted as Tunisians.
Rachel Shabi
One Nation: The Muslim owner of a kosher butchery in Tunis says the Jewish community should be accepted as Tunisians.

By Rachel Shabi

Published April 17, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
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Amid massive protests following Belaid’s death, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali dissolved his government and announced the formation of a caretaker government that now rules the country pending new elections. But many critics have accused the Ennahda party of having laid the groundwork for the killing by doing little in the year preceding it to stem a rising tide of verbal and physical attacks launched by ultra-religious Muslim Salafists on journalists, artists and intellectuals.

Jacob Lellouche
rachel Shabi
Jacob Lellouche

There have also been Salafist demonstrations in which the fundamentalist protesters chanted “Death to the Jews.” But Lellouche frames his concerns as national rather than communal.

“Like all Tunisians, we care for the need for there to be a real democracy,” he said, “where struggles between people are fought with words and minds, not with weapons.”

This approach was also evident in the Tunisian Jewish community’s rejection in early April of the government’s proposal for a reserved parliamentary seat for the Jewish community. Roger Bismuth, president of Tunisia’s Jewish community, recounted telling the government, “Forget it, and stop talking about religious minorities.”

Like Lellouche, Bismuth does not want his community to be seen as separate: “We have the same problems as all Tunisians; we — all of us — are living through a difficult period.”

Those difficulties don’t only involve violence. Since Ben Ali’s 2010 ouster, Tunisia’s economy has tanked. Unemployment has spiraled upward, and the tourists who used to flock to the country, with its picturesque Mediterranean coast, have yet to return. This has dealt a big blow to a country where tourism accounts for 7% of the GDP and 400,000 real jobs in the economy.

Now, some Tunisians, Lellouche among them, are seeking to rebuild the tourism industry from the bottom up, with boutique hotels, new restaurants and new cultural centers. Late last year, Lellouche opened up a Jewish heritage museum on the top floor of the building that houses Mamie Lily.

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