Tunisian Jews Seek Place in New Democracy — as Tunisians

Image: Rachel Shabi

Mamie Lily, a restaurant housed in a charming, French colonial-era building in La Goulette, a faded port town just outside Tunis, is a rare outpost of kosher cuisine in an Arab land. And the annual Seder it hosts seems to reflect something characteristic of Tunisia’s larger Jewish population: It is tiny, but functional and robust — and determined to be seen as a regular part of the landscape.

Jacob Lellouche, the restaurateur who runs both the Seder and Mamie Lily, presided this year over a Passover gathering of just over a dozen participants, mostly middle-aged and upward, who recited from the Haggadah in a mixture of Hebrew and French. But despite his role, Lellouche is tired of being asked by outsiders how it feels to be a Jew in his country.

“I am sick of being considered anything other than Tunisian,” Lellouche said, citing constant media inquiries on the well-being of this country’s Jewish community of about 1,500. “It is as though we only exist in the eyes of others.”

Lellouche ran for a seat in the Constituent Assembly during Tunisia’s first free election in 2011. The election followed the country’s ouster of Western-backed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali the previous year — the front-runner and inspiration of the wave of Arab uprisings that followed across the Middle East. Lellouche lost his race, narrowly, running on the ticket of a small centrist party.

Ennahda, which is viewed as a moderate Islamist party, finished first in that election and eventually cobbled together a three-party coalition to form the country’s first postrevolution government. The party further burnished its public commitment to pluralism in December 2011, when the Constituent Assembly elected as its head of state Moncef Marzouki, a longtime secular human rights activist who was imprisoned by Ben Ali.

But today, the burst of optimism that characterized that early period has faded. In February, Chokri Belaid, a prominent secularist opposition leader, was assassinated in a killing that came days after a Human Rights Watch report warned of escalating political violence in Tunisia that was “motivated by a religious agenda.” Four radical Islamists have been arrested for their alleged involvement in the murder.

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.

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.

The rooms upstairs highlight Jewish contributions to Tunisian heritage: literature, handicrafts, music, politics and cinema. There’s a section dedicated to Albert Samama-Chikli, one of the world’s earliest cinematographers, who brought the first film screening to Tunisia in 1897. There is also some detail about Testour, a town in northern Tunisia that was jointly rebuilt by Muslims and Jews after Christians forced them into exile from Andalusian Spain in 1492. The museum broadly outlines the history of Tunisia’s Jewish community, which dates back three millennia, preceding both Islam and Christianity. Before World War II it was a community that numbered more than 100,000. Those figures dwindled following the creation of Israel in 1948 and the end of French rule in Tunisia in 1956. Both factors drove Jewish migration to Israel and, in greater numbers, to France in the succeeding years.

Among Lellouche’s prized pieces in the collection — which includes beautiful old hamsas, menorahs and Judeo-Arabic scripted books — is an old key to an Andalusian Jewish home, carefully passed down a family line in Tunisia.

When the museum opened in December of last year, Lellouche said, young Tunisians of all faiths were curious to visit. “They told me they felt like Tunisia was a chair with only three legs, and that after seeing this museum, the picture was complete.” The visitors, he added, realize that this Jewish museum is essentially about Tunisian heritage. “A country, and the love for one’s country, does not have a religion,” he said.

Contact Rachel Shabi at feedback@forward.com

Written by

Rachel Shabi

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Tunisian Jews Seek Place in New Democracy — as Tunisians

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