For an old Moscow hand who had the privilege to cover the last days of the Soviet Union for the Forward 25 years ago, Tunis feels a bit like perestroika. From every restaurant and hotel lobby, television screens blare commentators of all persuasions arguing passionately about politics with raised voices and rapid-fire gesticulations as the upcoming presidential runoff draws near.
People in cafes and sheesha bars share opinions on seemingly every conceivable taboo subject — from homosexuality to the role of Jews in Tunisian history — with nary a glance over their shoulders to check for informers or the secret police.
Yet my prior experience gives me pause. I recall similar frothy free expression in Moscow in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Today, we have Vladimir Putin’s Russian thugocracy. Tunisia’s present effervescence, I warn myself, may similarly deteriorate into something decidedly less appealing.
Then, there is the region itself: Tunisia, the first country to announce the arrival of the Arab Spring by ousting its longtime military dictator almost four years ago, is today the last sign left that the Arab Spring ever happened. Egypt has returned to an autocracy more crushing than its predecessor. Syria’s peaceful uprising has spiraled into a bloodbath. Yemen ousted its corrupt president only to see its capital overrun in September by Shi’ite rebels from the country’s north. Other Arab countries have similarly seen hopes for increased openness slip away.
But in Tunisia, the country’s first presidential election took place peacefully on November 23. And the decisive second round runoff will come on December 21. The country was ruled initially after the revolution by an interim government under the leadership of Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party. But when Ennahda proved unable to address Tunisia’s horrible economic conditions or put an end to terrorist violence by Muslim extremists, widespread protests moved it to form a unity government with opposition parties. When citizens punished it at the polls in parliamentary elections in October, the party peacefully yielded its control of the legislature.
In the upcoming presidential runoff, Moncef Marzouki, of the staunchly secularist Congress for the Republic, is favored to win. But the long-term credibility of the country’s democracy is widely seen as dependent on its ability to deliver economic improvement to a desperate population — the country’s official umemployment rate is 15% and at least twice that among the young — and put a halt to terrorism by Muslim extremists. The two are related since the extremists draw recruits from the large pool of young unemployed men.
I have come to Tunisia to participate in one of the main events of the International Muslim-Jewish Weekend of Twinning, a global panoply of programs held every November and December by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a New York-based not-for-profit, where I serve as Muslim-Jewish program director. The event in Tunis is co-sponsored by the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities, a local non-governmental organization headed by Yamina Thabet, a gutsy, liberated and rather glamorous 24-year-old woman from a prominent political family.
Tunisia was the only Arab country in which we managed to initiate a Muslim-Jewish twinning event. And it was very unclear if we would actually be able to bring local Jews and Muslims together in significant numbers at Tunis’ swank and well-guarded Hotel Africa. The program was to include a documentary film on 1,500 years of Muslim-Jewish history around the world and a discussion afterward on the state of Muslim-Jewish relations in Tunisia today.
Last year, an event led by Thabet’s group and supported by FFEU from afar commemorated the Holocaust in Tunisia. Among other things, it included moving testimony about Tunisian Muslims who saved the lives of Jews during the Nazis’ six-month occupation of the country. But not even one local Jew showed up to join the Muslim and secular human rights activists from Thabet’s association.
This reticence, even at a time of openness and free expression among other Tunisians, reflects the Jews’ strong preference for keeping a low profile. The instinct is understandable. In 2002 a bomb attack on the ancient Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba killed 21 tourists, and there have been sporadic vandalism incidents aimed at synagogues and Jewish cemeteries since then.
Anti-Israeli fervor here, which is sometimes turned on the local Jews, doesn’t just touch terrorists. In 1982, at the urging of the United States, Tunisia agreed to allow the Palestine Liberation Organization to relocate its headquarters to Tunis. Washington brokered the Palestinian group’s relocation from Lebanon amid Israel’s invasion of that country in 1982 to forestall a full-scale assault on Beirut by the Israeli Army.
But in 1985, Israel bombed the PLO’s headquarters near Tunis in response to continued attacks by the group. And in 1988, an Israeli commando team assassinated senior PLO leader Khalil al-Wazir, whom the Israelis held responsible for masterminding the first intifada, in a lightning attack on his seaside home in Tunis. Many Tunisians, already sympathetic with the Palestinians’ plight, were inflamed by these Israeli military incursions into their own sovereign land.
During my stay, I saw repeated slow-motion replays on the TV news of Israeli bulldozers demolishing the houses of the families of Palestinians who had attacked Israelis in recent weeks.
Before 1948, when Israel was established, more than 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia. Today, only a remnant survives of that ancient community, which is said to be more than 2,500 years old. An estimated 800 Jews live in Greater Tunis; another 1,200 deeply traditional Jews live in two villages on the island of Djerba, near the ancient Ghriba Synagogue. The Djerba house of worship is considered the holiest synagogue in North Africa since it is believed to be built over a headstone of Solomon’s Temple that was brought by kohanim , or high priests from the Holy Temple, fleeing the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.
I decided to visit the main synagogue in Tunis on Saturday morning for Sabbath services, but was met at the entrance of that ornate early 20th-century structure by a no-nonsense cop with a large rifle. He brusquely shouted at me not to even take a picture of the building. After I produced my American passport and said I was Jewish, he told me I could enter the building via the back entrance. But when I got there another flic forbade me to enter. Jewish custom, he sternly warned me, forbids entering a synagogue while services are underway. I told him I had a different impression. But he remained adamant, and given that he was the one with the gun, I deferred to his superior halachic expertise.
Instead, I spent the morning at the magnificent Bardo National Museum, with its rich trove of Carthaginian and Roman mosaics, reliefs and relics. During this outing and for the rest of that day, my guide was a man I will call Khaled, An unemployed 50-year-old cinematographer, who requested that I not use his real name, Khaled was one of a number of Tunisian Muslims d’un certain age who spoke about the Jews in deeply affectionate terms, expressing admiration for the outsized role that Tunisian Jews had played since their arrival more than 1,000 years before the Arabs. Tunis was a livelier and more cosmopolitan place in his youth, when there were more Jews here, he told me. As we walked through the city’s former Jewish quarter, he pointed out virtually every store or restaurant that was once owned by Jews and spoke movingly of his friendships with many who had left for Paris or for Israel. Some of these friends, he added, still return frequently for business or pleasure.
Khaled guided me through Carthage, the ancient pre-Arab capital from which Hannibal set out to conquer Rome — and almost succeeded. He showed me chic Sidi Bou Said, a scenic and luxurious village that resembles the Cote d’Azur. Then, before bringing me back to downtown Tunis, he asked if I’d like to visit a place emblematic of “real Tunisian life.” I eagerly assented and he led me into a boisterous all-male bar, where several hundred men were consuming copious amounts of local beer and wonderful Tunisian red and white wines while nibbling on pieces of salami and cheese.
As Khaled and I got progressively drunker, he began stuffing artichoke leaves into my mouth, explaining it would do wonders for my sex life.
Our Muslim-Jewish twinning event on December 7 proved to be a great success. In stark contrast to last year’s no-show, at least 10 Jews appeared among more than 100 attendees. They included Roger Bismuth, the Tunis Jewish community’s president, and Rene Trabelsi, a tour company operator who leads the annual pilgrimage of Sephardic Jews from around the world to the ancient Ghriba Synagogue on Djerba every Lag B’Omer.
Also attending were two major Tunisian political figures: Houcine Jaziri, a senior official of the Islamist Ennahda party who formerly served as minister of immigration in the interim government, and Bochra Belhaj Hmida, a parliamentary representative of Nida, the staunchly secularist party that is favored to win the runoff election. Jaziri sat next to Trabelsi and engaged him in warm conversation. And Tunisian television gave the event upbeat coverage.
In the conversation after the screening of the film that focused largely on the Jewish legacy in Tunisia, both Jews and Muslims bemoaned the virtual disappearance of Jews from Tunisian life. Joseph Krief, a Jew in his 60s, explained that he had immigrated to Switzerland as a young man but returned to Tunisia 15 years ago after realizing that he could only be happy in the warm atmosphere of his homeland. Krief recounted a recent incident in which a policeman who came to his aid after a fender bender made an offhand remark that could be translated as “God preserve you from a Jew.”
“I am a Jew and I deeply resent that remark,” Krief said he told the cop, who then abjectly apologized and expressed gratitude to Krief for educating him on how painful such sayings could be.
After leaving Tunis I spent two days on Djerba, visiting the Ghriba Synagogue and the two Jewish villages of Hara al-Kabira (“the Big Quarter”) and Hara al-Saghira (“the Small Quarter”). It was a “time out of mind” setting. The two villages feel a million miles away not just from the sophistication of Tunis, but also from the gaudy leviathan tourist hotels that have cluttered up Djerba’s own once pristine beaches.
The two “Haras” are tightly knit and feels ghetto-like, though its residents, of course, come and go as they please. But the ornate blue-tiled Ghriba in the heart of Hara al-Saghira stands in vivid contrast to its homely surroundings. The synagogue’s present incarnation dates only from the late 19th century. But it transmits a spiritual majesty that connects to the very heart and mystery of Judaism. Its powerful pull seems to hold the island’s 1,200 Jews firmly in place in their crumbling villages.
At least within their boundaries, Jewish residents of the two villages walk around freely and self-confidently in kippot. Most of the Jewish men wear modern clothing but appear to be deeply observant. They gather in the evenings to study Torah and Gemara in small synagogues and community centers after working all day as goldsmiths, silversmiths and small businessmen. Unlike the Jews in Tunis, the Djerba Jews have large families. Half the Jewish population is said to be under the age of 20. The tiny community supports 11 synagogues in addition to the Ghriba, as well as a kindergarten, two primary schools, a girls’ secondary school and a yeshiva. It has its own facilities for baking bread and matzo, and for slaughtering chickens. Young and old speak Arabic liberally mixed with Hebrew.
In extended conversations, the grand rabbi of Djerba, Haim Bittan, and the president of the Djerba Jewish community, Youssef Wazan, told me that despite the recent political turbulence, their population feels relatively secure. They have cordial, if not particularly close, relations with their Muslim neighbors and the police provide adequate security.
Wazan, who speaks rapid-fire Hebrew that he perfected during frequent visits to Israel, said that while the community is grateful for this help, “We don’t look to the goyim to save us. We understand that the government is protecting us for its own reasons, but Islamic extremism is continuing to grow. Ultimately, only the Torah protects the Jews. We Jews of Djerba are like one large family, and we take care of each other.”
That evening I sat with a group of about 20 middle-aged Djerba Jewish men as they studied Gemara. As I ate bric, a Tunisian deep-fried pastry stuffed with vegetables and a fried egg, and talked with the group, everyone affirmed that they had no intention of emigrating.
At first I tried to be diplomatic. But I finally asked them bluntly why they forego emigration and choose to live in a place that seems at once isolated and claustrophobic.
“Why should we leave?” responded a jeweler named Ya’akov, as the others nodded in vigorous agreement. “Frankly, I feel safer here in Djerba than I would in Paris, where the Jews are afraid they will be attacked if they wear kippot outside the synagogue. And with all of our love for Israel, most of us don’t want to go there and get caught up in the conflict with the Palestinians.”
Yosef, who owns a small restaurant, remarked, “We have decent relations with our Arab neighbors, but we never forget that we are an ancient community that arrived here 1,000 years before they did. All we want to do is to live in Djerba and for our children to stay here as well, to continue a story line that goes all the way back to King Solomon.”
Contact Walter Ruby at firstname.lastname@example.org