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Why Tunisian Jews Can’t Wait To Vote in an Arab Election

Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

Jaco Halfon spent the last week of November glued to his computer at home in L.A. Presidential election results were coming in from his homeland of Tunisia. Halfon, a Tunisian citizen, wanted to make sure that he was up-to-date and that readers of his popular Jewish website Harissa got the relevant commentaries.

Tunisian citizens voted in a free and direct presidential election for the first time on November 23. It had been three years since the Jasmin revolution that overthrew ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Following an interim government and October’s parliamentary elections, it was time to for Tunisian citizens to vote on who would lead the new democracy.

Jaco Halfon

Among the 11 million citizens living in Tunisia, there is still a tiny Jewish community; it has shrunk from more than 100,000 in 1948 to about 1,800 Jews today, mostly in Tunis and in the southeastern island of Djerba. Most Tunisian Jews have emigrated to Israel and France over the years, while a few thousand have moved to North America.

The new Tunisian election law determines that Tunisian citizens overseas are allowed to vote. Halfon decided not to vote, even though he is entitled to. “I feel a bit [far] away from over there,” he said. “We do not intend to go back there so I think it is a Tunisian issue and it’s for the people who live there to decide.”

Leaving the decision to Tunisia’s residents doesn’t mean that Halfon doesn’t have strong opinions about the elections. Out of the 25 candidates, the two who emerged as the leading candidates were Beji Caid Essebsi and Moncef Marzouki. If Halfon were to vote, he would vote without hesitation for Essebsi — or as he put it, “for democracy.”

“Beji Essebsi, he’s a democrat. He’s the heir of the French colonization liberal Tunisia,” Halfon said. He added that his group within the Jewish community had always identified with Arab Tunisians who grew up under French colonialism and its aftermath. Explaining why so many Tunisians are attracted to his French-language website, he said, “These people are very close to us.”

Essebsi, who temporarily served as the prime minister in 2011, is chairman of the Nidaa Tounes, the party that represents the secular coalition. He won the most votes (39.4%), but since he didn’t win an absolute majority, Tunisian citizens will go to a second round of voting on December 21.

Running against Essebsi is Moncef Marzouki, who won 33.4%. He currently serves as the interim president of Tunisia and he’s the candidate of the Congress for the Republic Party. Marzouki has a history of opposing the old regime, for which he served time in Tunisian prison in 1994.

But for Halfon — who, like many others, left Tunis when things became harder for the Jewish community following the 1967 war — Marzouki is not an option because of his affiliation with the moderate Islamist Ennahda party. “He’s from the left, that’s true, but he became president because of Ennahda,” Halfon said, referring to the collaboration between former ruling party Ennahda and Marzouki during the interim government.

The Islamist connection raises the old specter of Muslim-Jewish relations in Tunisia.

“There were no pogroms there,” said Paul Guez, who left Tunisia in 1964 and founded a denim empire in the U.S. “You can’t call them riots, it was never really bad.” Although critical of today’s Tunisia, the 70-year-old Guez recalls that violence against Jews was sporadic and random — a narrative that runs counter to that of Israel’s new national day marking the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands. “You cannot say, especially at that time, that a Tunisian Muslim is not a nice guy. They’re nice, they’re very nice actually.”

Guez, who frequently visits Tunisia, strongly opposes Ennahda and Marzouki, to the extent that he ponders the success of the revolution. But when Ennahda won the 2011 election, it was reported that many Tunisian Jews voted for it.

Rafram Chaddad

“Yes, there were people who vote for Ennahda,” said Rafram Chaddad, a 38-year-old Tunisian artist currently in Israel. “Marzouki is a secular leader with a traditional-religious appeal, who doesn’t fall into the Western dichotomy of secular versus religious.”

Chaddad, who was brought to Israel from Djerba as an infant and now divides his time between Tunisia, Israel and Europe, plans to vote for Marzouki. That is, if he’s able to. “We used to go vote in a shop in Jerusalem, [run by] a guy who was a new immigrant from Tunisia. We would bring dried fish and Kinley and we would make an event of it.” But now, the only option is to vote with the ambassador to Ramallah, which is more complicated.

To Chaddad, the idea that Jews are supposed to vote against Muslims is a one-dimensional Western view: “I personally understand — as do other Jews I know — that the important questions don’t revolve around religion, but economics.”

Robert Watson, a visiting assistant professor at Stetson University, agreed with this assessment. “Obviously Jews would be worried about an Islamist party being in power — theoretically,” he said. ”But the thing that is so different with Jewish communities in Morocco and Tunisia is that they don’t have any political line… besides stability. That’s the main issue that they care about: stability and economic policy that is generally market-oriented.”

Watson is Jewish and has a relative who used to live in Morocco, which is what led him to study Jewish-Maghrebi identity in the Diaspora. He noted that in 1980s and 19890s there was a boom of memoir literature written by Tunisians of Halfon’s and Guez’s generation. This strengthening of ties to the homeland can be chalked up to a ”concern about the loss of the traces of the Jewish existence in North Africa altogether,” Watson said.

But not all Tunisian Jewish immigrants maintain a strong connection to their homeland. “I really don’t care about what is happening in Tunisia,” said Simone Uzan, who lives in Brentwood, California. The only reason she is relatively up-to-date on her homeland is because she watches French television. “For me, Tunisia now is what I hear in the news,” she says. “My heart can only go to so many countries. I already have Israel and France in my heart. And I’m American with my body.”

What’s certain is that Jews in Tunisia participate fully and enthusiastically in their elections. Businessman Rene Trabelsi — who, according to many reports, was offered the position of tourism minister and turned it down — said recently that over 80% of Tunisian Jews who were eligible to vote have registered. Reports from Tunisia after the first round of presidential elections confirmed that notion. For example, a report by the Turkish Anadolu news agency noted that young Jews voted in large numbers, even asserting that the number of young Jewish voters was the largest among young Tunisian voters writ large.

“For this young generation, because they don’t have the colonial experience, because they were born so long after the French rule… they’re more part of this culture of globalization as it expresses itself in the Arab world,“ Watson explained. “They think of themselves as Tunisians first and foremost, which is actually a little bit different than how their grandparents and great-grandparents who lived in Tunisia their whole lives thought of themselves — as Jews first, then maybe French, and then Tunisian.”

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