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Tunisians Turn ‘Ashkenormative’ Judaism Upside Down

A Tunisian Jewish family on the island of Djerba / Getty Images

The Tunisian Ambassador to the United Kingdom recently came to the Chabad here in Oxford to give a Shabbat dinner talk. Needless to say, this event was not an ordinary Shabbat dinner by any means. After a meal of traditional Tunisian foods, the ambassador spoke about the need for co-existence, the importance of listening to other narratives, and — most interestingly for me — the status of Tunisian Jewry today. Though only about 1,500-strong today, the community leads a vibrant life — and many of the 80,000 Tunisian Jews across France, Canada and Israel regularly return to Tunisia for visits, even buying property there.

The ambassador painted a very inspiring picture. Yet one lady present was not quite in favor of this interpretation: She continuously interrupted him to claim that Jews were either struggling for survival after being forced to leave Tunisia, complete victims, or that the Israeli side of the story was being completely ignored. What’s more, she implied that Jews would only buy property in Tunisia if it were cheap — that there was nothing to see and the country was “dirty” and “barren.” As for one Tunisian Jewish community’s endorsement of the Islamist Ennahda party, she was completely dismissive.

The ambassador responded eloquently to her claims and kept the discussion from being derailed. And another Moroccan gentleman pointed out the ex-Vichy French and Israeli state roles in the deportation of Jews to Israel. But this lady’s outburst made me think: How might the Tunisian Jewish experience shake up some of our (Ashkenazi) assumptions about Mizrahim and Israel?

Let’s start with the assumptions around Israel. In Hebrew schools, Zionist rhetoric, and popular Jewish media (especially Ashkenormative media), we are often told that the massive migration of Jews from the Arab world to Israel in the 1950’s was: a) completely voluntary, b) necessary — and that Jews were rescued by Israel, and c) generally wonderful. But the experience of Tunisian Jews could destabilize all three of these ideas.

First, many Tunisian Jews did not want to leave the country — and were pushed out by a combination of ex-Vichy French colonial pressure, Israeli state pressure, and post-independence economic conditions. Second, the idea of necessity is highly subjective — yes, there was violence, but was departure the only solution? Besides, that idea plays into a notion of the Israeli state as an entity of heroic Ashkenazim “saving” poor Mizrahim. The questions of white savior ideology (and, yes, Ashkenazim are white) are strong. Finally, what was the experience of the Tunisians on arrival in Israel? Many were shuttled to remote development towns with few job opportunities, and continue to face racism and discrimination in Israel today. A large sector of those who could migrate again did — from Israel to France or Canada.

Then there’s the question of Tunisia itself. It is often assumed — taught, even — that ties with the motherland cease when olim arrive in Israel. Arabic is to be replaced with Hebrew, ways of living are meant to become “Israeli” (read: “Western”), and Tunisian or Arab identities are meant to fall by the wayside — or completely away. Many Ashkenazim often assume that Tunisian Jews would give up ties to an “Arab” culture often stereotyped in a very Eurocentric Israel as dirty, uncivilized, or lower. This idea is not found among the Zionist right alone, but often in the heart of the Israeli left. So it is also often thought that Tunisian Jews have “left Tunisia behind” for an Israel thought to be better and more “modern.”

But the continued visits to Tunisia from its Jews in the Diaspora, and the maintenance of ties there, raise some interesting questions. What is a homeland? Is Israel, in some cases, a place of Diaspora? For many Tunisian Jews, Tunisia remains the cultural heartland to which reference is made and nostalgia is felt. (This is not a Mizrahi trend alone: I often see this sort of orientation with my South African Ashkenazi family in Israel.) As a result, identity as a “Tunisian” goes beyond the often-commodified, often-simplified norms of food and occasional music; it’s a way of achieving what researchers call “transnationalism,” having feet in two nations.

Continued Tunisian identity undoes the division we often draw between “Arab” and “Jew” — often, a Tunisian Jew will be both at the same time. Given the typical political rhetoric of today, this combination may seem counterintuitive or even paradoxical. But maybe Tunisian Jewry should push us to ask: Is it really a paradox, or do we just want to believe that it is?

Jonathan Paul Katz is a graduate student at the University of Oxford.

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