Tunisian Jews keep wary eye on unsettling political shifts

tunis, tunisia  |  On April 11, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki reassured his nation’s Jews of their place in society in a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of a synagogue attack on the island of Djerba that killed 21 people.

Marzouki flew to the island accompanied by Tunisia’s grand rabbi, Haim Bittan, to lay a wreath and observe a moment of silence to remember the victims of the al Qaida truck bombing.

“All forms of discrimination against Jews, assaults on their lives, possessions or religion are forbidden,” he said in a speech inside the synagogue, as he unveiled a plaque. “Tunisian Jews are an integral part of our people and they share all the rights and duties. Whoever violates their rights, attacks all Tunisians.”

The Israeli government, which called for Tunisia’s remaining Jews to emigrate last December, welcomed the  visit as a positive sign. But, said an official with Israel’s foreign ministry, a member of the ruling Islamist party should have attended the ceremony.

Djerba Jews at the El-Ghriba Synagogue on Tunisia’s southern island. photo/jta-upyernoz

The visit comes at a time when Tunisia’s small Jewish community is facing pressure from ultraconservative Muslim groups after an uprising last year overthrew Tunisia’s decades-old secular dictatorship.

In the 1960s, about 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia. Most left following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war; just 1,500 remain, two-thirds of them on Djerba.

Official diplomatic contact between Israel and Tunisia, established in 1996, lasted just four years, yet Tunisia does not take as hard-line a position on the Jewish state as other Arab countries.

“Tunisian Israelis come here with no problem at all,” says Bittan, adding that travel to Israel is fairly routine for the country’s Jews. Tunisia is one of the few Arab countries accessible to Israeli passport holders, despite the lack of official recognition.

Yet since Zine El Abadine Ben Ali’s ouster a year ago, there have been hints that Tunisia’s moderation — and its moderate position toward Israel — could be eroding.

In October, the Islamist Ennahda party won 43 percent of the vote in Tunisia’s first post-uprising parliamentary elections, putting an explicitly religious party in charge of a country with a longstanding secular and republican tradition.

 Ennahda confirmed moderates’ fears by proposing a constitutional ban on normalization of ties with Israel during a mock parliament held just after Ben Ali’s ouster. A year later, there is almost no mainstream support for such a provision. Ennahda, which has proven responsive to the criticism from the country’s large secular-liberal wing, also now opposes the normalization ban, and in late March officially dropped its demand for Islamic law in the country’s new constitution. Still, many Tunisians still fear that the party could take the country in an uncomfortably radical direction.

Walid Bennani, vice president of Ennahda’s parliamentary contingent, says his party believes that peaceful relations with the Jewish state would be possible as soon as Israel makes peace with the Palestinians.

But party co-founder Rached Ghannouchi has publicly praised the mothers of suicide bombers and spoken about “the extinction of Israel.” And on April 8 he said there could be no normalization with Israel, according to the official TAP news agency.

Tunisia also has a growing and increasingly vocal Salafist movement, Islamic fundamentalists inspired by Saudi Arabia’s restrictive version of political Islam. On March 23, Salafist protesters chanted anti-Semitic slogans in downtown Tunis, provoking a tense standoff with a group of artists gathered in front of Tunisia’s national theater.

Every major political party, including Ennahda, condemned the Salafists, whose chants included “death to the Jews.” A week later, Salafists called for a ban on normalization with Israel in a protest in front of the National Assembly building in Tunis.

So far, Tunisia’s moderate and secular political culture has kept the Salafists on the social and political fringes while frustrating Ennahda’s ambitions for an overtly Islamic constitution. But Jews inside and outside the country are wary.

Rene Trabelsi, a Jew of Tunisian origin residing in Paris, said many Tunisian Jews living in France had planned to visit Djerba for Passover but had canceled their trips after hearing reports of the Salafist threats. Jews are believed to have lived in Djerba for the past 2,500 years, and the island’s synagogue is a pilgrimage site for North African Jews during and after Passover.

“They were traumatized by these dangerous statements, which came after the drama of Toulouse,” he said, referring to the shootings of four Jews, including three children, in France by an al Qaida sympathizer.

In Tunis itself, Jewish life is more developed than in most other Arab capitals.  Although only 500 Jews remain in the city, it boasts a Jewish school, a yeshiva and a kosher food service — as well as the Grande Synagogue de Tunis, a 1930s art-deco masterpiece still topped with a colossal, gilded Star of David.

Last year Jacob Lellouche, owner of the city’s only remaining kosher restaurant, launched Dar el-Dekra (Arabic for “House of Memory”), which he describes as the first Tunisian organization to celebrate and promote the country’s Jewish heritage. He is also planning a Jewish museum.

That doesn’t mean he feels safe, however.

“The Salafists have now chanted ‘death to the Jews’ during their marches three times,” Lellouche says. “The first two times they were talking about Zionists. But I think the third time they were talking about the Jews themselves.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.