Jewish Journal

A Relative Peace for Those in Tunisia

by Janine Zacharia

Posted on Apr. 8, 2004 at 8:00 pm

Throughout much of the Arab world and Europe, three and a half years of intensive Israeli-Palestinian violence has deepened anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic sentiment among populations, recent polls have shown. But in Tunisia, home to one of the last significant Jewish populations in the Arab world, Jews there say their lives have continued peacefully.

Tunisia, regularly referred to as one of the most repressive police states in the Arab and Muslim world by human rights groups, is also one of the most progressive when it comes to women's rights, education and tolerance of others.

Despite an Al Qaeda bombing at the historic El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia, in April 2002, which killed 19, including 14 German tourists, anti-Jewish violence is extremely rare and thousands of Jews continue to make an annual pilgrimage to Djerba on Lag B'Omer.

The core of Jewish life in Tunisia, Jews have lived in Djerba, some say, since the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar in 566 B.C.E. Today, roughly 1,500 remain there, many living very traditional lives and working as artisans whose main craft is making delicate silver jewelry. Tunis' Jews live comfortably among their Muslim neighborhoods. A Jewish school run by the Lubavitch movement is guarded, but not overly so. There are several small minyans every Sabbath. A kosher butcher is easily identifiable by the Hebrew letters on its sign on Liberty Street. And Tunisian Jews are among the most prominent businessmen in the capital.

"We live perfectly well," Jewish community leader Roger Bismuth said. "I have many factories. Honestly, we have no problem ... I wear my [Star of David] on the beach."

Bismuth is well-connected. Founder of the Tunisian-American Chamber of Commerce, he has also served as chairman of the board of UTICA, an association of top businessmen, and is an adviser to Tunisia's minister of cooperation. Before President Ben-Ali traveled to Washington in February to meet President Bush, Bismuth, 77, received word from the president's office that he would be joining the delegation. In the end, the president changed his mind and Bismuth did not attend. No reason was given. "In a way you can say I'm the government's Jew," he said jokingly.

Bismuth lives in La Goulette, a suburb of Tunis where many of the capital's Jews live. There is a kosher restaurant there still, and a Jewish home for the aged that care for about 50 Jews. Tunisia and Israel had preliminary relations via interest sections in the 1990s before the intifada erupted in September 2000, ending all formal contacts.

While traveling to most Arab countries with an Israeli stamp in an American passport would be prohibited, it is not a problem in Tunisia. Entering on an Israeli passport is generally prohibited, though exceptions have been made. During the Oslo period, Yossi Beilin, then a member of Israel's Labor party, visited with an Israeli delegation. In late March, while preparations were underway in Tunis for what had been scheduled to be the 16th Arab League Summit -- Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali abruptly canceled the event after many leaders including Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah said they weren't coming -- Jewish children at the Lubavitch-run school, prepared for Passover, searching for chametz and baking shmura matzah. At the guarded main synagogue on Liberty Street in the center of town -- photographing the ornate, though weathered facade, is prohibited for security reasons -- two-dozen Tunisian men gather weekly to pray. After the Saturday morning service, five or six friends drink a pre-paid coffee at a nearby cafe and walk through Tunis' vast Belvedere Park. Khalifa Atoun, a prominent Tunisian businessman, leads the group, often stopped by passerby who bid him a good day.

On Friday evenings, roughly two dozen gather at the Pinson residence for the Sabbath service. Rabbi Nison Pinson is too old to venture out so the community comes to him. The boys, upon departing, cover their yarmulkes with baseball caps as a precaution, one routinely taken in France and elsewhere in Europe today.

Pinson and his wife were sent by the Lubavitcher rebbe four decades ago to Tunis when most of Tunisia's 130,000 Jews were swiftly immigrating to France or Israel. His wife said: "The rebbe had the foresight to know that there would be a need for us here."  

Janine Zacharia is Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.

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