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Jewish Journal

Tunisia’s Jews keep wary eye on political developments

by Armin Rosen, JTA

April 3, 2012 | 10:25 am

Demonstrators take part in a protest demanding the inclusion of Islamic Law in the constitution in Tunis on March 25. Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Demonstrators take part in a protest demanding the inclusion of Islamic Law in the constitution in Tunis on March 25. Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Tucked on a quiet side street blocks from the Mediterranean Sea, the last kosher restaurant in the Tunisian capital is a thriving center of Jewish tradition in a country of 10 million with nearly an entire Arab and Muslim population. Yet Jacob Lellouche, who has owned and operated Mamie Lily since it opened 16 years ago, says his business is hardly a Jewish bubble.

Most of his customers are Muslim, and on a recent Thursday night, the restaurant’s cozy dining room is dominated by a large party of Tunisians sipping boukha—a fig-based liquor that Tunisian Jews traditionally drink on the Sabbath—while chattering in Arabic and French. Lellouche says the guests are liberal activists who have come to the restaurant to draft a statement on freedom of speech in the aftermath of the revolution that toppled Zine Abdine Ben Ali’s regime in January 2011.

“The civil society in Tunisia sustained the Jewish community of this country,” says Lellouche, explaining that relations between Tunisia’s educated and politically engaged citizens and the country’s 1,500 Jews have always been mutually beneficial. “As long as there are Jews in the world there will be Jews in Tunisia,” he says.

But more than a year after Tunisia became the first Arab country to overthrow its dictator through a popular, nonviolent uprising, two religion-inspired political movements are challenging Tunisia’s cosmopolitan political and social attitudes, and are threatening to reverse the country’s long-standing moderation toward Israel and the Jews.

Located just 80 miles off the coast of Sicily, Tunisia has been colonized by foreign powers from the Roman Empire to modern France. But unlike other countries with a long colonial history, Tunisia has historically been a place where Middle Eastern and European values and ideas have converged, reinforcing one another without causing conflict or social discord.

Educated Muslim Tunisians acknowledge that the Jews are a crucial part of this history.

“The Jews came to Tunis and developed commerce and trade here, and many came after they were expelled from Iberia,” says Abdel-Hamid Larguech, a history professor at Manoura University. “These were factors in how Tunisia became more cosmopolitan.”

Kedya Ben Saidane, who has researched the country’s Berber community, claims Berbers living in Tunisia first began practicing Judaism nearly 3,000 years ago.

Modern Tunisia has subsequently had a history of moderation on Israel-related issues. In 1965, Habib Bourguiba, the president from 1957 until 1987, caused a brief crisis in relations between Tunisia and several other Arab governments when he outlined a plan for recognizing Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

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 Rabbi Haim Bittan, the leader of the small Jewish community in Tunis, adding that travel to Israel is fairly routine for the country’s Jews. Tunisia is also one of the few Arab countries accessible to Israeli passport holders, despite the lack of official recognition.

Yet since Ben Ali’s ouster, 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 long-standing secular and republican tradition.

Although Ennahda in late March officially dropped its demand for Islamic law in the country’s new constitution, many Tunisians still fear that the party could take the country in an uncomfortably radical direction.

Party co-founder Rached Ghannouchi has publicly praised the mothers of suicide bombers and spoken about “the extinction of Israel.” 

“Ennahda’s election favored the emergence of a new fundamentalist section of the society, the extremists,” Larguech says. “And the two enemies of the democratic revolution are populism and extremism.”

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.

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.

“The constitution is not the place to legislate relations between countries,” he says.

However, Ghannouchi said Sunday that there could be no normalization with Israel, according to the official TAP news agency. “Tunisians’ problem is with Zionism, not with Judaism,” he reportedly said.

Tunisia also has a growing and increasingly vocal Salafist movement. Tunisia’s Salafists are Islamic fundamentalists inspired by Saudi Arabia’s restrictive version of political Islam who felt oppressed by the secular, republican character of the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes. 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. And as far as the Jews are concerned, Tunisian moderation has endured during the transitional period.

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. The southern island of Djerba has more than 350 students in Jewish schools, according to Bittan.

The post-revolutionary sense of openness has yielded one major gain for Tunisia’s Jewish community: After Ben Ali stepped down, Lellouche launched Dar el-Dekra (Arabic for “House of Memory”), which he describes as the first Tunisian organization aimed at celebrating and promoting the country’s Jewish heritage.

“Ben Ali used to instrumentalize the Jewish community,” Lellouche says. “Ben Ali wanted to say to France and America that the Jews live till now in Tunisia because he wants them to live here.”

With Ben Ali gone, there’s a new opportunity to develop Jewish life in Tunisia without contributing to the public image of a widely despised autocrat, says Lellouche, who also is planning a Jewish museum.

Still, he remains wary.

“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.”

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