Tuesday, 22 January 2013
A tip of the hat to Fjordman who brought this Deutsche Welle article on thet remnant of less than 1,500 Tunisia's Jews facing the Arab winter in North Africa. Tunisia's Jews have lived in the country before the onset of Christianity and Islam. Last January, a Ynet.com article quoted a few Tunisian Jews putting on a brave face defying calls from Israel's Vice Premier Silvan Shalom entreating them to make aliyah to safety in Israel:
Me, I'm a Tunisian Jew," said Atun Khalifa, a senior figure in the community. "I know my country well and I'm against the proposition to leave because no-one here is afraid. I don't tell him (Shalom) where to go!"
Now with the Islamist Ennahda party in control, we wonder if those Tunisian Jews still harbor the same defiance about making aliyah to the 'freest country in the Middle East', according to the annual Freedom in the World report of Freedom House. The vast bulk of Tunisian Jews who once numbered 110,000 emigrated to Europe and Israel following the June 1967 Six Days of War. The Grand synagogue in Tunis, built in 1938, now stands empty. Most of Tunisia's remaining Jews live on the Island of Djerba, the scene of a devastating attack at the ancient El Ghriba synagogue that killed 21 tourists, among them 14 Germans and Four French, in April 2002, the first al Qaida action in North Africa after 9/11.
Jews lived in North Africa before the arrival of Christianity or Islam. On the eve of Tunisia's independence from France, there were more than 100,000 of them in the country. Half a century later, as few as 1,500 remain.
Two years ago, Tunisians took to the streets and overthrew President Ben Ali, triggering the protests across the Arab world that became known as the Arab Spring. The revolution promised freedom and democracy. That same freedom has also brought instability however, and Tunisia's minority Jewish population is vulnerable.
Jamel Bettaieb comes from Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Tunisian revolution. The young language teacher and activist was at the heart of the protests that led to the downfall of the Tunisian president and triggered the Arab Spring. Bettaieb is now concerned that freedom of speech is providing a platform for extremists to voice hate campaigns against Tunisia's Jews.
"In the last few months an imam went on television and spent an hour speaking negatively about the Jews. Where was the reaction of the government? There was nothing. I criticize society. Civil society should say this is unacceptable. People should care," said Bettaieb.
Rise of Islamist politics
Under President Ben Ali, Islamists were arrested and political parties banned. Now, however, the country is experiencing a religious revival. Tunisians chose the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, to lead their first democratically elected government after the revolution.
Ennahda's leadership has promised to protect Tunisia's Jewish community but many grassroots supporters are hostile to the Jews. The country's growing ultra-conservative Salafist movement are thought to number 10,000. Eyewitnesses say the group has been chanting anti-Jewish slogans at protests in Tunis, the Tunisian capital.
The Great Synagogue of Tunis, built in 1938, now stands basically empty
Salafists have a strict interpretation of the Koran and believe in creating an Islamic state governed by sharia law. Thousands of Salafists who had been imprisoned by Ben Ali were released after the revolution. Many in the Jewish community quietly admit that they felt safer under Ben Ali. "Now we live in fear of the Salafists," one woman told DW.
For the moment, much of the anti-Semitism has remained rhetoric. But the potential for violence remains very real. Tunis' central synagogue on Liberty Avenue is surrounded by barbed wire and protected by armed soldiers. Built in the 1930s, the synagogue stands as a symbol of the community's confidence. Today, only a shadow of that thriving community lives on.
A tiny community remains
In a hall backing onto the synagogue, a gathering of Jews celebrate a rare occasion: a bar mitzvah. The celebration marks the coming of age of a Jewish boy. Tunisian Jews have travelled from France and the Tunisian island of Djerba, home to the country's largest Jewish community, to take part in what has now become a rare celebration in the capital. There are only a small number of young Jews among the guests. Even their parents' generation is scarce. The Jewish community is ageing.
Roland Sa'adon is the cantor, or singer of prayers, at a synagogue in La Goulette, a seaside suburb of Tunis. He has spent all his life in Tunisia and wants to remain in the country of his birth. Like many Jews here, his children live abroad, and soon he will be forced to leave Tunisia to be with his family.
Since the revolution, Sa'adon has come to believe that the future of the Jewish community is at risk. "The Islamists have taken over the revolution, a revolution that was led by young people," he told DW. "If the Salafists win support then it will be difficult - not just for us, but for many Muslims as well. I don't think most Tunisians are extremists, but if they are and that's what they choose, then there will be no place for us in Tunisia."
A small group of Jews celebrate a bar mitzvah in central Tunis
One of the few younger guests at the bar mitzvah, Isaac Hayoun, says that while he feels safe in Tunisia, he too will leave. “I am practically the only young practising Jewish teenager in the capital," he told DW. "After high school I will move to France."
He adds, that if he wants to marry a Jewish woman, he is very unlikely to find one in Tunisia. "It's a shame because it's a beautiful country, but ours is a community that lives in the past.”
Jews have been gradually leaving the country since its independence in 1956. Many moved to France and Israel. Some left for financial reasons; there were more opportunities abroad. Others left after the rise in anti-Semitism that followed Israel's conflicts with the Arab world.
Remembering Jewish history
Habib Kazdaghli is a professor of contemporary history at the University of Tunis who specializes in Jewish history. It is important that all Tunisians learn about the country's Jewish community, he says.
"Our country lost part of itself. We must now teach students about our past. I now have many students who are not Jews," he explains. "It is not a Jewish past, it is a Tunisian past."
Seeking to preserve that past, a new museum and website called Dar El Dhekra (meaning "House of Memory") has been founded. It's dedicated solely to Jewish history and culture in Tunisia. For the moment at least, this tiny community appears to be hanging on to see what post-revolution Tunisia has in store for them.
Posted on 01/22/2013 8:54 AM by Jerry Gordon
23 Jan 2013
Richard L. Rubenstein
My wife and I visited the Island of Djerba while I was president of our university before the slaughter. I also remember a fairly large, well-maintained synagogue on the city of Tunis’s main street. It was clearly a show piece. We also went to a meeting of Tunis’s feminists. Things were different then. The Ministry of Education wanted to work out an arrangement with our university so that some of their students could get credit for two years at a Tunisian school, then 2 years with us and then get an American degree. I suspect that the French may have helped to kill it. They wanted the students to be Francophone. We stayed at a magnificent hotel on the shore of the Mediterranean in Carthage, a suburb of Tunis. The cuisine was superb. There were quite a few such hotels favored by the Europeans. In retrospect, we were lucky not to get involved. Ditto our negotiations in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Karachi. In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there were schools owned by a Pakistani family that offered a western education to the "guest workers" and their families. in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In Karachi, they offered a western education to the locals. The offerings met Western academic standards and in Karachi, the faculty consisted of mostly Americans and Brits with PhDs. We broke off negotiations when the Pakistani head of the operation was kidnapped and never heard from again.