by Hugh Ftizgerald
Ever since Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956, it has been the most secular of Arab states. While Islam is recognized in the Tunisian constitution as the state religion, its practice is quite relaxed. This is due in large part to Habib Bourguiba, the nationalist leader who was President of Tunisia from 1957 to 1987. Bourguiba, a lawyer who had attended university in Paris, was an admirer of French civilization and civil society, and particularly was struck by, and wished to bring to Tunisia, the legal equality enjoyed by women in France. His other great model was Ataturk, whose determined secularism he wished to emulate. With his reforms, especially those pertaining to the status to women, Bourguiba accomplished a great deal.
He abolished polygamy and the mandatory veil; he raised the legal age of marriage of men to 20 and of women to 17; he established legal equality between men and women in the case of divorce; he ended the right of a father to force his daughter to marry against her will; he changed the inheritance laws to better protect the rights of women; and gave Muslim women the right to marry non-Muslim men. One of the changes Bourguiba wanted to, but did not manage to achieve, was giving women equal inheritance rights with men.
Bourguiba also looked favorably on Tunisia’s Jews, regarding them as a cultural and economic asset, unlike many Arab leaders who were glad to see “their” Jews leave in the wake of riots and pogroms, or even expelled them. After independence, Bourguiba’s government strove to reassure Tunisian Jews of their security. Laws guaranteed their religious and civil liberties, government ministries were offered to them, and Bourguiba maintained a vigilant eye on those who threatened them. The government could not prevent, but swiftly contained, the anti-Jewish outburst in Tunis on June 5, 1967, the first day of the Six-Day War. No Jews were killed; property damage was limited. Bourguiba not only apologized for the outbreak, but 54 Arabs were charged for taking part and given long prison sentences. One Muslim was sentenced to a prison term of 20 years at hard labor, and 53 others received terms ranging up to 15 years.
In the middle of Tunis there stands Tunisia’s most prestigious high school, whose graduates include Habib Bourguiba. In 1983, then-President Bourguiba renamed the school the Lycée Pierre Mendes-France, after the French political leader with whom, in 1954, he negotiated Tunisia’s independence from France. Pierre Mendès-France was Jewish, and naming this important school after him was understood as a sign from Bourguiba of his respect, not just for Mendes-France, but for Tunisia’s Jews, and his hope that those still in Tunisia would remain. Bourguiba early on appointed two Jews to important posts. The Jewish Tunisian Albert Bessis was a member of the 1955 government, headed by Bourguiba, that negotiated Tunisia’s independence. Moreover, in 1956 Bourguiba appointed Andre Barouch, another Tunisian Jew, as one of his close aides.
Now, with Bourguiba long gone, the appointment of a Tunisian Jew to a ministerial post continues to cause a stir. The current Head of the Government, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, decided in November 2018 to both reshuffle the top government posts and to bring in new ministers. Among his changes, he named Rene Trabelsi, a Jewish Tunisian, as Minister of Tourism. Against all odds, Trabelsi still occupies the post a year and a half later.
Trabelsi is ideally qualified for the post. He was born in Djerba, Tunisia, the center of Jewish life in Tunisia and the site of Africa’s oldest synagogue, that has been of great interest not just to Jewish, but to other European tourists. His father, Perez Trabelsi, is the head of the Jewish community in Djerba. Trabelsi has spent his entire career in the tourism industry, and his firm, Royal First Travel, has specialized in tours from France to Tunisia, and now caters to some 300,000 travelers a year.
Tunisia’s tourism industry has suffered in recent years from the effects of attacks by Muslim terrorists. In 2002, there was an attack on the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, killing 20. The tourism industry then took a dive, but by 2010 it had fully recovered. In 2015, however, an annus horribilis for Tunisia, there was an attack on Western tourists visiting the Bardo National Museum in Tunis; 21 people were killed. Three months later, an attack on Western, chiefly British, tourists at the beach resort of Sousse resulted in the deaths of of 39 people.
The numbers of tourists visiting Tunisia plummeted by 25% in the second half of 2015, and remained low through 2017. The U.K., France, and Germany all issued travel advisories, telling their citizens to avoid all non-essential travel to Tunisia. Finally, in the last couple of years, the tourism industry in Tunisia seems to have finally revived, though it is not yet back to the level attained before the two terror attacks in 2015.
Appointing a Jewish Minister of Tourism who has spent his entire life encouraging, and bringing, tourists to visit Tunisia, made perfect economic sense. The fact that he is Jewish has been looked at askance by some troglodytic Tunisians, but it is an asset in that ministerial post. His appointment signals to tourists that the Islamic “extremists” are not being appeased or tolerated by the Tunisian government. Several hundred thousand Jews, originally from the Maghreb and now living in France, and Jews elsewhere, too, take Trabelsi’s role as a sign that Tunisia welcomes Jewish tourists, who have recently become an important component of Tunisian tourism. The appointment of a Jewish cabinet minister in Tunisia, for the first time in 60 years, suggests to non-Jewish European tourists as well that the current Tunisian government will not appease Muslim fanatics, that the terrorist threat has decreased, with no attacks since 2015, that the Tunisian government now feels confident that it has the security situation under sufficient control to dare to appoint a Jewish minister.
However, the ongoing contretemps caused by the appointment of a Jewish minister reminds us that anti-Jewish feeling remains potent. What angers some Tunisians is that Trabelsi is considered pro-Israel, a country he has visited several times. He has openly suggested that Tunisia should establish diplomatic relations with Israel, just as Egypt and Jordan have done.
This last fact has led some in Tunisia to demand Trabelsi’s dismissal.
One story on this is here. It dates from the time of his appointment, but reports on controversies that continue.
The appointment of Tunisian Jew Rene Trabelsi as minister of tourism is one of the main issues that sparked controversy and debate among public opinion,” said Ziad al-Hani, an expert on Tunisian politics who resides in Tunis who was quoted in the report.
“Many claim that he is unable to head the ministry because of conflicts of interest. He was the owner of tourism agencies and airlines. [sic] This contradicts his role as minister. He is also accused of supporting normalization with Israel. He makes repeated visits to Israel and brings from there Tunisian Jews to visit the synagogue in Ghriba,” he added.
The fact that Trabelsi is the owner of a very large, and very successful travel agency, that specializes in low-cost tours to Tunisia from France, does not “contradict his role as minister.” His long experience in the travel industry makes him, of course, most valuable in his role. He knows what draws tourists to visit Tunisia; he’s been engaged in selling the country as a destination for thirty years. This has helped him to understand the varied desires and demands of clients, as to pricing, accommodations, access to beaches, available sports, cuisine, night life, cultural attractions, and of how to pitch its possibilities in different markets.
And no one need “accuse” Trebelsii of supporting normalization with Israel, as if he had not wanted it known, for he has never tried to hide that support. He would like Tunisia to enjoy the same “normalization” of relations with Israel that Egypt and Jordan have. And when Ziad al-Hani says, in an accusatory tone, that Trebelsi visits Israel and then brings Israeli tourists to Tunisia, to visit the synagogue in Ghriba, isn’t that exactly what the Tunisians should want their Minister of Tourism to do — attract tourists from all over, including Israel, to swell the coffers of the Tunisian tourism industry? Tourism accounts for nearly 10% of Tunisia’s GDP and employs 350,000 people. And it is not only Israelis, but Jews around the world, who, if properly informed, might become intrigued enough to visit Tunisia and, especially, its island of Djerba, where Jews have lived since 586 B.C., and which has the oldest synagogue in Africa. Trabelsi’s connection to Djerba, where he was born and raised, where his father heads the Jewish community, where he has organized tours over several decades for tens of thousands of tourists to the island, which is the most visited site in Tunisia, could be invaluable for Tunisia’s tourism. For thirty years, Trabelsi has specialized in low-cost tours, experience that he could usefully apply in the market where the greatest future growth in Tunisian tourism is expected, which is Eastern Europe.
Mohamed Abu, who heads the Tunisian Democratic Movement, was quoted in the report as saying that there is no connection between the religion of the new minister and the opposition to his appointment.”
“It has nothing to do with the fact that he is Jewish,” he said. “The problem is that he supports relations with Israel, that he visited Israel, that he thinks full relations are the right thing for economic reasons – it has no connection to politics, he does not hide it, but it does not matter at the moment – he has been approved and there is nothing that can be done now.”
Tunisia’s government has been showcasing its Jewish heritage sites, including Djerba, whose ancient synagogue was on Tunis’ list last year for locales put forth for recognition as world heritage sites by the United Nations.
If Tunisia is “showcasing its Jewish heritage sites,” shouldn’t it want to attract Israeli and Jewish tourists? Isn’t that the whole point of tourism campaigns — to match sites with those likely to be most interested in them? Isn’t Rene Trabelsi, as Minister of Tourism, going to do exactly that, which is what, after all, he’s been doing for 30 years?
At the same time, the country does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
In 2014, Tunisia’s tourism minister faced criticism from parliamentarians over a trip to Israel she took in 2006 to take part in a UN training program for Palestinian Arab youths.
Last year, Tunisia banned the film “Wonder Woman” which stars Israeli actress Gal Gadot, because Gadot had defended Israel’s counterterrorism Operation Protective Edge on Facebook.
This shows that Tunisia, despite its comparatively advanced — for a Muslim Arab country — society, with its secular legacy from thirty years of Habib Bourguiba’s rule, that includes legal equality of the sexes, still cannot free itself of the anti-Israel animus that affects so many in the Muslim Arab lands. A previous tourism minister was criticized because she travelled to Israel, even though she went only in order to take part in a UN training program for Palestinian Arab youths.
Another sign of anti-Israel feeling among some Tunisians was the banning of a movie about Wonder Woman, only because it starred an Israeli actress, Gal Gadot, who had defended Israel’s recent counterterrorism operation on Facebook. Tunisians were thus deprived of the pleasure of watching one of those marvel-comic movies of pure escape, because of a private opinion expressed by one of that film’s actors.
On the flip side, the head of the Liberal Tunisian Party has opined that his country should normalize ties with Israel, saying that doing so was in its best interest.
Let us end, then, with that voice of sense (and decency), that whispered in the ear of Prime Minister, Youssef Chahed, when he decided to appoint Rene Trabelsi as Minister of Tourism in the first place. It’s the same voice that Beji Caid Essebsi, the former Tunisian president, listened to when, after the headstone of an 18th-century Jewish sage was smashed in 2015, he assured Tunisian Jews that he would protect them and their sites with new security measures, and that he did.
Of course it is in Tunisia’s interest to normalize ties with Israel, a country with which it has never been at war, with which it does not share a contested border, and which could help Tunisia by sharing its technological and agricultural know-how, if only it were allowed to do so. The appointment of Rene Trabelsi has not been undone. One hopes that it will lead to other opportunities for other Tunisian Jews, despite their small numbers, to become more than marginal players in the nation’s economy, its society, and possibly even its politics, as well.
First published in Jihad Watch.
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