Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.
The La Goulette synagogue, in a coastal suburb of Tunis, is one of the last places you can hear Hebrew being spoken in Tunisia. Every Friday and Saturday, a congregation of around 20 or so Tunisian Jews gather to recite prayers from the Siddur, listen to a sermon, and discuss politics, life, and religion over the usual lunch.
The first Jews to settle in Tunisia established themselves on the southern island of Djerba in the 6th century BCE, where they founded the Ghriba Synagogue.
Over the next centuries, more Jews emigrated from throughout the Arab-speaking world, and settled Tunisia’s interior, taking mostly menial jobs.
Today, after the Revolution, a bad economic situation is putting pressure on Tunisian Jews to migrate. Unemployment is high, pushing twenty percent by the most recent data, and the tourism industry, which benefits Tunisian Jews on the island of Djerba, is lagging.
Khodir Haneya, the curator of the Ghriba Synagogue on Djerba, has witnessed the effects of the economic situation on his community.
“Families have left Tunisia. They do not have a job here.”
Antisemitism, too, seems to be making a reappearance.
A recent public appearance by the popular cleric, Wajdi Ghoneim, caused a crowd of thousands of supporters to chant, “Khaybar, Khaybar, you Jews, the army of Mohammed will return.”
The chant refers to a battle fought by the Prophet Mohammed against the Jews of Khaybar, and effectively calls for a renewed war against the Jews of the Arab world. It was not the only time since Tunisia’s revolution that groups of radical conservative Islamists have called for the death of Jews or pronounced other anti-Semitic slurs.
The death threats were condemned by Rached Ghannouchi, head of Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party, Ennahdha. The interim president, Moncef Marzouki, reiterated his commitment to a tolerant and open Tunisia by visiting El Ghriba Synagogue on the ten-year anniversary of a terrorist attack by al-Qaeda.
At El Ghriba, Marzouki said, “So I say from this podium that we will not tolerate any discrimination against Tunisian Jewish citizens. [The Jews] are an indivisible part of our people.”
Other politicians also spoke out in support of Tunisia’s Jews.
Selma Baccar, a member of the Democratic Modernist Pole Party in Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly, spoke out against those who would interpret Islam as advocating violence.
“This Islam does not represent me. The Islam that I have known and was brought up in taught me how to love it and to feel secure with religion, not to be scared of it. I love Islam and I feel secure with it. It is not imposed on me. This is not the Islam that I am scared of. All of the principles that we learned when we were little, today, in the name of backward ideas, we are pulling away from.”
Many Tunisian Jews, however, felt that the government was not doing enough in the face of serious threats.
Annie Kabla, a Jewish woman from Djerba, who owns a cybercafé, was disappointed with the government’s inaction. Kabla said, “The thing that hurt me a lot is the fact the government did nothing. I mean we saw nothing. And that is something that hurts the most.”
In spite of these economic and cultural problems, Tunisian Jewish culture remains vibrant and resilient, and the vast majority of Jewish families have no plans to leave, as long as they are able to stay.
Roger Bismuth, the leader of the Jewish community in Tunisia, explained how Tunisian Jews were not eager to leave because they identified themselves as Tunisians first, and Jews second.
“Firstly, I am Tunisian. 100% Tunisian. I have no double nationality and nothing. I am completely Tunisian but I think the problem should be put aside. We are Tunisian citizens and we have all the rights and the duties that any citizens has. I am not a minority, in my country I am equal to anybody.”
While a small minority has taken advantage of Tunisia’s newfound freedom of expression to express hatred towards the Jewish community, the country’s tradition of tolerance and coexistence has remained for the most part intact.
That culture of tolerance saw a proud expression during the Tunisian Revolution. In the chaos that followed the collapse of Ben Ali’s regime, security could not longer be guaranteed by the police. Tunisians organized into local committees to assure each others’ safety.
Haniya described the scene in Djerba. “The revolution happened and we continued our work. We opened the synagogue and the Muslims were even guarding us. Where will you find this scene elsewhere? Absolutely nowhere but Tunisia.”
One man who embodies the ability of Tunisia’s Jews to take pride in their cultural specificity while integrating fully in their country’s civic life is Jacob Lellouche.
Lellouche is the owner Mamie Lily’s which serves Kosher Tunisian food in La Goulette, the eclectic suburb of the capital that is the gathering place of most of northern Tunisia’s Jews. If you pass through the restaurant to enter Lellouche’s home, you’ll get a crash course in Tunisian Jewish history and customs.
“These pictures are here to show to what extent traditional outfits are the same whether for Jews or Muslims. If you see this Djerba bride, you cannot tell whether she is a Jew or a Muslim. She is actually a Jew since the photographer attested that this was a Jewish wedding. There is not a big difference between her and a Muslim bride.”
In last October’s Constituent Assembly elections, the first free elections in Tunisia’s history, Lellouche decided to run for a seat in the body that would draft Tunisia’s constitution. Lellouche, who ran as an independent, says he decided to run to break stereotypes about civic life in Tunisia.
“I wanted to break a mentality in most Tunisians and people abroad that a non-Muslim Tunisian cannot be involved in the politics of the country and its organization. Why not? If we are Tunisians, since we had a revolution for democracy, and what else can you call it, dignity, we all have the same rights. If a Tunisian Muslim can be a candidate, why can’t a Tunisian Jew or a Tunisian Christian, or any Tunisian.”
While Lellouche did not win a seat, his results showed substantial support from the community, and not just the Jewish members of that community.
In the more traditional Jewish enclave on Djerba, where Jewish culture goes back over two and a half millennia, a new generation has chosen to reconcile a pride in its origin with a desire to move forward into modernity.
Aziza Haneya is 22 years old and a graduate. She just got her degree in Business Administration from the University of Medenine, making her one of the few Jewish women from Djerba to hold a post-secondary degree. Her decision broke with tradition, and also meant pursuing an education surrounded by non-Jews. However, her difference in faith did not mean she experienced any intolerance.
“I am the only Jew in my school, but everybody supports me, thank god. Religion is something between you and God.”
Only time will tell how long Tunisia’s Jews will retain their small but tenacious foothold in the country’s population. What is certain is that for now they have an indispensable place in their nation’s culture.
– Reported by the team at Tunisia Live