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What now for the Jews of Tunis?

January 18, 2011 – 1:39 pm2 Comments

The Great Synagogue in Tunis. Photo source: Galus Australis

By Anthony Frosh

With the political state of affairs in Tunisia now lying somewhere between anarchy and revolution, it’s a troubling time for all citizens of this North African republic.  For the Jewish community, such instability must be particularly concerning.

Last April, after enjoying Pesach in Israel, my wife and I had the pleasure of spending some time in Tunis, as well as some of the surrounding towns, such as Carthage. For me (although not my wife who had previously travelled in Egypt), it was my first trip to an Arab country, and this in itself was something of a source of excitement.

One of the first things to surprise me about Tunis, apart from the rather cool and damp spring weather we experienced, was how secular it was. For example, I don’t think I saw a woman wearing a hijab (head scarf) the entire time we were there, with the exception of the some tourists at the airport who had just flown in from one of the Gulf countries, and possibly a few locals in the Médina (Old City) of Tunis.

One of the other things we noticed about Tunis was how friendly the people were.  Almost everyone speaks both French and Arabic, but English is not that common.  However, it seemed that any locals we met who could speak some English were keen to have a conversation with us.  One gentleman in a supermarket even wanted to know if we had any brothers that would make a good match for his sister!

What was most intriguing to me was the chance to visit a Jewish community residing within an Arab country.  Once a community of over 100,000 people, the Jewish community of Tunisia is now estimated at less than 2000.  The vast majority of these live either in Tunis or on the island of Djerba (which time did not allow us to visit).

The security surrounding Jewish institutions in Tunis certainly puts our CSG into perspective.  Generally, any Jewish building had about three uniformed Tunisian security police with machine guns.  However, their level of attention did not always match the size of their firearms.  On one occasion, we set out to find what time and location the Shabbat services would be.  From the street, we noticed a building that had mezzuzot, and walked in through the gate.  At this time, the attention of the security police happened to be elsewhere.

My wife walked through the entrance, and was soon deep in Hebrew conversation with the rabbi and principal of the school, as he explained to her our best options for Shabbat.  Not wanting to immediately display my poor Hebrew conversational ability, I lingered in the front courtyard, still visible from the street.  The guards suddenly noticed my presence and appeared quite alarmed.  They started shouting at me (in French I think, but I was too stunned to comprehend, even if I could have). In my memory one of them pointed his machine gun at me, although the more rational side of my brain is fairly sure that didn’t happen (see the film Waltz with Bashir for a nice understanding of the phenomenon of dynamic memory).  I raised my hands slightly, with open palms, to make myself as non-threatening and as calming as possible, and said Je suis juif (I am a Jew).

At that point, the principal emerged and came to my rescue, explaining to the guards that everything was ok.  The lesson I learnt was not to take the security guards by surprise.  When we visited a synagogue subsequently, I made a beeline straight for the security men, showed them my passport, and explained to them in terribly broken French that we were Jewish tourists from Australia who wished to go inside the synagogue.

With regard to the political situation, the Jews we spoke with were quite optimistic.  They felt that the current president (current until a few days ago that is) treated the Jewish community well.  One high school student we had a conversation with spoke about President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in glowing terms (with regard to protecting the Jews), reminding us of the way Thais often speak about their king.

An astute looking gentleman who spoke with us after Erev Shabbat services told us that the then president, Ben Ali, believed it important to protect the Jews as the presence of a safe and secure Jewish community demonstrated to outside investors that Tunisia is a safe, secure, and open place to do business.

Having said all that, this same gentleman also explained to us that it would be very unwise for the community to express any visible signs of Zionism.  As an example, he pointed to a large mural on the wall inside the synagogue that closely resembled the Israeli coat of arms.  However, most crucially, instead of saying ישראל (Israel), it said שלום (Shalom, i.e. peace).  He smiled as he explained to us that even with the substitution of the words, the resemblance of the mural to the Israeli emblem was probably as much chutzpah as they could afford.  Not incidentally, this was the Great Synagogue that was burnt down in 1967 during anti-Jewish riots, and had been rebuilt under the Ben Ali regime.

We asked him if it would be ok for me to wear my kippah on the walk back to our hotel.  He replied that it would most likely be ok, but it would be better if my kippah blended in with my hair more, as his black kippah blended in with his jet-black hair, rather than my colourful knitted kippah.  In the end, his advice boiled down to “why take the risk?” I thought his advice was sensible, but he also might have given us extra-cautious advice, not wanting to bear the responsibility in the unlikely event that my kippah brought us into trouble.

The perception of Ben Ali as treating the Jews well in recent times can be juxtaposed with the hostile treatment of the Jewish community by the regime prior to Ben Ali’s, which saw a mass exit of Jews from Tunisia.  However, it should be recognised that Ben Ali also allowed the PLO to maintain their base  in Tunis in the 1980s and early 90s.

Furthermore, Ben Ali’s wife has long been very close with Suha Arafat, the wife of the late Yasser.  Indeed, it seems Ben Ali’s wife and Suha shared a penchant for using enormous amounts of public funds to spend on their own luxurious upkeep.  And that brings us to the demise of Ben Ali’s regime.  Once the economy turned bad, a flow on from the European economic malaise, the people were no longer so forgiving of the nepotism, corruption, and largesse of Tunisia’s ruling families.

For now, there is no anti-Jewish element in the rioting being carried out in Tunis.  In addition, there is no Islamist element to that rioting either. That’s at least some good news for the Jews of Tunisia. Hopefully, a more democratic regime will form in Tunisia, but one that also values the security of the Jewish community.  Still, it may be a while before anyone bumps into a large group of middle-aged Israeli tourists like we did at the Carthage National Museum.

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