Tour Operator Eyes Tunisia Situation


Jerry Sorkin knows Tunisia far better than the average American. In fact, that's exactly where the founder of TunisUSA, a touring company based in Wayne, spends much of the year.

Since the early 1980s, when he began visiting the North African nation as an Oriental-rug dealer, Sorkin said that he's heard plenty of grumbling about official corruption. But even he didn't foresee the groundswell of popular anger that drove autocratic leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power last week.

"No one would have imagined that things would have happened so fast — it was so beyond anyone's imagination," said Sorkin, who maintains close ties to the nation's roughly 1,600-member Jewish community.

That's a tiny fragment of the 100,000 Jews who lived there prior to 1956, when Tunisia declared independence from France.

Over the past week, violent clashes have erupted between protesters and government forces. Pundits have speculated as to whether this sudden overhaul will spark democratic movements elsewhere in the Arab world. There is also a concern that the country could devolve into chaos, with Muslim extremists trying to fill the power vacuum.

"Jews are in the same situation as everyone else; they don't know anything more than anyone else in terms of what does it mean for the future," Sorkin said, adding that Jews in various locales have told him they haven't seen signs of anti-Semitism in the demonstrations.

Judy Amit, regional director for Africa and Asia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, concurred, saying that Jewish leaders have reported that the popular furor has been directed at the government, and that no Jewish institutions or individuals have been harmed.

In a statement, JDC's president, Irving Smokler, and CEO Steve Schwager expressed particular concern for the 100 Jewish families living in the southern city of Zarzis, where one Jewish shop was looted and police presence has been light.

The largest number of Jews reside on the southern island of Djerba. According to Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, police have blocked entrance to the Jewish quarter there and stepped up security efforts.

Sharansky called the situation "very worrisome," adding that "the Jews are seen as supporters of Ben Ali's regime, as well as connected with the wealthy in the country."

The Djerban community is thought to be more than 2,000 years old. A smaller, mostly French-speaking Jewish community exists in the capital of Tunis, which sits near the ruins of ancient Carthage. Pockets of Jews live in other cities as well.

Ben Ali, the nation's second president, had been considered a U.S. ally in the war on terror. Since taking power in 1987, he's attempted to stamp out dissent and political opposition at home.

According to news reports, order is slowly returning to the country, now being run by a temporary unity government.

Ben Ali had long been considered an ally and protector of the country's Jewish community, which in recent decades has maintained good relations with its Muslim neighbors, said Sorkin. (In the aftermath of Israel's creation and the independence of Tunisia, anti-Jewish demonstrations helped propel the exodus of most of the community.)

The 200-square-mile island of Djerba is home to an annual Jewish festival tied to Lag B'Omer. In 2002, an Al Qaeda bombing of Djerba's La Ghriba synagogue killed 21 people. Since then, the government had stepped up security for the festival and worked to promote it, encouraging the French and the Israelis to attend.

As for his own business, Sorkin said he hasn't canceled any tours yet; the next one is scheduled for February.

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