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What Will Tunisia's New Government Augur for Jews?

November 2, 2011 By:
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Thousands of Jews attended the La Ghriba pilgrimage festival in Tunisia every year. But the gathering was canceled this year due to security concerns. Photo by Bryan Schwartzman

 

Under Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled the North African nation with an iron fist for 24 years, the country's ancient and tiny Jewish community was a protected minority.
 
The government tourism industry had even encouraged Jews from abroad to attend the annual Lag B' Omer festival on the island of Djerba. It was all part of an effort to transform the small island -- home to an ancient Jewish community of about 1,200 -- into a tourist oasis, complete with luxury hotels, spas and pristine golf courses.
 
But now, Ben Ali is gone, the first autocratic casualty of the Arab Spring. And the Islamic political party Ennahda won a plurality in the first free election in the country's history.
 
What does these dramatic turn of events mean for Tunisia's roughly 1,700 Jews? The public response appears to be concern, but not outright panic, though the community is known for not wanting to ruffle feathers.
 
Several sources said that one positive sign was the care the major Tunisian political parties -- including Ennahda -- took to reassure Jews that their protected status would not be affected.
 
Jerry Sorkin is a Wayne-based tour operator who is president of the American Tunisian Association and was in the country for the elections as well as the High Holidays. He said Jews feel a great deal of uncertainty but there is a sense that the elections were fair and represented the will of the citizen.
 
"People are cautious as Jews are in any country where they are a small minority," said Sorkin, who owns a home in Tunisia. "Ennahda has repeatedly stated that the Jews are a part of Tunisia. I don't think those are empty words."
 
He pointed out that there's been no coordinated attacks against Jews or Jewish-owned businesses.
 
But Tunisia's Jews are wary of Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda's founder and current leader, and his brand of Islamism, said Rachel Shabi, a London-based journalist who interviewed community members ahead of the election. But they also were willing to give him a chance.
 
Giles Jacob Lellouche, the sole Jewish candidate who ran in the elections and a friend of Sorkin's, told the AFP news service that he and others were taking a wait-and-see attitude.
 
"The people have spoken, and they have chosen that party," Lellouche, who did not win a parliamentary seat, told the AFP.
 
Sorkin said that Lellouche, who runs a kosher restaurant in a Tunis suburb, had told him that he had not experienced any negative reaction to his religion when he ran for office.
 
Hain Bitan, the chief rabbi of Tunis -- home to about a third of the country's Jews -- told the AFP that "we have lived here for hundreds of years, we have created a good life together, we are not afraid."
 
Shabi did not foresee any opposition by the new government to the deep ties between the local Jewish community and the tens of thousands of dispersed Jews of Tunisian origin abroad, including in Israel. Thousands of Jews visit Djerba and its La Ghriba synagogue each year for a festival where Jews parade a wooden menorah through a nearby village.
 
As recently as 2008, the festival turned into a pep rally for Ben Ali, as Jews greeted a Tunisian official with chants for Ben Ali to seek re-election. In recent years, the festival had taken place under the protection of the police and army. The synagogue was the site of a 2002 bombing, launched by Al Qaeda, that killed 21 people, mostly German tourists.
 
In May, local Jewish officials announced the cancelation of the festival, citing security concerns, though locals did end up holding a scaled-down observance. Sorkin said that with the future of Tunisia and neighboring Libya still in flux at the time, Tunisian Jews were afraid of hosting a large, open gathering of Jews from other countries.
 
"People just didn't know what the reaction might be. There were still issues of some insecurity," Sorkin said, adding that he doesn't think the festival will be back on this year either, and probably not for some time.
 
"It's a real wait and see on that; there is no other way to look at it."
 

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