With Ben Ali gone, what will happen to the Jews?

As President Ben Ali flees a Tunisian people’s uprising after over twenty years in power, the country’s 1000-member Jewish community is left pondering if it still has a future. A news source connected to the Franco-Israeli Chamber of Commerce, called Israelvalley, had the following update:

“According to exclusive information obtained by IsraelValley, Israeli tourists, mostly with European passports, are stranded tonight in Tunis since the airport is closed. Jews are not going out on the streets this Shabbat and are anxiously waiting at home (IsraelValley is in contact with politicians in Jerusalem who are themselves related to members of the Jewish community of Tunisia). According to the French State Secretariat for Tourism, “some 8,000 French expatriates ( IsraelValley believes they include many Jews in France) currently reside in Tunisia.”

“Our most likely scenario for the future of Tunisian-Israeli relations is that stable relations are expected to continue. Although reduced to some 2,000 from over 100,000 shortly before the creation of the State of Israel, the Jewish community in Tunisia is considered “significant” compared to other Arab countries.

“The first consequence of the unstable political situation is that nearly 4,000 Jews who travel to and from Tunisia to Israel, Italy, France, Libya, etc.., will be forced to reconsider before going on pilgrimage to the island of Djerba (500 km from Tunis), held in May.

“Business cooperation between Tunisia and Israel is virtually at a standstill. From time to time, an Israeli industrialist might discreetly announce he is working in Tunisia. Most Israeli operators who trade with Tunisia are French Jews who immigrated to Israel and want to keep ties with their country of birth. The Israelis encountered by IsraelValley in Tel Aviv are very interested in aerospace subcontracting in countries like Tunisia, which has real experience and expertise in this field.”

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Point of No Return adds: Tunisian Jews are understandably worried about Ben Ali’s departure. The vast majority would have voted for him in the last elections (although he had no credible opposition) – and 100 Tunisian Israelis cast their votes for Ben Ali in Jerusalem.

Ben Ali has run a police state since he deposed his predecessor Habib Bourguiba in 1987. (There is one Jewish senator, Roger Bismuth). Ben Ali has encouraged tourism and approved the restoration of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, although few are still functioning. The jewel in the crown of Djerba’s tourism industry is the old Ghriba synagogue which attracts thousands of Jewish visitors for Lag La’Omer each May. The government started the pilgrimage a few decades ago.

The synagogue was bombed by Al-Qaeda in 2002, when 19 people, mostly German tourists, were killed. Since then the government has tried to keep a lid on Islamists, although one has been harassing the rabbi and yeshiva students by bringing court case after court case against them.

Many of the 1,000 Jews of Djerba live in prosperity and security on the island. They speak fluent Hebrew, maintain close ties with Israel, and travel there via Istanbul.

Jews will be watching and waiting to see what kind of government will succeed Ben Ali’s. An Islamist government would obviously prove disastrous, but so far there is no sign of such a thing.


  • Update: The stranded Israeli tourists are now out of Tunisia with the help of an unnamed (so far) third country.

  • Indeed, the Jews did not have much of a choice. The trouble is they always think the good times under these dictatorships will last for ever, when all they are doing is postponing their inevitable departure by a few years.

  • As you mentioned, an islamic upsurge within the new government will spell disaster…One can only hope that the Tunisian people restrain themselves by blaming the Tunisian Jews for supporting Ben Ali, because this support was not in any way helpful to his tenacious hold on power and repressive apparatus. The support Jews gave to Ben Ali was overwehelmingly for self-preservation and nothing else.

    Tunisian Jews will lend support to any arab leader who would leave them alone to live in peace and contribute to the development of the Tunisian society.

    What options would they have any way? Jewish history has always taught us that Diaspora Jews will always find themselves stuck between two evils.


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