Rachel Shabi, author of Not the enemy, has something of a reputation for pushing the myth of Jewish-Arab coexistence – an idyll, she believes, cruelly shattered by Israel’s creation. Perhaps she was not the best person for The Jewish Chronicle to ask to report on the aftermath of the Islamist victory in the Tunisian elections. My ‘fisking’ appears in italics:
“They naturally have a majority,” says Tunisia’s Jewish community leader, Roger Bismuth. “But more important is what is going to happen in the next few weeks.”
As the Islamist Nahda party secured about 40 per cent of the vote in Tunisia’s historic elections this week, the country’s tiny Jewish community was wondering what this means for them.
These were the first free elections in Tunisia, and the first in the Arab Spring after a string of uprisings brought down reviled dictators earlier this year.
Now, the Nahda party will need to form a coalition with secular, centre-left parties – and already has pledged to put in place a democratic system that will safeguard minorities.
Oh yes? How can a democratic system safeguarding minority rights be compatible with Shari’a law?
Among a national population of just over 10 million, Tunisia’s Jewish community stands at around 1,500. Once it was 100,000, but Israel’s creation in 1948 and Tunisia’s independence from French rule in 1956 together resulted in a Jewish exodus.
It was not Israel’s creation which resulted in a Jewish exodus – it was the Arab response to Israel’s creation, scapegoating their innocent Jewish citizens. It was not Tunisian independence, per se, it was the deliberate policy of Arabisation and marginalisation of the Jews.
Tunisia’s remaining Jewish community is relatively well-integrated. Shoppers at a kosher butcher in Tunis wear conspicuous Hebrew-lettered jewellery; the store bears both Hebrew and Arabic lettering and has been owned by a Muslim family since the early 1950s.
This example does not illustrate coexistence and interfaith harmony as Ms Shabi would have us believe, it’s simply a desire to grab a share of the profits. In almost all Arab and Muslim countries from the late 1940s Jews had to have Muslim business partners, by law. Presumably the Jewish partner in the Kosher butcher’s business departed Tunisia leaving his Muslim partner in charge.
Along the road, the Grand Synagogue is still functional, although it has a shrunken congregation, whose prayer-song does not make full use of the acoustics of the giant, bright blue- and-orange dome.
Security outside the synagogue was increased earlier this year, after a crowd of extremists demonstrated there, chanting anti-Jewish slogans.
Immediately after the revolution that brought down former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Israel wanted Tunisia’s Jews to migrate. But the suggestion did not generate much enthusiasm. “People living in Tunisia now don’t want to go,” says Mr Bismuth, who is 85. “I love to live here and will never leave my community. We are very attached to our country and want to remain normal citizens.”
Roger Bismuth is dhimmi-in-chief of the Jewish community. Would you really expect him to say anything else?
Most of Tunisia’s Jews live on the island of Djerba, whose Jewish history, including one of the oldest synagogues in the world, is carefully preserved.
There is a good reason for the preservation of the Djerba synagogue – it is the island’s only tourist attraction.
Another community, in the port town of La Goulette, near Tunis, is home to the country’s only Jewish candidate in the recent elections: Jacob Lellouche, representing the Republican People’s Union (UPR), a small, leftist party.
He did not win a seat in the new assembly, which is mandated to draft the country’s constitution and set an election date within a year. “But I am really proud to have participated,” says the 50-year-old, who owns a kosher restaurant in La Goulette. “Now we all have a lot of work to do, to get Tunisia on its feet.”
Mr Lellouche, who is secular, does not believe that politics and religion go together. Still, he says: “I’m not afraid of Nahda, there is nothing to worry about, not yet.” He is setting up a project to teach young people traditional skills, and says: “If minorities want to be part of Tunisian society, they have to be involved.”
Mr Lellouche’s initiative is commendable, but are the Tunisians listening? Neither he nor his party got elected to Parliament.
This community, proud of its long history in Tunisia, hopes it will continue. “We are brothers and big friends,” says Albert Chiche, who runs a Jewish retirement home, of relations between Muslims and Jews. “We celebrate each other’s festivals, we hug. We hope that this will not change.”
Albert Chiche could have said, ‘we hug, but the embrace is squeezing the lifeblood out of us.’ The Jewish community in Tunisia is one percent of what it was, and any attempt to put a positive spin on this massive exercise in ethnic cleansing is disingenuous.