Earlier this month, the Tunisian Jewish community rejected the concept of a reserved parliamentary seat in the new democratic order. It’s tokenism, reminiscent of the Iranian Majlis. But Jacob Lellouche, a Jew, here being interviewed in this piece for The Forward by Rachel Shabi, failed to win a seat in the last Tunisian elections. For all the lofty talk that ‘we are all Tunisians with the same problems’, Jews do have specific problems – antisemitism, the preservation of their heritage. Is it not better for the 1, 500 Jews to be guaranteed a seat than have no voice at all?
Jacob Lellouche…failed to win a seat (photo: Rachel Shabi)
“Like all Tunisians, we care for the need for there to be a real
democracy,” he said, “where struggles between people are fought with
words and minds, not with weapons.”
This approach was also evident in the Tunisian Jewish
community’s rejection in early April of the government’s proposal for a
reserved parliamentary seat for the Jewish community. Roger Bismuth,
president of Tunisia’s Jewish community, recounted telling the
government, “Forget it, and stop talking about religious minorities.”
Like Lellouche, Bismuth does not want his community to
be seen as separate: “We have the same problems as all Tunisians; we —
all of us — are living through a difficult period.”
Those difficulties don’t only involve violence. Since
Ben Ali’s 2010 ouster, Tunisia’s economy has tanked. Unemployment has
spiraled upward, and the tourists who used to flock to the country, with
its picturesque Mediterranean coast, have yet to return. This has dealt
a big blow to a country where tourism accounts for 7% of the GDP and
400,000 real jobs in the economy.
Now, some Tunisians, Lellouche among them, are seeking
to rebuild the tourism industry from the bottom up, with boutique
hotels, new restaurants and new cultural centers. Late last year,
Lellouche opened up a Jewish heritage museum on the top floor of the
building that houses Mamie Lily.
The rooms upstairs highlight Jewish contributions to
Tunisian heritage: literature, handicrafts, music, politics and cinema.
There’s a section dedicated to Albert Samama-Chikli, one of the world’s
earliest cinematographers, who brought the first film screening to
Tunisia in 1897. There is also some detail about Testour, a town in
northern Tunisia that was jointly rebuilt by Muslims and Jews after
Christians forced them into exile from Andalusian Spain in 1492. The
museum broadly outlines the history of Tunisia’s Jewish community, which
dates back three millennia, preceding both Islam and Christianity.
Before World War II it was a community that numbered more than 100,000.
Those figures dwindled following the creation of Israel in 1948 and the
end of French rule in Tunisia in 1956. Both factors drove Jewish
migration to Israel and, in greater numbers, to France in the succeeding
Among Lellouche’s prized pieces in the collection —
which includes beautiful old hamsas, menorahs and Judeo-Arabic scripted
books — is an old key to an Andalusian Jewish home, carefully passed
down a family line in Tunisia.
When the museum opened in December of last year,
Lellouche said, young Tunisians of all faiths were curious to visit.
“They told me they felt like Tunisia was a chair with only three legs,
and that after seeing this museum, the picture was complete.” The
visitors, he added, realize that this Jewish museum is essentially about
Tunisian heritage. “A country, and the love for one’s country, does not
have a religion,” he said.