What is keeping Jews in Tunisia?

The coronavirus crisis and the unprecedented move by president Kais Saied of relieving the prime minister of his duties, waiving the immunity of the parliament and declaring a state of emergency have turned Tunisia into a dangerous country, writes Eldad Beck in Israel Hayom. Normalisation with Israel has been rejected, Djerba no longer has many tourists, but its Jewish residents are still reluctant to leave. (With thanks: Lily)

A worshipper at the al-Ghriba synagogue in Djerba

The general atmosphere in Tunisia is grim. Some understand that developing ties with Israel would only help Tunisia, that Morocco and Sudan and other countries who normalized ties with Israel are receiving aid. But they are a minority. As long as someone with an influence on the public does not explain the situation accurately – that Israel is defending itself against terrorists – nothing will change. 

“When the Tunisian tennis team decided to play against Israel in the Federation Cup in February 2020, the criticism was overwhelming. When Tunisian singer Noamane Chaari recorded a song with Israeli singer Ziv Yehezkel, last December, people protested.” 

Chaari and Yehezkel collaborated to promote peace between religions, but instead the Tunisian singer began to receive death threats. 

“We thought that with the advent of democracy and freedom of expression after the revolution, there would be a change with regard to Israel as well, as happened in many other Arab countries, but it did not happen. Israelis should not run after Tunisians to seek peace. Tunisians should be the ones chasing after Israelis.”

Unfortunately, it is not only Tunisia’s Jewish community that is dwindling. So does the memory of coexisting. The country’s young generation has never seen Tunisians and Jews on excellent terms, as they were in the 1950s. They also do not know of all the contributions Jews have made to the country.

When I first visited Tunisia, locals expressed hopes that Jews would help rehabilitate the country’s economy. Ben Ali’s presidency was considered the golden age of cooperation between Tunisia, Jews and Israel. But in 2021, almost no one talks longingly of the return of the Jews.

S., a Jew from the south of the country, splits his time between Djerba and France. He remembers the reactions of his Arab friends to the First Lebanon War in 1982. 

“I had a lot of Arab friends then,” he said. “Even though we were careful not to assimilate, I had a lot of non-Jewish friends. But they completely changed, just like that, in a matter of a single day. I think they have an underlying hatred of Jews and Israel. They are taught to do this from a young age. 

“My non-Jewish friends knew very well that I was religious, that I went to synagogue, that I kept kosher. We studied together. We played football together. But as soon as the war started, they said to me, ‘When the opportunity arises, we will kill you first.'”

Q: What is keeping Jews in Tunisia?

“Some have gotten used to living here and do not want it to change. They hear about the problems in France and Israel. The option of moving to France is no longer on the table, everyone here knows that there is no future for the Jewish community there. It is nothing like it used to be. The only possible destination is Israel.

“But people are afraid of change. Some families don’t have the means to make aliyah. Life is very expensive in Israel, and here the standard of living is much lower, Jews can earn a living and make ends meet. Moreover, Jews in Tunisia are religious. In Israel, there are yeshivas, but some still worry that they might lose their Judaism. In the meantime, we pray for the redemption and ultimate aliyah to Israel.”

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