This could be the end of Tunisia’s Jewish community

As Kais Saied, Tunisia’s president, arrogates more  power to himself, Robert Zaretsky writing in Haaretz is sceptical of his ability to protect Tunisia’s Jews. (With thanks: Lily)

A tourist visits the Al-Ghriba synagogue (Photo: AP)

While Djerba is several hundred miles south of Tunis, the 1,500 or so Sephardic Jews who live on this island off the Tunisian coast are following events with great care.

They constitute not only the oldest Jewish community in North Africa – historians are uncertain if the community’s ancestors arrived on Djerba after the destruction of the First or Second Temple – but also the second largest.

But while the Moroccan Jewish community is larger, it is also mostly old (and getting older). The Jews of Djerba are, remarkably, young and getting younger. (This demographic upside, unfortunately, results from the communal emphasis on women staying pregnant and home.)

Yet this community represents the last hurrah of Tunisian Jewry. Although the country’s religious minorities, including Jews, have enjoyed full citizenship since its independence in 1956, the great majority of Tunisia’s 100,000 Jews decided that their future lay either in Israel or France (or, indeed, both).

Even the Islamist Ennahdha, which has participated in several governments since Ben Ali’s 2011 ouster, sought to reassure Djerba’s Jews that they belonged to the nation’s cultural mosaic. The party’s vice-president, Abdelfattah Mourou, affirmed that Tunisia “will protect its Jewish population. A monolithic culture always leads to radicalism, while a multicultural society allows us to accept one another.”

But the position of Kais Saied, an arch-conservative Muslim, seems more ambivalent to some critics. Perhaps “ambivalent” is too ambivalent a description.

During an exchange in January caught on video between Saied and a few interlocutors, the president, his voice muffled by a mask and street noise, seems to have attributed public disorder to “Jewish thieves.” At least, this was the understanding of The Jerusalem Post, which published an article whose title turned a questionable translation into an indisputable fact: “Tunisian President sorry for antisemitic remarks, rabbi says.”

In the story that followed, the paper allowed that the remarks by Saied, who was indeed masked and showered in ambient noise, were hard to decipher. Less concerned with such details, the influential Jewish radio station in France, Radio J, affirmed a few months later that Saied had, in fact, made this accusation.

On the basis of this claim, along with a handful of incidents seemingly directed against Jews, the station concluded that Saied rules a country where “antisemitism is omnipresent.”

What are we to think? On the one hand, Kais Saied is a friend of neither Zionism nor Israel. Indeed, he is quite the opposite, a point he made clear during a 2019 presidential debate, declaring that the normalization of ties with Israel was tantamount to “high treason.”

Saied reiterated his rejection of normalization in the wake of the accords with two Gulf states and Morocco, with his foreign ministry insisting it was a stance based on immutable principle.

The lamentable claim of “treason” leads to equally unfortunate consequences: Saied will not allow tourists carrying Israeli passports to attend the annual pilgrimage to Djerba’s ancient La Ghriba synagogue. A quiet agreement to allow Israelis, many of whom are among the 100,000 Jews who left Tunisia in the late 1960s or their descendants, to enter for the event had held for decades.

On the other hand – and there is another hand – Saied insists on the distinction between Judaism and Zionism. In the words he used in a televised election debate in 2019, “We’ll engage with the Jews but not with the Israeli government.”

While this is a distinction without a difference for many, there remain reasonable people who insist a reasonable case can be made for this contrast. Saied also reminded his critics during that debate that, along with the country’s grand mufti and Catholic archbishop, the grand rabbi of Tunis was his guest when he took his oath of office.

He also revealed that his father, Moncef Saied, is one of the Just, for having accompanied the young Gisèle Halimi when she cycled to school to protect her from the Nazis during their during their occupation of Tunisia. Halimi went on to have a brilliant future as one of France’s most courageous and consequential civil rights lawyers.

No one can know the future of Tunisia’s Jews, but there is no reason for despair. At the very least, we should know that details matter. On restoring and safeguarding the future of Tunisia’s democracy, Saied may have somewhat fewer protective instincts.

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