Tunisia performs acrobatics to welcome Jews, not Zionists

Zoe Strimpel attended the Al-Ghriba Lag Ba’Omer pilgrimage as a guest of the Tunisian Tourist Board. But instead of the expected puff piece she has written a refreshingly thoughtful and nuanced account of her visit for the Jewish Chronicle. The Tunisian regime is hostile to Israel, yet is pragmatic enough to wave through thousands of Israeli tourists for the pilgrimage, the crowning event of the tourist calendar. (With thanks: Boruch)

In her brilliant book People Love Dead Jews, the American essayist and novelist Dara Horn argues that the Jewish heritage industry — apparently “celebrating” the Jewish past — is actually a way of making people feel better about themselves. Jews once lived in a place — and look how we preserve and bring back to life their traditions! Let’s just not talk about the murderous antisemitism that wiped them out, or the fact that returning to live in that place would be either dangerous or impossible.

It was Horn’s blistering argument that I carried with me on a recent trip to Tunisia for the extraordinary spectacle of the pilgrimage, or ‘pelerinage’ to the El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba, a centuries-old Jewish tradition honouring the memory of an outcast girl who, after being found dead in her home, is revered as the Jewish version of a saint.

Tunisia is very different from its neighbours Libya and Algeria: it is committed to secular law, based on the Napoleonic code, and I saw plenty of women, especially in Tunis, in Western, even revealing garb. Crucially, it has a large, dynamic tourism industry, and it is very keen indeed to maintain and grow it — particularly after the terrorist attacks in 2015 in Sousse which left 38 people dead, 30 of them British holidaymakers. Its slogan for tourism now is “Ready and safe”.
What does this mean for Jews? The answer is complicated. Tunisia has been home to Jews for millennia, though only a miniscule number live there now. Violence and insecurity accompanied independence from France in 1956 which, combined with the government’s hostile encouragement to its Jews to move to the new state of Israel, all but emptied Tunisia of its community.

Despite the small numbers there now, there is enough risk of lethal antisemitism to ensure that the last kosher restaurant in the capital closed in 2015 due to security concerns. The tiny Djerba Jewish school was attacked by firebombs last time the island’s prodigious security was distracted due to strikes over rising prices.

The pilgrimage itself was targetted by terrorist attacks in 1985 and 2002, when an Al Qaeda-sponsored truck loaded with liquid propane rammed into the synagogue, killing 19. And nowadays antisemitism, (usually) masquerading as anti-Zionism, is mandated from on high, albeit in a slightly confused fashion.

Tunisia is run by an anti-democratic “president” ,Kaïs Saïed, who just last year during economic unrest accused the Jews of destabilising the country, saying “it’s the Jews who are stealing”.
After the diatribe he rang up Haim Bitan, the diminutive Chief Rabbi of Tunisia and Djerba, and apologised. But previously he had said ties with Israel were “high treason” because the country was “at war” with Israel, and that only Jews without “dealings with Zionists” or Israeli passports could visit synagogues in Tunisia — yet dozens if not hundreds of Tunisian Jews from Israel are waved through each year for the pilgrimage.

They won’t be able to watch Wonder Woman in their hotel rooms at night: Saied has banned films starring Gal Gadot, who served in the Israeli Army, to show “solidarity” with Palestinians. And yet, the previous tourism minister Rene Trabelsi was Jewish — the only Jewish minister in the Arab world: I saw his plump, friendly-looking form loafing about the pilgrimage celebrations, yarmulke in full view.
And yet, and yet. This was the insistent current that ran through my trip as I saw the Tunisian Jewish diaspora en masse pray and light candles and process and exuberantly dance and sing; as I saw rabbis and Jewish dignitaries in huddles with European ambassadors and government suits, under the protection of the army’s top brass,

Here was a country that sees ties with “Zionists” as “high treason” and yet that puts maximum muscle — not simply lip service — into making sure Jews aren’t hurt on its soil — at least during pilgrimage season.

(…) My verdict? Tunisia is not entirely benevolent, which is not a surprise for a country run by a man who demonises Israel whenever possible, a country suffering extreme poverty. But the story on the ground is always complicated, and I encountered generally very friendly people, as well as a burgeoning middle class.

None of the Tunisians I met had any objections to Jews, though the same cannot be said of the French tourists I overheard on the beach.

Without doubt Tunisia is beautiful, interesting, and has a genuinely rich Jewish heritage. It is clearly a place of great attraction to a growing number of its diaspora Jews. But the crude analysis, and I fear the right one, is that the Jews can live well enough in Tunisia, and particularly in Djerba, because the prospect of a robust tourism industry overpowers habitual hatred of “Zionists”.

It was obvious, even on my short trip, that many acrobatics go into insisting that “Zionists” and “Zionism” does not mean Jews. Jews, we are assured, are welcome.

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