Tag: Jews of Tunisia

Attacker stabs two outside Tunis Great synagogue

A reminder that antisemitic terrorism is an ever-present danger in Tunisia : the latest jihadist attack targeted the Great Synagogue in Tunis. AFP reports, via Times of Israel:

TUNIS, Tunisia — An assailant with a knife wounded two police officers guarding a synagogue in the center of the Tunisian capital overnight, the interior ministry said Friday.

The man had been imprisoned over a “terrorism” case and released in 2021, interior ministry spokesman Fakher Bouzghaya told AFP.

The suspect assaulted police deployed to guard the Grand Synagogue of Tunis in the city center, lightly wounding two officers before being overpowered.

It was not immediately clear if anyone was in the synagogue at the time.

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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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More about the Al-Ghriba pilgrimage

Tunisian-Jewish specialities served up at new Paris restaurant

Japanese tourists and North African Muslims are among the clientèle of a new kosher-style restaurant in Paris. Mabrouk offers Tunisian-Jewish specialities without the usual kitsch surroundings. JTA reports (with thanks: Nancy):

PARIS (JTA) — As children in Paris, Alexandre David and Alexis Memmi looked forward to summer every year when they would relocate to their grandmothers’ homes in Tunisia.

Summers there meant frolicking on the beach under the hot sun, playing on the streets of the Jewish quarter of the capital Tunis, where their families lived — and plenty of glorious Sephardic dishes that those grandmothers made with recipes handed down and perfected over generations.

There, the childhood friends made a vow.

“We said that as soon as we grow up we’d open a restaurant together and serve those dishes in the center of Paris,” David, 35, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

It took a little longer than they expected, but that childhood dream is finally a reality at Mabrouk, a kosher-style restaurant they opened in 2019 that aims to make Sephardic Tunisian dishes accessible to the modern Parisian diner.

Mabrouk, which has received glowing reviews in major publications, including Elle magazine and Nouvelles Gastronomiques, is part of a growing trend of North African cuisine in France. While couscous and merguez have been available in immigrant communities and niche eateries since immigration from North Africa first swelled in the 1950s, the new generation of restaurants offer a wider array of dishes, aimed at a broader cross-section of eaters.

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Thousands of pilgrims return to Al-Ghriba after two years of absence

May 14 marks the start of the annual pilgrimage to to the Al-Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. Some 5,000 visitors are expected this year. DW.com reports:

Inside the al-Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba

For the first time in the more than two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a large number of pilgrims to the North African country will be taking part in religious festivities over the course of eight days. In 2020 and 2021, pilgrimages were canceled due to the health crisis and access was very limited.

But this year, Jewish community leader Perez Trabelsi told DW, between 4,000 and 5,000 visitors are expected. Trabelsi also chairs the pilgrimage organizing committee.

The synagogue on Djerba is one of the oldest in Africa and a site for Jewish pilgrimage. This is because, as religious legend has it, the 2,500-year-old place of worship — known as the Ghriba synagogue in Arabic — was built using remnants of the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Bible says the temple was destroyed by a Babylonian king who sent Jewish worshippers into exile. These refugees are said to have brought fragments of the temple with them to Djerba.

Today, around 1,000 Jewish Tunisians live on Djerba. This makes it the largest Jewish community in Tunisia and the second-largest in the Arab world. Only the Moroccan Jewish community in Casablanca, between 1,500 to 2,000 members strong, is larger than Djerba’s.

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After Auschwitz, my uncle had a breakdown

Today is Yom Hashoah, the official memorial day observed in Israel for the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The Shoah  was not a calamity that befell only the Jews of Europe. Jews in the Arab world suffered from the effects of Nazism, whether it was the Nazi-inspired Farhud massacre in Iraq, or the anti-Jewish measures taken by the Vichy regimes in North Africa, to say nothing of years of postwar trauma. For six months, Tunisia came under direct Nazi occupation. Thank you to Danielle Abel-Bismuth for sharing with us this heart-rending story:
Some 5,000 Jews were marched off to forced labour camps during the six-month-long Nazi occupation
“Jews in Tunisia also suffered from the Nazi occupation. My father was sent to the forced labour camp at Bizerte. He never spoke of his experiences. From time to time he would hum Khamous Jené, the song which Tunisian Jews composed in honour of the Allies* who arrived in Tunisia in May 1943.
Six years ago I learned much on this topic from Au camp de Bizerte by André Guez.
My father became religious owing to the influence of Rabbi Haim Assuied who was also in the camp and became a lifelong friend. (Dad is mentioned in Roland Fellous’ book Le Rabbin Haim Assuied.)
Dad’s brother-in-law, Prosper Hassid, was deported to Auschwitz. For three years, his job was to whistle twice as each transport arrived. At the first whistle, the Jews had to undress; at the second whistle they entered the ‘showers’ to be asphyxiated. It affected Uncle Prosper to such a degree that when he returned to Tunis he had a breakdown.
One Shabbat noon in July 1946, he was standing by a train bound for La Marsa. At the first station master’s whistle, Prosper took off his jacket and hat. At the second whistle, he threw himself under the moving train. He left behind a widow and a six-year-old orphan.
G-d bless his soul!”
The train station entrance where Uncle Prosper committed suicide is on the right
*Khamous was how Tunisian Jews called the Allies, after Hamsa, the five-fingered hand that was supposed to bring good luck. A fifth boy born to a Jewish family was called Khamous to ward off the evil eye, and a girl was given the name Khamisa.

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