Tunisia’s Jews Miss Ousted Leader, but Also Welcome His Successor

Tunisia’s tiny Jewish community has welcomed the ascension to the presidency of Prime Minister Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, even though the man he deposed over the weekend, President Habib Bourguiba, was regarded by Jews as their “protector.”

There are about 3,500 Jews out of a total population of 6.9 million in Tunisia, a North African Arab state which won independence from France in 1956. Bourguiba was its first and only president until Ben Ali, whom he had appointed prime minister, took over in a bloodless coup Saturday, declaring the 84-year-old incumbent to be “senile” and unable to run the country.

Tunisian Jews, contacted by Jewish organizations in Paris Saturday night and Sunday, said the rise of Ben Ali to power was an assurance that their safety and well-being would not be threatened.

Many said they will feel safer under Ben Ali’s rule. They said that during the last years of Bourguiba’s presidency he was, despite his good will, no longer able to run the police and security services efficiently. There were, in fact, a number of anti-Semitic incidents in the final years of Bourguiba’s rule, including an attack on a synagogue in Djerba two years ago.

Ben Ali is a former interior minister and former chief of police and security services, known for his tough imposition of law and order. But observers here doubt that the new president has Bourguiba’s charisma and political courage.

They say he will probably try to compromise with the other Arab states on “non-vital issues” such as the Middle East. He will also try to avoid any direct confrontation with Tunisia’s increasingly active Moslem fundamentalist movement, which has been at the root of recent anti-Jewish disturbances, observers say.

But while Tunisian Jews do not appear to feel any less secure under Ben Ali’s rule, many recall with nostalgia his predecessor’s personal initiatives. Bourguiba was the first Arab statesman to advocate peace with Israel. In the early 1960s, he openly received the late Dr. Nahum Goldmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization. Later in an interview with a French news magazine, Bourguiba called for Arab recognition of Israel and direct Arab-Israeli peace talks.

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