Tunisian Ruler Sees French Rabbi, Pardons Two Jewish Prisoners

The Tunisian president has received France’s chief rabbi in a special visit and used the occasion to pardon two Jewish prisoners, including a teen-ager who murdered an Arab.

Rabbi Joseph Sitruk was visiting the Tunisian Jewish community on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. During his much-publicized trip, he secured the releases of the prisoners, one French, the other Tunisian.

President Zin Ben Ali, after granting the pardons, said, “The Jews in this country are full-fledged Tunisians, with the same rights and same duties as any other Tunisian.”

Ben Ali also promised he would help solve a problem many French citizens of Tunisian origin have, of exporting possessions they left behind.

According to informed sources, the Tunisian president wants to boost local industry with investments by Jews of Tunisian origin.

Sources close to the rabbi described the president’s welcome as “exceptionally warm.” Ben Ali reportedly showed his visitors around the presidential palace in Carthage.

Sitruk described the Tunisian president as “courageous, moderate and perceptive.”

Ben Ali “wanted to show to the Jewish community throughout the world that he was making a gesture by receiving me while being very close to the most extremist” Arabs, said Sitruk, hinting at the presence in that country of Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters.

Sitruk was accompanied by Pierre Bansard, the newly elected chairman of the French Consistoire, the body in charge of the religious institutions of French Jewry.

Tunisia has embarked on an attempt to repair any negative images it has in the West. In keeping with this, local authorities gave the visiting Jews a warm reception and billeted them in the capital’s best hotel.

During the visit, the synagogue in La Goulette, a suburb of Tunis, was officially reopened.

Sitruk was harshly but privately criticized by several members of the Jewish leadership in France, who said it is not the duty of France’s chief rabbi to help promote the interests of a foreign country.

Other criticism was leveled at the rabbi’s involvement in the release of the Jewish criminals.

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