Behind the Headlines: As Israel and Tunisia Forge Ties, Tunisian Jews Dream of Possibilities

Gerard Berrebi, a prominent businessman in this North African Arab nation, imagines establishing a business in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian workers would sew clothes for sale in Israel and elsewhere.

Jewish jewelers on the Tunisian island of Jerba dream of a potentially large influx of Israeli tourists, who would join the already considerable number of travelers from France, Italy and Germany who buy the jewelers’ handmade silver and gold ornaments.

The possibilities are endless for Berrebi and others in Tunisia’s tiny Jewish community – should their country establish full relations with Israel.

In the wake of last year’s accord between Israel and the Palestinians, Tunisia became one of the first Arab countries to make diplomatic moves toward Israel.

Last month, Tunisia and Israel recently exchanged low-level diplomatic interest sections in Tel Aviv and Tunis, and commercial and diplomatic relations are burgeoning.

As a result of these developments, relations between Arabs and the country’s 2,000 Jews here are among the best in the Arab world.

Still Jews here, for the time being, are just imagining and pondering the business possibilities that would open up if Tunisian-Israeli relations were further expanded.

Full trade relations with Israel are still a dream in a country where direct telephone service and direct flights to Israel are unheard of.

For Tunisian Jewry, which once numbered 100,000 contacts with Israel are important. Most Jews here have relatives in Israel of France, where the bulk of the community emigrated.

As Tunisian Jews about the future, they also remember the strained relations that marked interactions with their non-Jewish neighbors in years past.

Tunisian Jews are quick to point out that relations with their non-Jewish neighbors are much better than in the past, but anti-Semitic comments still have not disappeared completely from the cultural landscape, they say.

The worst outbreaks of anti-Semitism appeared in the wake of the 1967 six-Day War and the 1982 massacres by Christian militias at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon.

Tunis was the site of anti-Semitic violence in 1967, and anti-Semitic feelings lingered for years.

In the early 1970s, the government of then-President Habib Bourguiba asked the Jewish community to remove the Magen David from its synagogue, according to leaders of the Jewish community. Authorities said it interfered with the continuity of the Avenue de la Liberte, which borders the synagogue on one side.

Jewish leaders said they would not remove the Jewish star, but said the authorities could do so if they wanted to. Since Tunisian Arabs are very superstitious about Jewish symbols, they ended up leaving the Magen David where it was.

And when Palestinian refugees were massacred at the Sabra and Shatila camps – a rampage that was blamed on Israeli soldiers in Lebanon who did nothing to stop it – Jews on the island of Jerba were the targets of anti-Semitic violence. In one case, a policeman went berserk and killed a mother and several young children.

Thousands of Jews emigrated from the country following both incidents.

Some Jews feared the consequences of the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s headquarters in Tunis in 1982 after the PLO was kicked out of Lebanon.

But in the end, their fears were mostly unfounded, because many Tunisians did not like the idea of playing host to the PLO anymore than the country’s Jews did, Jews here say.

Today, with the PLO headquartered in the GAZA Strip and several Arab countries moving toward peace with Israel, Tunisian Jews describe their current relations with the country’s Arab majority as fair to good.

On the island of Jerba off the southern coast of Tunisia, where Jews live an observant Jewish life, some of the Jewish families even send their children to Arab schools in the afternoon to learn French and Arabic after the students complete their morning sessions at the local Jewish school.

During a recent Shabbat, several Jewish youngsters playing in the street said they had no problems with their Arab counterparts and, in fact, got along well with them.

Ironically, these good relations may go too far, worries Hai Haddad, one of the leaders of the Jerban community.

He worries about intermarriage and a weakening of Jewish traditions in Jerba. As a result, he has kept his children away from the Arab schools.

But other Jerban Jews say that mixed marriages are more a worry than a threat, since a Jew would have to abandon the religious community in order to marry an Arab.

And, as one resident put it, “things like that don’t happen here.”

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