Around the Jewish World: Tunisia’s Jews Quietly Rejoice Amid Developing Links with Israel

Like the children of Israel, it took her 40 years to make her way home. Mazal Nathan, now 73 and in a wheelchair, recently came to the Tunisian island of Jerba to return to her birthplace and to take part in its annual Lag B’Omer pilgrimage.

Lag B’Omer, a one-day holiday respite from the semi-mourning period between Passover and Shavuot, is a Jewish Mardi Gras of sorts on Jerba, which is 200 miles south of Tunis and, many here claim, the Island of the Lotus Easters that detained Odysseus.

Even the origin of the island’s 800 Jews is awash with legend. Their presence is dated to either after the fall of Nebuchadnezzer in 586 B.C.E. or to the arrival of refugees after the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

In the El Ghriba (“The Marvelous”) synagogue, where the floor has been blanketed by accidentally dropped dried fruit, pilgrims sling back shots of Boukha, the potent local liquor made from figs, as they re-establish contact with childhood friends.

Dragonflies zoom above the blue and white open-air “fonduk,” a hotel and meeting area where people sample brik, an egg fried in a popcorn-flavored batter, and grilled lamb skewered on palm branches.

A few hours into the festivities Nathan’s son Tahar steers her through the crowd of 5,000 so she has a clear view of the “menara,” a tiered, metal structure mounted on wheels, decorated with five-pronged menorahlike candlelabras and covered with plaques that name the 12 tribes of Israel.

The famed Tunisian musician Bshini, hunched over his lute, leads the procession – with menara and accompanying musicians in tow – from the fonduk in the town of Hara Seghira, now called Er Riadh, through a neighborhood that was once exclusively Jewish.

Mazal, clapping along, remembers every word of the songs of her youth, even after a four-decade exile.

But the story of her return to this Arab nation is neither as exotic nor unique as it might have just a few years ago. It is yet another sign of the warming relations between Tunisia and Israel.

In the most significant development to date, Tunisia recently opened an economic interest section in Tel Aviv. The May 27 opening followed the April 15 opening of Israel’s office in Tunis.

Tunisia has also opened a diplomatic office in Gaza, where the Palestine Liberation Organization has been headquartered since July 1994.

Although delayed several times, the low-level diplomatic exchanges between Israel and Tunisia represent an important step forward in Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors.

For many here, these recent moves have come faster than the average Tunisian – both Jew and Muslim – has been able to adjust to them.

One expert on the region refers to the attitude as “guarded euphoria.”

Because of these changes, the Jews here – a total of some 2,000 – are looking toward a new future, rather than focusing on their sometimes difficult past.

Tunisia is a more progressive nation – many compare it to the Arab nation of Morocco – than its significantly larger neighbors, bloody Algeria and Col. Muammar Gadhafi’s Libya, both places where Islamic fundamentalism has a foothold.

In Tunisia, a nation of 9 million that was once home to the Arab League and the PLO – only the PLO’s foreign department remains in Tunis – expressions of fundamentalism are banned.

And the president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in office since 1987, has endeared himself to the Jewish community in several ways, including through the restoration of synagogues and, as one Tunisian man said, by keeping “an eye out” for the Jews.

In the wake of the accords between Israel and the Palestinians, Tunisia was one of the first Arab countries to make diplomatic moves toward the Jewish state.

Israel’s economic office is temporarily housed at the Tunis Hilton, just a few hundred yards from a partially constructed building that was to have served as the new headquarters for the Arab League. In 1990, the league decided at the last minute to move its headquarters back to Cairo, where it had been from 1945 to 1979.

Security for the Israeli office is tight. After moving past a trio of Tunisian security officers and surrendering a passport to them, it becomes clear that speaking freely in the offices of Shalom Cohen, who is heading the interest section, is a highly unlikely prospect.

The Tunision government is believed to monitor most of his conversations. And he is followed by Tunisian security officers almost everywhere he goes.

Once inside the cluster of hotel rooms that make up the office, Cohen proudly points to his birthplace in downtown Tunis, splayed outside his office window.

Between sips of his morning coffee, Cohen talks about his ties to his birthplace, the interest office and the relationship between Israel and Tunisia.

Cohen’s father, a leader in the Tunisian Jewish community, took his family to Israel in 1960, just after what Cohen called the “golden age of the Jewish community” in Tunisia, when some 150,000 Jews lived here.

Some Jews began to leave Tunisia after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The trend accelerated during the Six-Day War in 1967, when anti-Jewish rioting broke out across the country, and again in the early 1980s, during the war in Lebanon.

Although Cohen, whose office is plastered with posters of Israel, says his real home is Jerusalem, he clearly is attached to this northern African nation.

“I know the smell of Tunis” and “understand the Tunisian attitude,” says Cohen, who celebrated Lag B’Omer in Jerba, the first Israeli official to do so openly. He was there with some 600 other Israelis – three planeloads flew to Tunis via Rome – the highest number ever to attend the festivities.

Now that the Tunisian office has opened in Tel Aviv and a new Israeli government has been elected, Cohen may have to rely on his insider knowledge.

He says he now has to “persuade” Tunisians that the “peace process will not stop” because of the new Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

He says he thinks that Tunisia opened its office in Tel Aviv in the days before the election to show its support for the peace process. “I’m sure they wanted [Shimon] Peres to win,” he says. “They did what they could to help, to support Peres a little bit.”

Earlier, projects in such areas as tourism, agriculture and medicine were on hold because the Tunisians had not yet “completed the equation” by opening their office, the Israeli diplomat says.

At first, the Tunisians said technical reasons were behind the postponement in the opening of their Tel Aviv office, Cohen says, adding, “Then we entered into the Lebanese shooting.”

Tunisia was among the 64 nations that voted for a U.N. resolution condemning Israel’s April 18 shelling of a U.N. refugee camp in Kana, Lebanon, which killed at least 91 civilians.

Only Israel and the United States opposed the April 25 measure; 65 countries abstained.

Cohen says that in the wake of the shelling, Israeli officials in Tunis were “asked to keep a low profile in our activity.”

But now, projects may be postponed for another reason.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the development of relations between the two countries slowed down” until the Tunisian leadership feels that this Israeli government “is as committed as the previous one,” he says.

Tunisia, along with other Arab countries, probably will want time to watch the direction of the new leadership in the Jewish state, he says.

Tunisian officials would not comment directly on recent developments concerning Israel.

But a Tunisian Foreign Ministry news release dated June 3 states, “Though the results of the Israeli elections may be considered an internal affair, what Tunisia is interested in first and foremost is the guarantee that the peace process in the Middle East continues at all levels.”

It goes on to say: “Tunisia hopes that the process continues with certainty and with the total commitment of all sides, especially the Israeli side.”

Even before the Israeli elections, feelings of hesitation and uncertainty were widespread in the Tunisian Jewish community, which does not want to react too quickly to the new political reality between Tunis and Jerusalem.

Jews here are handling the newfound openness as if they are handling a newborn baby. They are tentative, prudent and understand in their excitement about Tunisia’s new relationship with Israel.

As he stands in the lobby of a resort hotel, Yusef Mamou, a Jerban jeweler who wears a gold charm around his neck spelling “Shaddai,” a Hebrew word for God, feels anxious when talking about his views in such an open setting.

In a low voice, Mamou talks about his community’s relationship to Israel. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of the Jews in Jerba have been to Israel at least once, Mamou says, adding, “Israel is for the Jews.”

Clearly, many Tunisian Jews visited Israel when the trips were not permitted officially.

Even today, Jews cannot travel directly between Tunisia and Israel; the trip requires a stopover in Europe. Cohen of the economic interest section said he had tried unsuccessfully to arrange for direct flights from Israel to Jerba for the Lag B’ Omer pilgrimage.

But before the recent warming of ties between the two countries, these trips could not occur openly at all. Tunisian Jews often obtained Israeli visas through a European country, such as France, where many Jews of Tunisian descent live. Tunisia was a French protectorate until 1956.

Until the last few years, Israeli Jews could not obtain Tunisian visas at all. No one – Israeli or Tunisian – seems to be able to delineate when the rules officially changed.

In Tunis, where 1,200 Jews reside, a Jewish businesswoman, who asked not to be named, has just returned from a trip to Israel.

She says that until recently, she would refer to the Jewish state as “over there” when speaking on the telephone to her children in Paris.

“The peace process is no longer in question,” she says from behind her desk, above which hangs a picture of the president, an image that is plastered everywhere in this country: bus shelters, restaurant walls, flags at the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage.

However, “real harmony” between the Arabs and Jews does not yet exist, she says, and Jews have to continue to be careful in their daily life.

The woman, more openly critical of the Tunisian government than most other Jews here, says Tunisia is reaching out to the Jews and Israel in part to increase tourism, which she called the country’s “first business.”

Annually, the country welcomes 4 million visitors, most of them from Europe. Tunisia wants to attract more U.S. tourists, including those from the American Jewish community, the woman says.

In what appears to be a move toward this end, the Tunisian government was one of the sponsors of a recent symposium in Washington, D.C., titled “Tunisia Today.”

The gathering, also sponsored by B’nai B’rith, focused on the Tunisian Jewish community as well as on more general topics, such as tolerance in Tunisian society.

And an exhibition, “Jews in the Cultural Fusion of Tunisia,” which received public and private sources of funding from Tunisia, will be shown until Oct. 31 at the B’nai B’rith Kluznick National Jewish Museum in Washington.

In some ways, Tunisia already has “fused culturally,” as in the case of Miriam, a Jerban toddler on a quiet picnic with her family on Lag B’Omer about half a mile from the El Ghriba synagogue.

Miriam picks delicate white flowers as her mother and aunt, dressed in traditional robes of gold, red, green and blue, cook lamb on a open fire. With a shy smile, Miriam, whose hair and hands have been stained with henna, presents her bouquet.

In other countries in northern Africa and the Middle East, visitors would peg Miriam as an Arab.

But if they knew about the unique history of Tunisia, they would realize that she is Jewish and that, unlike generations before her, she most likely will make an open visit to Israel during her lifetime.

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