With hundreds of policemen lining the roads, X-ray machines blocking the entrance to an ancient synagogue and a police helicopter circling overhead, some 5,000 Jews joyously celebrated the annual Ghriba pilgrimage on this Tunisian island.
The heavy security at the May 6 event was intended to prevent a repeat of a 2002 terrorist attack against the historic synagogue, which killed 21 German tourists and was believed to be perpetrated by al-Qaida.
Even so, terrorism didn’t appear to be a major concern for the Jews — or the curious Arab onlookers — who paraded through the streets of Hara Sghira, a small village that is home to the ancient Ghriba synagogue, the oldest in North Africa.
“We come every year to celebrate the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai,” explained Dr. Ouzifa Trabelsi, a UCLA-trained endocrinologist who was born in Djerba and now lives in Paris. “It’s just a tradition. It has nothing to do with religion.”
Trabelsi, 52, has been coming to Djerba annually for the past 34 years. Another regular is Haim Cohen, an Italian-born Jew of Libyan origin.
“Muslims and Jews live so close to each other, speak the same language and have the same traditions,” he said. “The Tunisians are tolerant and they welcome all the Israelis coming here.”
“When I tell people I’m from Israel, they welcome me with open arms,” added Jacqueline Saban, who left Tunisia in 1978 and lives in Beersheba, where she runs a jewelry store with her husband, Avraham.
As there are no direct air links between the two countries, Israelis must fly to Tunis via Frankfurt, Paris or Rome, then drive six hours through the desert to Djerba.
Perez Trabelsi, president of the local Jewish community and a distant relation of Ouzifa Trabelsi, said that roughly 9,000 pilgrims came to Djerba in 2000, but that dwindled to virtually zero after the 2002 attack. He speculated that if there were direct flights from Te! l Aviv t o Tunis, 15,000 to 20,000 Jewish pilgrims might make the trip each year.
“We have received no specific threats” from al-Qaida “and we’re confident nothing will happen again,” he said. “We’ve already been hit once. After the events of 2002, we decided to start the pilgrimage again.”
The colorful procession recalls the memory of a legendary woman named La Ghriba — Arabic for “the foreigner” — who lived on the island centuries ago and is hailed as a saint.
Every year, thousands of pilgrims visit Djerba on Lag B’Omer to ask for her intercession. They parade a huge candelabrum called the Grande Menara down the street as women reach out to touch the multicolored silk scarves adorning it.
This year the festival featured a chorus of young boys singing everything from “California Dreamin’ ” to “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” — as well as men hawking embroidered caps, a master of ceremonies auctioning off the right to ride next to the Menara, and a venerated old rabbi offering benedictions in Hebrew, Arabic and French.
Of Tunisia’s 10.8 million inhabitants, fewer than 2,000 are Jewish. Half still live in Djerba, with the other half spread among the capital and a handful of other cities.
David Tal, a member of Israel’s Knesset, attended the Ghriba festival and told JTA he felt completely welcome in Tunisia.
“I think there’s a basis for a relationship between Tunisia and Israel,” said Tal, 57, who was born in Rishon Lezion to Tunisian parents. “Israel can assist Tunisia a lot in water, agriculture, high-tech and information. There is absolutely no hatred between our countries, and Tunisia always protected its Jews. The time has arrived for a bilateral relationship.”
The highest-ranking Tunisian official at the festivities was Tourism Minister Tijani Haddad, who welcomed 75 local and foreign journalists the day before at a press conference at the nearby Hotel Yadis.
Haddad said Tunisia “was one of the first Arab countries ! to fight extremism” after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but declined to say what security measures Tunisia was taking amid worries about the growing al-Qaida threat throughout North Africa.
Haddad also didn’t answer a question about the possibility of establishing direct air service between Israel and Tunisia, and would not say how much revenue the Ghriba festival generates for Tunisia.
“It’s not a question of money,” he said. “Compared to Tunisia’s overall tourism industry, what we get from a gathering like this is nothing.
“It’s not that we follow a policy like this because we want to make money. On the contrary, we respect our principles even if we don’t make any money at all.”