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Tunisian island of Djerba draws hundreds to annual Jewish festival

(JTA) — Approximately 200 Jews participated in a traditional festive procession near the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.

The march last Friday, which each year around Lag b’Omer draws Jewish pilgrims from around the world, was preceded by an auction of artifacts and ornaments arranged by the community. This year, the auction raised about $1,300, the France24 television news channel reported. After the march, the organizers played the national anthem of Tunisia.

In total, some 500 jews visited Djerba over the weekend, according to the news site Djerba Salon.

“Tunisia would like to follow Morocco’s footsteps and do more to develop its Jewish heritage sites, but right now there are more immediate challenges,” Tunisian lawmaker Fatma Gharbi Mamoghli told JTA. 

Mamoghli was one of several Muslim politicians and spiritual leaders who last week participated at the Kyiv Interfaith Forum, an annual gathering of representatives from 30 countries for the promotion of tolerance organized by Oleksandr Feldman, a Ukrainian-Jewish philanthropist and lawmaker. 

Mamoghli said Tunisia’s government deployed “substantial forces” on and around the southern island to provide security for the Jewish pilgrims and for members of the local Jewish community of approximately 2,000. 

“Unfortunately, we have seen it is necessary,” Mamoghli said in reference to the April 2002 bombing near the synagogue, which killed 21 people and which several intelligence agencies attributed to al Qaeda terrorists.

Although the current building dates from the 19th century, El Ghriba is sometimes cited as North Africa’s oldest synagogue, according to Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, with traditions tracing its origins to exiles fleeing the destruction of the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

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