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Around the Jewish World: Tunisian Jews Celebrate Tradition in Shadow of Recent Terrorist Attacks

May 1, 2002
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Jews here persevered with their annual Lag B’Omer celebration this week in spite of a recent terrorist attack that rocked their tiny island community.

The numbers were down from past celebrations, but still hundreds of tourists came to join the 1,000 Jewish Jerbans for the pilgrimage festivities.

“The first moment I heard about the bombing, it was catastrophic for me,” a Tunisian Jew who had come from Paris said of the April 11 blast at the historic synagogue here.

But after discovering that the authorities “were doing everything they could to make it safe, I came here two days later. Believe me, I feel safer here than I do in France.”

The explosion of a gas truck — fatalities now number 18, including 13 German tourists — was first dismissed by Tunisian authorities as an accident.

But then it became clear it was a deliberate act of terrorism, officials say, and the government has moved quickly to denounce the violence and contain the damage.

Tunisian authorities quickly paid to restore the El Ghriba synagogue, which traces its roots back more than 2,000 years.

The government also encouraged and promoted the Lag B’Omer festivities, even inviting foreign journalists to see the reaction, both private and public, of this Muslim nation that prides itself on being a peaceful country.

As they do every year, the Jews sang and danced in the streets. They set a huge menorah on a cart, lovingly draped it with multicolored scarves, sprayed it with perfumes and wheeled it through the streets.

Their Muslim neighbors came out of their houses to watch and show support.

“The Jews are our brothers,” a young Muslim man said proudly, even though he asked that his name not be used. “No matter what our religion, we’re all Tunisians.”

Jews from all over the world — and especially Tunisians who live in France and Israel — come in droves to celebrate the pilgrimage festival that takes place at El Ghriba, the oldest and most famous synagogue in North Africa.

The Jewish tourist frenzy reached a peak in the year 2000 when more than 8,000 people arrived for the festivities.

Lag B’Omer comes on the 33rd day of the period between Passover and Shavuot.

In Israel, Jews make pilgrimages to the northern Galilee site where a revered ancient rabbi is believed buried.

It is difficult to pin down the exact origins of the Jewish community in Jerba, a popular tourist site for Europeans off the coast of the Northern African nation of Tunisia.

Most people concur with the legend that it was first settled by Jews who fled Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. They settled in two separate communities: Hara Kabira and Hara Seghira.

Their descendants still live there today, engaged in a thriving and observant Jewish community, replete with Jewish schools, synagogues and kosher food.

Most make their living as jewelers and shopkeepers.

Tunisian Jews — another 1,000 live in Tunis — for the most part have fared better than in most Arab countries. Emigration was always tolerated and there was no state-condoned anti-Semitism.

Outbreaks of violence and harassment have periodically upset the peaceful co- existence between Jews and Muslims here.

Often the tensions were a reflection of the situation in the Middle East.

The bulk of Tunisian Jews, which once numbered 100,000, emigrated in waves,. The first wave came with the establishment of Israel in 1948, then with the end of French rule in 1956, and again in 1967, when the Six-Day War sparked anti- Jewish rioting, despite the relative moderation of the country’s then- president, Habib Bourguiba.

In the early 1990s, with the start of the Oslo peace process, Jews here were optimistic about their future.

Indeed, Jerba’s Jewish population grew dramatically as many who had gone to France or Israel returned home.

Tunisia, once the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Yasser Arafat, was among the Arab countries that established low-level diplomatic relations with Israel in the mid-1990s.

It has since cut those ties.

Still, Jews are cautious about talking openly about the situation. They clearly have strong roots here and appreciate the government’s support. But there’s an insecurity that is reflected in their reluctance to give their names when talking to journalists.

While Tunisia has expressed support for the Palestinian people, it has also lent public support to its Jewish community.

On Sunday, the minister of culture, Abdelbaki Hermassi, hosted a dinner for the media, foreign dignitaries, Tunisian Jews, and others who had gathered for the Lag B’Omer events.

At the end of the traditional Tunisian meal, he stood up and spoke about the artistic collaboration between Muslims and Jews — in cinema, art, and literature.

He affirmed that Tunisia loves and honors its Jews and greatly appreciates the contributions they have made to Tunisian society.

The next day, the minister of tourism, Mondher Zenaidi, hosted another dinner. He, too, expressed his personal horror at the attack in Jerba.

This year’s pilgrimage was a “victory against obscurantism and fanaticism,” he was quoted as saying as he pledged that Tunisia would protect religious freedoms.

He acknowledged that Tunisia had cut off official diplomatic relations with Israel because of the current strife in the Middle East, but he insisted that this had nothing to do with the situation of Jews in Tunisia.

“Jews and Muslims are brothers,” he said. “They are both Tunisians.”


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