(Pictured: Fathers of Tunisian independence Mohammed Masmoudi, Mongi Slim, and Albert Bessis.)
Writing in his journal on June 7, 1967, in the aftermath of anti-Jewish vandalism in Tunis following the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli Middle East War, Albert Bessis, a Jewish community leader and collaborator with Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia’s anti-colonial pro-independence movement, wondered, “What is the future of Tunisia’s Jewish Community? The old ones are dying off, our youth is leaving.”1, 2
When Bessis was writing in his diary, the Jewish population of Tunisia had already plummeted from perhaps 120,000 on the eve of independence in 1956 to a modest 5,000.3 Today it has shrunk to 1,500, among an overall population of 10.5 million. Despite the drop in Jewish numbers, the historically relaxed nature of Jewish-Muslim- relations that has characterized Tunisian society before the outbreak of the 1967 war comes through vividly in Ferid Boughedir’s film A Summer In La Goulette.
That spirit of tolerance, of a Jewish place in Tunisia’s past and present, never died. It remains alive and well in the post Ben Ali era that has just begun to unfold. The youth-led revolution that is sweeping through the Arab world is not driven by Islamic fundamentalist themes. Its referred to by some as ‘the third wave’ (the first the anti-colonial movement; the second the Islamic wave beginning in the 1980s).
Although not anti-religious, this revolution rejects the ideological approaches of the first wave and the narrow religious fundamentalism of the second. The movement instead is profoundly democratic, recognizing the legitimate place of the country’s minorities which make up a small percentage of the overall population.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that manifestations of anti-Jewish prejudice are not taken lightly. This past February 11, two months ago, 40 demonstrators, posing as Islamic fundamentalists, chanted anti-Jewish slogans in front of the main synagogue in Tunis. They were immediately condemned by the Tunisian government transition Interior Ministry as extremists inciting racial violence. In the United States, Los Angeles based ‘Free Tunisia‘ joined in the criticism:
What occurred outside the Jewish synagogue in central Tunis last Friday should never happen again. The Quran defends the right of religious expressions and defends religious institutions.(Quran, 5, 69) There should be no tolerance for hatred in the new Tunisian State. The oppression of religious minorities and the language of hatred towards the Jewish community must not be tolerated. It’s the Tunisian pride that one of the oldest Jewish Synagogues in the world is located in Tunisia.
Suspicions abounded among Tunisian social activists that this anti-Jewish outburst, so untypical of Tunisia’s uprising, was orchestrated by deposed President Ben Ali’s security apparatus to sow confusion and discredit the Tunisia revolt as Islamic-fundamentalist driven. There are indications that the crowd included members of ‘Tahrir’, a small splinter Islamic movement still banned in Tunisia that has barely a few hundred members. Tahrir’s goal is the establishment of an Islamic caliphate that unites all Moslem countries. Anti-Jewish and anti-Christian – indeed anti-everything that is not Islamic, it is also banned in most Arab countries. Movements like ‘Tahrir’ are often heavily infiltrated by security forces.
While such actions sent a temporary chill through the country’s tiny Jewish community, its message fell flat. As elsewhere throughout the Arab World, the Tunisian protests are youth, labor movement and student driven with a generally secular and democratic orientation. Islamic fundamentalists have played a limited role, if any. Established Islamic groups in Tunisia let it be known that they were not behind the synagogue protest. No public Islamic figure took part, and underneath their traditional Arab garb, protesters wore modern European garb typical of the security personnel.
It appears that through its contacts – Israelis who previously lived in Tunisia – Israel has exerted pressure on Tunisian Jews to emigrate. Given that Tunisia’s Jewish population is so small, one would think it is not worthwhile for Israel to engage in such a misguided ‘public relations’, or more precisely, ‘disinformation’ campaign.
At least one major American based Jewish organization, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, also participated in its own way, embellishing the situation all out of proportion, suggesting Tunisia’s Jewish Community is in danger. Without the myth of radical Islamic threat to guide them, the Center seems at sea. Ideological blinders prevent them from appreciating the obvious: that there is very little – no – there is no place in Tunisia’s great democratic upsurge for the kind of anti-semitism that the Center argues is lurking in every Tunisian olive grove.
In Tunisia itself, it turns out, the situation is viewed quite differently. One month into the revolutionary upsurge in Tunisia, one of the country’s Jewish leaders, Roger Bismuth, a prosperous developer, was interviewed by JTA (the Jewish Telegraphic Agency is an influential U.S. Jewish source of news and opinion) about the situation. Although a long time advisor to deposed President Zine Ben Ali, Bismuth’s comments were not what the Israelis wanted to hear:
“The community is fine,” Bismuth told JTA by phone from Tunis. “Up until now we’ve had no problems. This is not really a matter of religion; it’s a popular revolution. The Jewish community is very well taken care of.” “He was behaving like a crook,” Bismuth commented about his former boss. He went on to reinforce what is now common knowledge. “He (Ben Ali) and his family stole property from people and the state, and they destroyed everything they could put their hands on.”
Tunisian Jewish sources in contact with the author take Bismuth’s comments further. They note that to date, Tunisian rabbis have resisted the pressure to discredit the changes unfolding by crying wolf about anti-semitism and setting the stage for a Jewish stampede to Tel Aviv. Precious few have responded to Tel Aviv’s siren call. According to press reports only 10 Tunisian Jews – one family – have moved to Israel since the protest movement started on December 17, 2010 when Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself in Sidi Bou Zid. Reports of vandalism against Jewish property (beyond the Tunis synagogue demonstration cited above) have proven either exaggerated or fabricated. For example:
- There was a report that circulated widely in the Israeli press that a synagogue in the southern Tunisian city of Gabes was burnt down. Not mentioned is that Gabes’ small Jewish Community had sold the synagogue to a private party more than 25 years ago.
- Another rumor which proved less than accurate concerned an alleged burning of a Torah in a synagogue in El Hamma, a conservative Muslim community further south of Gabes. Minor detail: El Hamma hasn’t had a synagogue for nine centuries. El Hamma does have a ‘Jewish cemetery’ consisting of a one room mausoleum which was not vandalized and in any case did not contain a Torah.
It was with surprise and some anger that Tunisians learned that Israel is urging Tunisian Jews to emigrate. Recently the Israeli government approved a funding package to help Tunisian Jews move to Israel citing ‘the worsening of the Tunisian authorities’ and society’s attitude toward the Jewish community; it its offer, Israel also noted the difficult situation that has been created in the country since the revolution. Despite an absence of proof, the Israelis are suspicious that Islamists are somehow driving the Tunisian revolution.
The Tunisian government did not take Israel’s call to gather Tunisian Jews lightly.
Tunisia’s post Ben Ali foreign ministry condemned Israel’s interference in the country’s internal affairs by offering Jews financial incentives to emigrate. The ministry “expressed great regret”, labeling the Israeli offer “a malicious call to Tunisian citizens to immigrate to Israel in an attempt to damage the image of Tunisia after the revolution and to create suspicion about its security, its economy and its stability.” In unusually strong language it continued:
Tunisia is outraged by the statements…(from) a country which still denies the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland, shamefully defying international law.
Interestingly enough, spokespeople for Tunisia’s Jewish Community have publicly rejected Israel’s offer, suggesting that as a community, they too are upset with this pressure. A spokesperson for the Jews of Djerba (where half of Tunisia’s Jewish population resides) echoed the foreign ministry’s comments:
We are Tunisians above all, and we do not have any problems. We live like everyone else and no Jew is going to leave the country.
Do Tunisian Jews face problems? Of course, the short-term economic woes that Tunisia is unlikely to avoid will impact Tunisia’s Jews as well as the rest of the country, especially on Djerba where tourism to the oldest synagogue in North Africa has been an important source of income. Tunisia’s Jews, like the rest of its citizens, are likely in for economic hard times. But it appears those remaining will stick it out – as they have for 2000 years – with their Muslim brothers and sisters.
1. Juliette Bessis. Magreb: La Traversée du Siècle. Harmattan:Paris: 1997. p 361
2. A Peace Corps volunteer in Tunis at the time, I witnessed this disturbing spectacle. Several days prior, the Jewish Community was warned by the Bourguiba government itself to stay away from the synagogue and Jewish owned businesses. The vandalism was well organized. A man with a list was directing his rag-tag mob. I still remember his voice: ‘not, that shop, no! no!, the next one .’ Juliette Bessis suggests that the vandalism was organized from the Algerian and Iraq embassies at the time. I thought differently, concluding that the Tunisian government itself had orchestrated the disruption as a diversion, to take the attention off of the mounting criticisms of the Bourguiba presidency itself. The vandals themselves were mostly lumpen elements, poor, many homeless, recruited by Tunisia’s security forces, trucked to the town’s center, paid a few dinars and directed to do property damage. Later some were arrested, tried and given prison sentences. The government reimbursed the damaged shop owners and the synagogue. But a psychological barrier had been breached and a sense of malaise, already present among Tunisia’s Jews, grew deeper.
3. Bessis, p. 283
Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.