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Where Faith Meets Politics: Jewish Worship in Tunisia Middle East News and analysis of events in the Arab world DW

The synagogue is still quiet at the moment. But after the traditional Jewish pilgrimage to him begins on Saturday, there will probably be thousands of pilgrims from all over the world here on the Tunisian island of Djerba.

For the first time in more than two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a large number of pilgrims in the North African country will take part in religious celebrations for eight days. In 2020 and 2021, worship was canceled due to the health crisis and access was very limited.

But this year, Jewish community leader Perez Trabelsi told DW that between 4,000 and 5,000 visitors are expected. Trabelsi also chaired the organizing committee of the pilgrimage.

General view of the Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa.

The Ghriba Synagogue is the center of Jewish life in Tunisia

Djerba Synagogue is one of the oldest in Africa and a place of Jewish worship. This is because, according to religious legend, the 2,500-year-old place of worship – known as the Ghriba Synagogue in Arabic – was built with the remains of the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Bible says that the temple was destroyed by a king of Babylon who sent Jewish pilgrims into exile. It is alleged that these refugees brought fragments of the temple with them to Djerba.

Today, about 1,000 Jewish Tunisians live in Djerba. This makes it the largest Jewish community in Tunisia and the second largest in the Arab world. Only the Moroccan Jewish community in Casablanca, between 1,500 and 2,000 members, is larger than Djerba.

Jewish exile

After Tunisia became independent from France in 1956, many Tunisian Jews left the country. The economic situation in Tunisia was difficult at the time, and tensions between the Jewish community and the Muslim majority in Tunisia also increased after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.

Tunisian Jews were marginalized and felt pressured to emigrate. A second major wave of Tunisian Jewish migration followed in 1967 after the Six Day War. Throughout history, the conflict in the Middle East has affected the lives of Tunisian Jews, and tensions have led to violence, death and the destruction of Jewish property.

Tunisian leaders condemned the violence against the religious minority, but did not prevent its deportation. This has demographic consequences. In the 1950s, there were about 100,000 Jews in the country.

Members of the Tunisian Jewish community are examining the damage from the fire at the Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba.

In 2002, a terrorist attack caused 14 deaths and a fire in the synagogue

In 2002, the Djerba Synagogue was the target of a terrorist attack when an extremist rammed a truck loaded with liquid propane into the building. The blast killed 19 people, including 14 tourists from Germany. Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the attack.

In January 2018, petrol bombs were dropped on a Jewish school in Djerba. No one was injured, but material damage was inflicted on the school.

Jewish-Muslim relations in Tunisia remain tense.

Regional tensions are reflected

Before being elected in 2019, incumbent President Kais Saeed said he would not allow anyone with an Israeli passport to enter Tunisia – even visit the Djerba Synagogue.

His statement was a clear reaction to the continuing normalization of relations between Israel and some Arab countries, including Tunisia’s neighbor Morocco. Asked about the so-called agreements with Abraham during the presidential debate in 2019, Saeed replied: “Normalization is the wrong word to use. We need to talk about treason.”

As for its own relations with Israel, the Tunisian Foreign Ministry rejected diplomatic ties last summer. However, the entry of Israelis into Tunisia is sometimes tolerated, usually under special circumstances.

Jewish pilgrims arrive to pray at the Ghriba Synagogue.

COVID-19 health crisis means only a few worshipers have reached Djerba in the last two years

However, holders of Israeli passports are certainly not welcome anywhere in the country. When fighting broke out between the Israeli military and the Hamas movement last May, many Tunisians expressed solidarity with the Palestinians at local rallies.

This spring, Death on the Nile, a remake of an old classic, was banned in Tunisia because one of the lead roles is Israeli actor Gal Gadot.

As elsewhere, not all Tunisians carefully distinguish between Israeli citizens and Jews. But in some areas, efforts are being made to remain as apolitical as possible and to point to examples of successful coexistence between Jews and Muslims in Tunisia.

Peaceful coexistence

Tunisia’s chief rabbi, Chaim Bitan, told DW that relations between the Jewish minority and the country’s Muslim majority were largely strained. “There has always been coexistence between Muslims, Christians and Jews who live in the same neighborhood without any problems,” he said.

The head of the Jewish community in Djerba, Perez Trabelsi, also spoke about the relationship in a positive light and suggested that the preparation for worship is a good example of this.

Many Tunisian Muslims are contributing to the success of the pilgrimage, Trabelsi said.

“I live more in the middle [Tunisian] “Muslims more than Jewish Tunisians,” he explained. “Most of the people I work with in the synagogue are also Muslims.”

Jewish pilgrims arrive to pray at the Ghriba Synagogue.

Biblical stories say that the Djerba synagogue was built with materials brought from Jerusalem

Many local Muslims like to take part in Jewish celebrations, Trabelsi added. In fact, they make up about a third of all event attendees. “They come to watch and participate in the celebrations,” said the enthusiastic community leader. “That’s why it’s such a unique event.”

Visa problems

It is unclear whether other tensions in the Middle East or comments by the country’s increasingly authoritarian president, Sayed, will have any impact on the number of Israeli worshipers this year.

In fact, it is unclear whether Israeli Jews will come to Tunisia, Trabelsi told DW in the middle of this week. Worship is scheduled to begin over the weekend, but there have been some visa complications, he said.

At the time of writing, DW was unable to determine whether Israeli worshipers would be able to attend the weekend’s events.

“We still don’t have information from the government,” Trabelsi told DW. There were many requests, but “due to the sensitivity of the issue, we obviously do not want to create confusion ourselves.”

These days, Jews of Tunisian descent live in many other countries around the world, including Israel, he continued.

“Regardless of their political background, they all have the right to visit Djerba and the synagogue,” Trabelsi argued. “Whether a visitor comes from Israel or another country is not our business. It’s always about the individual. “

This article was originally published in German.

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