Right now, the synagogue is still quiet. But once the traditional Jewish pilgrimage begins on Saturday, there will likely be thousands of worshipers from around 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 to the North African country will take part in religious festivities for eight days. In 2020 and 2021, pilgrimages were canceled due to the health crisis and access was very limited.
But this year, Jewish community leader Perez Trabelsi told DW between 4,000 and 5,000 visitors are expected. Trabelsi also chairs the organizing committee of the pilgrimage.
The Ghriba Synagogue is a center of Jewish life in Tunisia
The Djerba Synagogue is one of the oldest in Africa and a place of Jewish pilgrimage. Indeed, according to religious legend, the 2,500-year-old place of worship – known as the Ghriba Synagogue in Arabic – was built from the remains of the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Bible says the temple was destroyed by a Babylonian king who sent Jewish worshipers into exile. These refugees would have brought with them fragments of the temple to Djerba.
Today, around 1,000 Jewish Tunisians live in Djerba. This makes it the largest Jewish community in Tunisia and the second in the Arab world. Only the Moroccan Jewish community of Casablanca, with 1,500 to 2,000 members, is larger than that of Djerba.
After Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956, many Tunisian Jews left the country. The economic situation in Tunisia was then difficult, and there were also growing tensions between the Jewish community and the Muslim majority of Tunisia after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
Tunisian Jews found themselves marginalized and felt pressured to emigrate. A second large wave of migration of Tunisian Jews followed in 1967 after the Six Day War. Throughout history, conflict in the Middle East has impacted the lives of Tunisian Jews, and tensions have resulted in violence, death, and destruction of Jewish property.
Tunisian leaders condemned the violence against the religious minority but did not prevent its exodus. This had demographic consequences. In the 1950s, there were about 100,000 Jews in the country.
In 2002, a terrorist attack left 14 dead and a fire inside the synagogue
In 2002, the synagogue in Djerba was the target of a terrorist attack when an extremist rammed the building with a truck loaded with liquid propane. The explosion killed 19 people, including 14 German tourists. The extremist organization al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack.
In January 2018, petrol bombs were thrown at a Jewish school in Djerba. There were no injuries, although the school was damaged.
The Jewish-Muslim relationship in Tunisia continues to be strained.
Regional tensions are reflected
Before being elected in 2019, the country’s current president, Kais Saied, said he would not allow anyone with an Israeli passport to enter Tunisia, not even to visit the synagogue in Djerba.
His statement was an apparent reaction to the ongoing normalization of relations between Israel and some Arab states, including Tunisia’s neighbor Morocco. Asked about the so-called Abraham Accords during a presidential debate in 2019, Saied replied that “normalization is not the right word to use. We should be talking about high treason.”
Regarding its own relations with Israel, the Tunisian Foreign Ministry ruled out diplomatic relations last summer. Despite this, the entry of Israelis into Tunisia is sometimes tolerated, usually under special circumstances.
The COVID-19 health crisis has meant that only a few pilgrims have visited Djerba in the past two years
However, Israeli passport holders are definitely not welcome anywhere in the country. When fighting broke out between the Israeli army and the Hamas movement in May last year, many Tunisians expressed their solidarity with the Palestinians at local rallies.
This spring, the film Death on the Nile, a remake of an old classic, was banned in Tunisia because one of the protagonists is the Israeli actor Gal Gadot.
As happens elsewhere, not all Tunisians distinguish between citizens of Israel and Jewish individuals. But in some areas, efforts are being made to remain as apolitical as possible and to highlight examples of successful coexistence between Jews and Muslims in Tunisia.
Tunisia’s chief rabbi, Haim Bittan, told DW that the relationship between the Jewish minority and the Muslim majority in the country is largely free of tension. “There has always been a coexistence between Muslims, Christians and Jews who live in the same neighborhood, without any problem,” he said.
The leader of the Jewish community in Djerba, Perez Trabelsi, also spoke of the relationship in positive terms and suggested that the preparations for the pilgrimage were a good example.
Many Tunisian Muslims contribute to the success of the pilgrimage, Trabelsi noted.
“I myself live more among [Tunisian] Muslims than among Tunisian Jews,” he explained. “Most of the people I work with at the synagogue are also Muslims.
Biblical accounts say that the synagogue in Djerba was built with materials brought from Jerusalem
Many local Muslims enjoy participating in Jewish festivities, Trabelsi added. In fact, they make up around a third of all event visitors. “They come to watch and participate in the celebrations,” enthused the community leader. “That’s why it’s such a unique event.”
At this time, it is unclear whether further tensions in the Middle East or comments by the increasingly authoritarian President Saied will impact the number of pilgrims from Israel this year.
In fact, it’s not clear whether Jews from Israel will come to Tunisia, Trabelsi told DW midway through this week. The pilgrimage is due to start at the weekend but there have been some complications with visas, he noted.
As of this writing, DW was unable to determine whether Israeli pilgrims would be able to attend the weekend’s events.
“We don’t have any information from the government yet,” Trabelsi told DW. There have been many requests but, “due to the sensitivity of the issue, we obviously don’t want to confuse ourselves”.
Today, Jews of Tunisian descent live in many other countries around the world, including Israel, he said.
“Regardless of their political background, they all have the right to visit Djerba and the synagogue,” Trabelsi explained. “Whether a visitor is from Israel or another country is none of our business. It’s always about the individual person.”
This article was originally published in German.