After Synagogue Attack, Tunisia Ignores Elephant in the Room

Tunisia has largely moved on from the May 9 killing of five people at the El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba by a National Guardsman. The event’s prominence on the country’s news sites has diminished and its claim on Tunisian conversation has largely been ceded to the other items competing for space at the national table.

On-air criticism of police recruitment methods by radio hosts Haythem El Mekki and Elyes Gharbi swiftly resulted in a legal complaint from the security services and, essentially, an end to discussion.

Thus far, Tunisia has steadfastly refused to publicly address the anti-Semitic nature of the attack, preferring instead to characterize it as “criminal.” However, the fact that the Jewish tourists and locals gathering to celebrate the festival of Lag B’Omer were specifically targeted by the attacker, 30-year-old National Guardsman Wissam Khazri, is hard to dispute.

After killing his colleague, Khazri donned body armor and rode 12 miles by quad bike to attack the pilgrims at the synagogue. However, beyond the arrest of four conspirators, his motivation for doing so, or details of any radicalization, remains unknown.

Responding to the murders, Germany and France characterized the attack as anti-Semitic, with Paris going even further and launching a terrorism probe into the killing of one of its citizens—a dual-national who was among the victims.

For Tunisian President Kais Saied’s government, the story was simply too messy. This year’s tourism revenues, which are vital following the uncertainty surrounding the hard-pressed country’s latest bailout from the International Monetary Fund, represent one of the few economic bright spots on a dark financial horizon. That security around the synagogue appeared to have failed—the attack was undertaken by one of the island’s supposed defenders—despite the massive expense and planning involved was also pushed to the sidelines.

However, underpinning all of this was the identity of the targeted victims and the deliberate and premeditated assault upon the Jewish community.

The Jewish presence in Tunisia reaches back almost 2,000 years. Over the centuries, through occupation by Phoenicians and Romans, conquest by Arabs, and colonization by Ottomans and the French, Tunisia’s Jews have maintained an unbroken thread linking past and present Tunisia. However, since World War II and the establishment of Israel in 1948, their numbers have dwindled. Pressure at home and opportunities overseas have reduced the population from around 100,000 in 1948 to less than 1,800 today.

Of all the Jewish communities that once dotted northern Tunisia, only that on the island of Djerba remains. The synagogue there, whose foundations are said to date back to Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon, remains a cornerstone of not simply Tunisian Jewish identity, but Jewish identity as a whole.

The reasons for this declining population are rooted in recent history. Tunisia’s steadfast support of the Palestinian cause, a matter of profound faith for many, has embedded itself across all levels of society. From 1982 to 1985, Tunisia hosted the headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in a suburb just south of the capital, Tunis, until an Israeli air campaign essentially wiped it from the map, inspiring one of the first isolated assaults on the synagogue on Djerba by way of reprisal.

Many Tunisians are acutely aware of every injustice visited upon the Palestinian population. That, along with years of unflinching official opposition to the Israeli state, has almost certainly combined to make life in the country uncomfortable for many Tunisian Jews. By way of evidence, we only need to look to the spikes in emigration to both France and Israel that followed the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Whatever some may say, it is clear that what happens in the Middle East carries consequences for Tunisia’s Jews and how they’re regarded by their compatriots.

In the wake of the synagogue attack last month, one Twitter user achieved temporary notoriety after discovering that one of the victims, Aviel Hadad, was to be buried in Israel. Hadad had held dual citizenship with Israel and—in much the same way as many Muslims ask to be buried in Mecca, without opining on Saudi politics—had asked to be interred there. Nevertheless, one Tunisian blogger called for Hadad’s Tunisian family to be expelled from the country and any officials who knew of his wishes to be prosecuted.

A prominent journalist, on discovering that a victim of the attack held an Israeli passport, asked if the country was mourning Zionists. Across the country’s ubiquitous radio channels, a major source of news and information for many, conversations on Tunisia’s attitudes to Jews came to be almost exclusively couched in discussions on the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, with the fate and welfare of Tunisian citizens judged by the actions of a distant state that few had any connections with.

Unsurprisingly, the president has proven no exception. On a visit to the Tunis suburb of Ariana the weekend after the attack, Saied rejected accusations of anti-Semitism, recalling his own family’s history of offering shelter to Tunisia’s Jews during the 1942-43 Nazi occupation of the country, when Tunisia’s Jews faced extreme persecution. From there, he demonstrated little difficulty in segueing effortlessly into a discussion on Israeli attacks on Palestine. Their relevance to Tunisia’s Jews was not made clear.

“Despite the fact that most of the Jews of Tunisia have never set foot in Israel and that their homeland has been Tunisia for centuries, they are taken as scapegoats for actions committed in another part of the world,” said Joachim Lellouche, the son of Jacob Lellouche, a prominent member of the Tunisia’s Jewish community. The younger Lellouche, who grew up spending time in both France and Tunisia, told FP, “Most of the Jews in the world feel close to Israel—because of their ancestral history; that does not mean that they support the internal policy of the government.”

Lellouche, who spent his childhood shuttling between France and his father’s busy restaurant in La Goulette, a port town near Tunis, recalled the kind of prejudice his family encountered. “It’s ridiculous, but there’s this thing about Jews smelling of the dead,” he said. “Around 15, maybe 20 years ago, my father told us about a [Tunisian] man who came up and sniffed him. The thing is, that was a poor and uneducated man. Now, since the revolution, mass media and fake news, those attitudes are everywhere.”

Lellouche has seen the consequences of Tunisia’s anti-Semitism. In 2015, his father’s kosher restaurant, Mama Lily, a mainstay of cultural life in the city, closed due to anti-Semitic threats.

“Tunisia’s Jews are always held to a higher account,” Amine Snoussi, a Tunisian political analyst, said. “People always expect them to prove their loyalty to Tunisia and to reject Israel before they’ll even engage with them. No one else has to deal with that.”

“Jews, or minorities even, don’t really fit with [Saied’s] agenda,” Snoussi continued. “He doesn’t have time for them. He deals in a very utopian vision. Anything that contradicts that—such as anti-Semitism or the recent attacks on the country’s undocumented black migrants—has to be rejected and denied.”

In Snoussi’s opinion, Saied’s entire reaction to the synagogue attack has been shaped, not so much by any sense of anti-Semitism, but by his almost exclusively populist mindset. “He’s sought to frame this in terms of Palestine,” Snoussi said. “That fits with his ideas of what the country thinks, as well as the wider Arab nationalist world. He doesn’t think about Tunisia’s Jews. He doesn’t think about minorities. He doesn’t care how linking them so clearly to Israel puts them at risk.”

That attitude is causing real damage. In early May, the University of Manouba in Tunis announced it would revoke the title of professor emeritus from Habib Kazdaghli, a Muslim-born historian of Tunisia’s Jewish traditions who had attended a French conference alongside Israelis.

Hardline attitudes to Israel appear hardwired into entire strata of Tunisian society. “It’s not just me,” Kazdaghli told Foreign Policy via a translator. “It goes further. Tunisia’s wrestlers and tennis players have all been accused of normalizing relations with Israel through sporting events.

“I’ve been studying this for 25 years,” he said. “This bothers them. Every time they do this”—referring to the implicit barriers placed in the way of his research by both government and academia—“they’re saying they’re anti-Semitic without actually saying they’re anti-Semitic.”

Beyond his own academic specialism, Kazdaghli has grounds to speak with authority on the topic. He was on the bus outside El Ghriba synagogue when the May attack took place.

“Now when something happens, the state doesn’t address it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s anti-Semitism on their part. It’s more about being scared of even addressing the issue, and that’s worse.”

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