Faith and Politics: Jewish Pilgrimage on Djerba | world | DW

The synagogue is still a quiet place. But at the start of the international Jewish pilgrimage on Saturday, according to the organizers, several thousand believers are expected again in the church on the island of Djerba. For about eight days, pilgrims in Tunisia have the opportunity to participate in religious celebrations – on this scale for the first time in two years. For in 2020 and 2021, pilgrimages were canceled due to the corona pandemic or access was severely restricted. But four to five thousand visitors from several countries are now expected, Perez Trabelsi, president of the Jewish community in Djerba and chairman of the organizing committee, told DW.

Tunisia Ghriba Synagogue

Center for Jewish Life: The Synagogue at Djerba

The synagogue at Djerba, one of the oldest in all of Africa, is an ancient Jewish place of pilgrimage. According to legend, El Ghriba, as it is called in Arabic, was built on fragments of the First Temple of Jerusalem. Jewish refugees are said to have brought them to Tunisia after the church was destroyed in 586 BC.

Today, about a thousand Tunisian Jews live in Djerba, and there are only a few more in the whole country. This makes the Jewish community there the largest in Tunisia and the second largest in the Arab world, surpassed only by that in Casablanca, which has between 1,500 and 2,000 members.

difficult homeland

Following Tunisia’s independence in 1956, many Tunisian Jews left their homeland. On the one hand, they reacted to the difficult economic situation in those years, on the other hand, tensions grew between them and their predominantly Muslim citizens after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent military conflicts. Discrimination and pressure to emigrate increased.

Another major emigration began after the Six Day War in 1967. The Middle East conflict repeatedly affected the lives and security of Jews in Tunisia, until violent riots in which people died. The Tunisian government verbally condemned the violence, but did not prevent the emigration. This had enormous demographic consequences: in the 1950s, about 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia, about a hundred times as many as today.

Tunisia Djerba Island Synagogue

Devotion: a pilgrim in the synagogue in Djerba, April 2021

In 2002, the synagogue was the target of a terrorist attack. At the time, a truck loaded with 5,000 gallons of liquefied gas crashed into the church. The blast killed 19 people, including 14 tourists from Germany. The Islamist terrorist organization al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack.

In January 2018, there was also a fire attack on a Jewish school in Djerba. He caused minor property damage.

President has positioned himself against Israel

Even today, the Jewish-Muslim relationship in Tunisia is repeatedly subjected to stress tests. As in many countries in the region, not all citizens of Tunisia always clearly distinguish between Jews and Israelis.

Current president Kais Saied had said before he was elected to office in October 2019 that he would not allow anyone with an Israeli passport to enter Tunisia – not even to visit the synagogue in Djerba. He apparently protested against the normalization process between Israel and some Arab states, including Tunisia’s neighbor Morocco. This approximation is formally recorded in the so-called Abraham agreements, which Saied described as “high treason” according to media reports at the time.

As for relations with Israel, Tunisia’s Foreign Ministry ruled out establishing diplomatic relations with Israel last summer – although entry from Israelis has previously been tolerated in exceptional cases.

Tunisian President Kais Saied

Against Tunisian-Israeli rapprochement: President Kais Saied

Israelis are by no means welcome anywhere in the country. When fierce fighting broke out between Israel and Islamist Hamas last May, many Tunisians expressed their solidarity with the Palestinians at rallies. In the spring of 2022, the newly filmed Agatha Christie classic “Death on the Nile” was banned in the country. Obvious reason: the protagonist Gal Gadot is Israeli.

praise of coexistence

Many Jews in Tunisia try to remain as apolitical as possible. They highlight examples of successful social coexistence between Jews and Muslims. Tunisia’s chief rabbi, Haïm Bitan, told the DW that relations with the Muslim majority population were largely free of tensions: “Coexistence has always existed. Muslims and Christians live in the same neighborhoods without any problems with each other.”

The leader of the community on Djerba also swears by the good relationship – and mentions the preparation of the pilgrimage as an example: Many Tunisian Muslims also contribute to its success, assures Perez Trabelsi. “I myself live more among Muslims than among Jewish Tunisians,” he says, describing the situation there. “Most of the people I work with in the synagogue are also Muslims.” At Jewish festivities, Trabelsi praises, Muslim Tunisians made up about a third of the visitors. “They come here to see and participate in the festivities, so it’s a unique event.”

Can Israelis enter the country for pilgrimage?

Whether the irritations on the political scene in the Middle East and previous statements by the president this year will also affect the presence of Israeli pilgrims remains to be seen. It is not yet clear whether Jews from Israel will also come to Tunisia, Trabelsi told DW a few days before the start of the pilgrimage. There are currently complications associated with the visa. “We have no information from the government yet,” but there have already been many inquiries: “But of course we do not want to create any confusion ourselves because of the sensitivity of the issue.” At the time this article was published, DW was unable to verify whether Israelis could participate this time.

Jews of Tunisian origin now live in several countries, including Israel, the president of the Jewish community emphasizes. “You all have the right to visit Djerba and the synagogue, regardless of your political background. Whether a visitor comes from Israel or from another country is not our concern. It is always about the individual.”

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