Amid crisis and violence, Tunisian Jews safe but guarded
The violence roiling Tunisia hasn’t put the country’s 1,500 or so Jews in serious jeopardy, but Jewish organizations are increasingly concerned about their fate as massive anti-government protests continue.
No Jews have been targeted by the protesters, according to Roger Bismuth, a Jewish businessman and member of Tunisia’s Chamber of Deputies.
President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for 23 years, fled to Saudi Arabia over the weekend following violent protests by mostly unemployed young men venting their anger at Ben Ali and his wealthy cronies.
On Tuesday, the North African country’s interim prime minister and president, Mohamed Ghannouchi and Fouad Mebazaa, both resigned from what had been the country’s ruling party.
“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.”
Asked about Ben Ali, often described by the local Jewish community as a protector of Tunisia’s Jews, Bismuth sounded a new tone.
“He was behaving like a crook,” Bismuth said. “He and his family stole property from people and the state, and they destroyed everything they could put their hands on.”
Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, described the Tunisian government of Ben Ali as a “corrupt and kleptocratic dictatorship.”
About 1,000 Jews, the majority of Tunisia’s Jewish community, live on the island of Djerba, where Jews have maintained a historical presence for more than 2,000 years. Another 400 Jews live in Tunis, the capital, with much smaller communities in Zarzis, Sfax and Sousse.
The country’s population of 9.5 million is nearly all Muslims. Islam is the state religion of Tunisia, which sits on the Mediterranean coast between Algeria and Libya just south of Italy.
In 2002, a terrorist attack on the El-Ghriba synagogue in Djerba involving a truck bomb killed 21 tourists, mostly Germans. Al-Qaida took responsibility for the bombing.
Judy Amit, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s regional director for Africa and Asia, said her organization has been in daily contact with Tunisian Jewish leaders throughout the crisis.
“Ever since the rioting erupted there, we’ve been in close contact with members of the community,” said Amit, speaking in an interview from Israel. “It’s an economic protest with local grievances related to high unemployment and high food prices. There’s been no violence against the Jewish community, and no Jews or Jewish institutions have been targeted.”
Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs at the American Jewish Committee, noted that “Jews have been part of the fabric of Tunisian life for more than 2,000 years, since well before the Arab conquest.”
Yet Isaacson, who visited Tunisia last month, warned that things could quickly change for the worse.
“My concern is that if the situation is not stabilized, there could be further instability and create a breeding ground for extremism,” he said. “That’s not been a part of the equation, but it could happen if the enormous damage done first by Ben Ali and second by the riots is not compensated by a very serious international infusion of outside assistance.”
As of Tuesday, some 78 people have been killed, with economic losses estimated at $2.2 billion—equivalent to about 4 percent of Tunisia’s GDP. Schools and universities have been shut down as a precaution against violence and vandalism by protesters, including the Chabad school in downtown Tunis.
Yechiel Bar-Chaim, JDC’s country director for Tunisia, said his main concern is for the 100 Jews of Zarzis, who live in a two-square-block area just off the town center. Four non-Jewish civilians were killed during protests there late last week, and a Jewish shop was among the many looted.
Bar-Chaim said that until a few days ago, this self-imposed “ghetto without walls” was carefully guarded by police. But the police have “simply disappeared from the streets of Zarzis and the army presence there is basically a passive one,” he reported.
“The police have reportedly disappeared in many places throughout Tunisia,” though a heavy police presence continues to guard the Grand Synagogue of Tunis and the central building of the Jewish community, he said.
Isaacson, who has been speaking by phone daily to Bismuth and other Tunisian Jewish leaders since the crisis began, said that “It’s generally a secular uprising directed at the regime’s corruption and economic stagnation and a general desire for freedom, especially in the last few days as unrest has continued.”
Sharansky warned of an “ever-present possibility of anti-Jewish sentiment leading to violence” in the cities where Jews live and work.
“Before the revolt, Ben Ali had a tolerant attitude towards the Jewish community,” he wrote. “Until the revolt there was no blatant anti-Semitism. However, an uncomfortable relationship between the Jewish community and the Arab population exists.”