Tunisia’s President, Moncef Marzouki, was a guest this week at a Jewish exhibition related to the holiday of Purim.
At the exhibition, the Tunisian president expressed his support for the Jewish community in Tunisia and said that Tunisia is a “land of coexistence.” A video of the visit was posted to the internet and translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
“Let me reiterate that Tunisia is the land of peace, the land of coexistence, the land of brotherhood, a country that rejects all kinds of discrimination between its citizens – whether racial, religious, or sectarian. We are proud of all our Jewish citizens, who have played an important role in the history of this country,” Marzouki said.
“I always say that we have a shared and pluralistic identity in our country. The Arab-Islamic identity is the basis, but in our history there was a Jewish Tunisia, a Christian Tunisia, an Amazigh Tunisia, and Phoenician Tunisia... All these ‘Tunisias’ are part and parcel of our culture and civilization, and we should be proud of them. So, happy Purim, and thank you for this initiative. Carry on, and I wish you all success,” he added.
Tunisia today has a Jewish population of only 1,500, but in the 1960s there were 100,000 Jews in the country. Most left following the 1967 Six Day War, though the emigration to Israel started in the 1050's.
Most Tunisian Jews now live on the resort island of Djerba, near the country’s border with Libya, once called the Island of Cohanim because so many Jewish families who could trace their lineage to Moses' brother Aaron, the first High Priest, lived there. A 2,000-year-old synagogue, the El Ghriba, is located on the island and is the site of an annual pilgrimage by Jews on the holiday of Lag Ba’omer.
Marzouki has in the past called on the country’s Jewish population to return to his country, saying Tunisia’s Jews are full-fledged citizens and those who had left the country were welcome to return.
The Islamist Ennahda party, which won the elections in Tunisia after the ouster of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, said after winning that it welcomed Jews in Tunisia.
“Tunisia remains, today and tomorrow, a democratic state that respects its citizens and looks after them regardless of their religion…. Members of the Jewish community in Tunisia are citizens enjoying all their rights and responsibilities,” said the party, which has since been replaced by a government of independent figures.
Relations with Israel, on the other hand, are a taboo subject in Tunisia, as they are in other Arab countries. Ennahada had rejected outright any normalization of diplomatic ties with Israel.
Last week, Israeli passengers on a cruise ship were not allowed to disembark in Tunis "because of a last-minute decision made by the Tunisian government."
The Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) later announced that it would no longer call at Tunisian ports, saying that "in response to this discriminatory act...it has cancelled all remaining calls to Tunisia and will not return."
Tunisia's tourism minister later denied that the Israeli tourists had been discriminated against, saying there had been a “procedural problem”.