Tunisian Activists Blast Gov't Harassment of Jews

Ancient Jewish community of Djerba is "fed up with being used by politicians" to showcase "coexistence," whilst facing attacks.

Ari Soffer ,

Jewish worshiper at Djerba's ancient El Ghrib
Jewish worshiper at Djerba's ancient El Ghrib

A Tunisian rights group on Wednesday accused the police of harassing the tiny Jewish community on the southern island of Djerba, whilst turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism, saying Jews there had come under a string of attacks.  

"Tunisian Jews feel in danger, they are really afraid," Yamina Thabet, the president of the Tunisian Association Supporting Minorities, told a news conference after visiting Djerba.  

According to testimonies from witnesses on the island, three "serious incidents" took place against members of the community in the past few weeks alone, which were marked by important Jewish festivals including Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Thabet accused the police of forcefully interrupting a festive meal and seizing "a stolen motorbike without even checking the owner's papers."    

She said the police then fired tear gas at the gathering and only left when a tourist bus approached, and denounced "harassment" by the security forces.

According to the testimonies, in another incident a man calling himself "the new Hitler" broke into the prayer hall of a Jewish school and assaulted one of the adults present, in front of the children.

Lawsuits have been filed against the man, who also reportedly assaulted two young girls, and who was detained for 24 hours. But there has been no mention of charges linked to his allegedly racist aggression.

Islamist fears

Thabet said the Tunisian Jews were "fed up with being used during visits by politicians as evidence for the peaceful coexistence (between Muslims and Jews) and when the law is broken, they are the first victims of negligence" by the authorities.  

The NGO also pointed out that, despite a lawsuit being filed, the judiciary had failed to prosecute an imam who called openly for a "divine genocide" of the Jews in a sermon late last year.

Incitement to racial hatred is punishable by up to three years in prison in Tunisia.    

The country's Jewish community has seen its numbers fall dramatically in recent decades, from an estimated 100,000 at the time of independence in 1956 to around 1,500 now - a result of a wave of anti-Semitism which forced nearly one million Jews to flee Arab countries throughout the Middle East in the twentieth century.

The rise of the Islamist Ennahada party, following the overthrow of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, raised fears among Tunisia's remaining Jews. Those concerns were heightened the following year, during a visit by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, whose group calls for the annihilation of the Jewish people.

During a welcoming ceremony for Haniyeh at the Tunis Carthage Airport, crowds chanted virulently anti-Semitic slogans such as "kill the Jews, it's a religious duty."

Ben Ali's removal, the result of a popular revolt known as the "Jasmine Revolution," kicked off the so-called “Arab Spring,” and was followed by the ouster, or attempted ouster, of long-term leaders in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.

But the Ennahada party's brief honeymoon with the Tunisian people turned sour amid anger over a rising tide of Islamist violence, including the assassination of two secular politicians, which sparked mass protests that eventually forced the resignation of the Islamist-led government on Sunday.

The Jewish community of Djerba dates back 2,500 years, and were such a significant part of life on the island that it was once known as "the island of the kohanim," after the high proportion of members of the Jewish priestly caste, or kohanim, within the Jewish community there.

Earlier this year hundreds of worshipers made the annual pilgrimage to Djerba's Ghriba synagogue, thought to be the oldest in Africa. Pilgrims visited amid tight security, which has been in place since a suicide bombing in 2002 killed 21 people.