In the aftermath of Gaza based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s visit to Tunisia, the Tunisian Jewish community is shaken, looking for answers and hoping the Tunisian government will act quickly to address the community’s fears.
Many in the small community feel the Tunisian government was slow to condemn violent chants of “kick the Jews- it’s our religious duty,” “expel the Jews- it’s our religious duty,” and “kill the Jews- it’s our religious duty” by a group attending the welcoming ceremony of Haniyeh at the Tunis Carthage Airport.
Ennahda officials have condemned the anti-Jewish chants as isolated incidents not reflecting the values of the the Ennahda Party. Rachid Ghannouchi the leader of Ennahda condemned the anti-Jewish slogans as unrepresentative of the spirit of Islam or it’s teachings. He attributed the slogans to a fringe handful of individuals aiming to undermine the image of Ennahda among hundreds who came to welcome Haniyeh. “Ennahda calls on Tunisians of all faiths to stand together and be united for the good of the country,” he said.
However, to many in the Jewish community the visit of Haniyeh has brought them new found fear.
Ezekiel Haddad is a Djerba based Hebrew teacher. “I don’t understand why the Tunisian government allowed someone with no political legitimacy to come to Tunisia and get the opportunity to tour the country with the welcome that he got,” Haddad lamented.
While many Western governments have widely praised Tunisia’s post-revolution transition, their much needed support to Tunisia could be lost by visits of leaders of what they consider to be terrorist organizations like Haniyeh’s according to Haddad.
“Why is the Tunisian government destroying the goodwill with the world Tunisia has been building since the revolution?” Haddad asked. ”I don’t have a problem with Haniyeh visiting Tunisia as a person but I disagree with the way his visit brought together the worst people in Tunisian society,” he said.
Haniyeh’s five day visit in Tunisia included meetings with officials in the Tunisian government, visits to cities that played a critical role in the Tunisian Revolution such as Sidi Bouzid and Kassrine, visits to Tunisian historical centers of Islamic significance such as the Mosque of Oqba Ibn Nafaa in Kairouan and large rallies promoting Hamas.
The statements currently coming from the government have been too little, too late according to Haddad. He wants the recently elected Constituent Assembly to open an investigation into what happened during Haniyeh’s visit and try those who chanted the hateful slogans.
“I want the people who shouted ‘kill the Jews’ punished,” Haddad said “All the Jews in Djerba are scared, uptight, and uncomfortable with what has happened, very few will speak truthfully of their level of fear now.”
While Haddad was willing to be named for this story, a Djerbian based jeweler was not.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not our problem,” he complained.
“I have grown up my whole life breaking bread with my Muslim neighbors, living freely with my Muslim friends. Tunisia has always been an open society and this visit by Haniyeh has caught our community completely by surprise.” The jeweler stressed that Islam does not call for killing people “rabi yuster (may god protect us from a possible calamity).”
However, the Jeweler believes that since the government was slow to act against the violent chanting, there is a strong possibility that the government really has no problem with the violent chants. ”We don’t know what the government is going to do, they need to punish those who made those chants but since they have not they are tacitly endorsing their message– that’s a big problem.”
The jeweler feared not just for the Tunisian Jewish Community but for the country as a whole.
The economy has been adversely impacted since the Revolution and the tourism industry has been especially hard hit. In the past, Tunisia has been a favorite destination for many Jewish tourists the world over for it’s many ancient synagogues and historic Jewish sites.
Ennahda has pledged to work to rebuild tourism as a pillar of it’s platform but tourists have so far failed to return in a significant way. The Jeweler claimed that the whole country will loose, not just the Jewish population if Tunisia is seen abroad as an intolerant place. “Tourism was already really low and after Ennahda’s victory, it went even lower. It’s normal that if the government does not act fast the economy will crash, not just from losing Jewish tourists but because nobody will want to invest here,” he said.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen of the Beit Mordechai Synagogue in La Goulette, blamed Ennahda’s electoral victory for what he considered a rise in racism in Tunisia. “The problem between Israelis and Palestinians should not be a concern to Tunisia at such an extent that it has pushed some to become extremist and anti-semitic,” he said. He said that the way Haniyeh’s visit was organized did not allow for a healthy environment for people of different faiths to co-exist.
“I am sure the Tunisian government does not want this to happen, since even Ennahda cannot afford to have this type of extremism take over a section of the Tunisian community. This harms the country and jeopardizes the interests of Tunisia.” Cohen claims that the atmosphere is now tense and there are many Tunisian Muslims who have left the country because they fear for the future.
Being religious himself, Cohen said he did not approve of seeing religion being used in such a horrible way. He called on the government to stop making statements, he wants concrete actions. “The Tunisian media must inform the public that there is no difference between Muslim and Jewish Tunisians, there should be no discrimination based on one’s creed,” he said.
He wants Imams in mosques to spread messages of tolerance for Tunisia’s Jewish community and he feels President Moncef Marzouki and Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali should visit Jewish monuments and historical sites in Tunisia to better understand Tunisian Jewish heritage.
Noureddine Arbaoui, a member of the political bureau of the Ennahdha Party stressed Ennahdha’s position as being unequivocal in condemnation of what he called “the racist slogans” chanted at the airport, he reiterated Ghannouchi’s statement that Tunisian Jews are Tunisian citizens, “they have rights and duties like their Tunisian Muslim counterparts. We reject that anyone would touch Jewish people for their religion and will protect their personal freedoms.”
A member of the Constituent Assembly from the opposition Modernist Democratic Pole party, Selma Baccar also condemned the anti-Jewish chanting saying that she “unequivocally condemned the sad acts of some Tunisians against Jews.” She said the Palestinian cause was being hijacked by those who had a hateful agenda, “it is sad that the Palestinian cause is being used to exclude others [in Tunisian society].”
She stressed that Tunisians need to differentiate between Jews and Zionists and that hateful slogans against Jews do not advance the Palestinian cause. “These discussions, add to confusion in Tunisia and we thought that we have gone beyond confusion between a Jew and a Zionist. It is incredible that in 2012 some do not respect those who are different from them.”
“The PDM party did not issue anything official to condemn them but I personally do as a Tunisian citizen and I uphold the PDM party’s principles of freedom and respect of monotheistic religions,” she said.
According to a Tunisian Jewish Community website harissa.com, the Tunisian Jewish community has had a presence in Tunisia for over twenty centuries. While before 1948 the community numbered over 100,000 since the independence of Tunisia the community has dwindled to 1,800. A community of 1,000 lives on the southern island of Djerba while most of the other 800 or so lives in metropolitan Tunis.
Houda Mzioudet, Hanen Keskes and Wafa Ben Hassine contributed to this report