‘We’ve been in Tunisia for 2,500 years. It’s our country still’

By Kouichi Shirayanagi, March 28, 2013
Rabbi Daniel Cohen, a proud Tunisian

Rabbi Daniel Cohen, a proud Tunisian

The Israeli Foreign Ministry recently issued a travel warning for Israelis visiting Tunisia over Passover.
In addition, the Israeli government will probably again tell citizens not to visit Tunisia for the annual El Ghriba pilgrimage to Djerba at the end of April.

However, since the Tunisian revolution in 2011, only a few Jewish families have emigrated from Tunisia. Many may wonder: if the Jewish community is really in such grave danger, why have so many Jews decided to stay?

There are differing views in the community on how the changes in the country will impact Jews, and the tales of two Djerbian brothers encapsulate two sides of the story.

Raphael Cohen, a former resident of the Jewish neighbourhood of Hara Kabira, Djerba, was shaken by the changes in government in the summer of 2011, five months after Tunisia’s revolution. Back then, he said that his biggest concern was the civil war in neighbouring Libya. “Does Obama know that once Gaddafi falls, men with beards will be emboldened and made much stronger here? I don’t think the Jewish community has a future here once they become strong,” he said.

Gaddafi’s regime fell in October and, by January, 2012 Raphael was on a plane to Israel to make aliyah. His emigration coincided with the week in which Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh went on a speaking tour of Tunisia, on the invitation of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party. Haniyeh was greeted at the airport by a crowd chanting “death to the Jews”. Raphael now lives in a Merkaz Klitah in Beer’sheva with his family.

Raphael’s brother, Rabbi Daniel Cohen, however, came to a different conclusion. He lives in the Tunis suburb of La Goulette and is the rabbi of the Beit Mordechai Synagogue. He has said many times that he is Tunisian, holds no other nationality and would always stay in Tunisia, his “holy land”.

“We lived for many years under a dictator and, now that we are trying democracy, why am I supposed to leave?” he asked. He insisted that the victory of the Ennahda party was not a threat. “Jews have lived in Tunisia for more than 2,500 years and we are still here, because Tunisia is not just a Muslim country, it is a Jewish country too.”

There are synagogues and graves of venerated rabbis in nearly every town and city in Tunisia, totalling over 300 sites, but many are relatively abandoned because Jews no longer live in many outlying regions. Still, the tradition of making pilgrimages (or seudah) to holy sites remains.

Unlike the governments of Egypt, Iraq and Syria, Tunisia has never stripped citizenship from a single Jew for immigrating to Israel, and it emerged this week that the drafters of country’s new constitution are considering allocating parliamentary seats to Jews.

In January, a video circulated on Facebook of Daniel on Tunisian TV celebrating the barmitzvah of his son, Moshe, in Tunis. In Tunisia, large parties are usually open affairs with no invitations.

Although only time will tell what will happen to the Jews of Tunisia, for now, the majority still think like Daniel.

Kouichi Shirayanagi is the Communications Director of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa

Last updated: 10:45pm, March 28 2013