Tunisia violence: not best place to be Jewish

The word on the street: keep your head down and don’t mention Israel

By Anshel Pfeffer, January 20, 2011
Demonstrators in the centre of Tunis protest against the country’s former ruling party on Wednesday

Demonstrators in the centre of Tunis protest against the country’s former ruling party on Wednesday

It's not hard to find Jews in Tunisia, even while there is a revolution on. Head down to the Avenue de Liberte in Tunis in time for shacharit and you can find worshippers leaving the main synagogue. And it's not hard to see that they have reason to be worried.

As one man leaving the shul, in his 60s and wearing a black beret, said: "It's a good time to be quiet and put your head down."

Curfew had been lifted an hour before, but most of the shops on the normally bustling street were not open and were to remain shut during the day. A couple of policemen stood languidly nearby the house of prayer, but it was not clear whether they were stationed there to guard the place or, like hundreds of other police and security force personnel stationed around the city centre, they were waiting for the daily demonstrations to start again.

"Some of my friends have flown to Paris until the trouble is over," said the man, walking briskly towards his home. "It certainly doesn't pay to speak out as a Jew in a country like this."

When asked about his feelings regarding the departure of former President Zein el-Abbadin Bin Ali, he smiles and remains silent.

Souhail Ftouh, a Muslim blogger who writes extensively on Jewish and Israeli ties with Tunisia, is more vocal on the situation of the Jews in the country. "They are afraid of their own shadows," he says, "they fear that if they support Israel, they will be attacked."

He agrees that there is no overt antisemitism in the country but says that it exists beneath the surface. "The government protects the Jews and many of them have business contacts with Bin Ali's circle. But Jews who have emigrated find that any property they still own is taken over and they are powerless to act. In the end, they are still considered as guests, not equal citizens."

Mr Ftouh is an admirer of Israel, which he calls "the best democracy in the world", and is critical of the Jewish community for not being more Zionist.

It is unclear how many Jews there are in Tunisia. Seven decades ago, there were over 100,000, but almost all have since emigrated to Israel or France. There are now estimated to be between 1,200 and 2,000.

Two thirds live on the island of Djerba, in a closely-knit community around what is claimed by some to be the oldest shul in the world. The rest are split between the capital, Tunis, and city of Sfax. They live a quiet and comfortable, middle-class life.

"Since independence in 1956, President Habib Bourghiba and his successor, Bin Ali, always made sure that minorities would be respected and defended," says one Jewish businessman in Tunis.

"In 1967, when there were attacks and riots against Jews in other Arab countries like Morocco, Bourghiba made certain that we would be defended and we have not suffered any open antisemitism since.

"But we always remember that our position here is uncertain. For now, the demonstrations and the revolution are very secular and the Islamists are still weak, but who knows what will happen in the future."

Last updated: 2:30pm, February 1 2011