In Tunisia, 'no fear over the Islamists, not yet'

Tunisia’s Jews show quiet optimism as Arab Spring’s first free election hands power to a religious party

By Rachel Shabi, October 27, 2011
Women collect the results of the ballot in Tunis this week. The Islamist Nahda party won 40 per cent of the vote

Women collect the results of the ballot in Tunis this week. The Islamist Nahda party won 40 per cent of the vote

"They naturally have a majority," says Tunisia's Jewish community leader, Roger Bismuth. "But more important is what is going to happen in the next few weeks."

As the Islamist Nahda party secured about 40 per cent of the vote in Tunisia's historic elections this week, the country's tiny Jewish community was wondering what this means for them.

These were the first free elections in Tunisia, and the first in the Arab Spring after a string of uprisings brought down reviled dictators earlier this year.

Now, the Nahda party will need to form a coalition with secular, centre-left parties - and already has pledged to put in place a democratic system that will safeguard minorities.

Among a national population of just over 10 million, Tunisia's Jewish community stands at around 1,500. Once it was 100,000, but Israel's creation in 1948 and Tunisia's independence from French rule in 1956 together resulted in a Jewish exodus.

Tunisia's remaining Jewish community is relatively well-integrated. Shoppers at a kosher butcher in Tunis wear conspicuous Hebrew-lettered jewellery; the store bears both Hebrew and Arabic lettering and has been owned by a Muslim family since the early 1950s.

Along the road, the Grand Synagogue is still functional, although it has a shrunken congregation, whose prayer-song does not make full use of the acoustics of the giant, bright blue- and-orange dome.

Security outside the synagogue was increased earlier this year, after a crowd of extremists demonstrated there, chanting anti-Jewish slogans.

Immediately after the revolution that brought down former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Israel wanted Tunisia's Jews to migrate. But the suggestion did not generate much enthusiasm. "People living in Tunisia now don't want to go," says Mr Bismuth, who is 85. "I love to live here and will never leave my community. We are very attached to our country and want to remain normal citizens."

Most of Tunisia's Jews live on the island of Djerba, whose Jewish history, including one of the oldest synagogues in the world, is carefully preserved.

Another community, in the port town of La Goulette, near Tunis, is home to the country's only Jewish candidate in the recent elections: Jacob Lellouche, representing the Republican People's Union (UPR), a small, leftist party.

He did not win a seat in the new assembly, which is mandated to draft the country's constitution and set an election date within a year. "But I am really proud to have participated," says the 50-year-old, who owns a kosher restaurant in La Goulette. "Now we all have a lot of work to do, to get Tunisia on its feet."

Mr Lellouche, who is secular, does not believe that politics and religion go together. Still, he says: "I'm not afraid of Nahda, there is nothing to worry about, not yet." He is setting up a project to teach young people traditional skills, and says: "If minorities want to be part of Tunisian society, they have to be involved."

This community, proud of its long history in Tunisia, hopes it will continue. "We are brothers and big friends," says Albert Chiche, who runs a Jewish retirement home, of relations between Muslims and Jews. "We celebrate each other's festivals, we hug. We hope that this will not change."

Last updated: 11:11am, October 27 2011