Tunisia president invites back Jews

December 22, 2011
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Tunisia's Chief Rabbi Haim Bittan met President Moncef Marzouki (right) this week

Tunisia's Chief Rabbi Haim Bittan met President Moncef Marzouki (right) this week

The call by Tunisia's new president for the country's Jews to return has elicited mixed responses from its small Jewish community.

Around 1,800 Jews currently live in the North African country, down from 110,000 in the 1950s. About two-thirds of them live on the island of Djerba.

President Moncef Marzouki, a former human rights campaigner who returned early this year from exile, was sworn in last week by the constituent assembly elected two months ago.

Mr Marzouki is the leader of the Congress for the Republic party and was appointed president as part of a deal with the Islamist Enahda Party, which received over 40 per cent of the seats in the national elections.

The president met religious leaders on Tuesday, including the Chief Rabbi, Haim Bittan. Mr Marzouki told Rabbi Bittan that the Jews of Tunisia are equal-rights citizens and conveyed through him an invitation to the Jews who emigrated to Israel and France over the past 50 years to return to their homeland. Rabbi Bittan welcomed the invitation, saying: "Tunisian Jews will always remain Tunisians, whether they live in Israel or in the USA." He added that Tunisia is now a safe country for Jews.

Other members of the small community were less enthusiastic. Artist and restaurateur Jacob Lalouche, from Tunis, said he was skeptical of the overtures by Mr Marzouki and Enahda Party. "They are opportunists," he said.

A member of the Djerba community who asked not to be identified said: "so far, the army has protected us because we are a major part of the tourist industry. But we are worried what will happen if there is another Gaza war."

Last updated: 12:46pm, December 22 2011