'We will never give up' Tunisian Jews defiant in wake of synagogue attack

Six men were killed in Djerba during a pilgrimage to an ancient synagogue


Mourners react during the funeral of Israeli-Tunisian Aviel Haddad killed on May 9 in a mass shooting in the Tunisian island of Djerba, in the southern Israeli town of Netivot, on May 12, 2023. A police officer shot dead five people, three police officers and two visitors, a French-Tunisian and an Israeli-Tunisian man, in a mass shooting which sparked panic during an annual Jewish pilgrimage at the historic Ghriba synagogue on the resort island of Djerba. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

When Ghayyda Thabet first heard the sound of gunfire, her mother was convinced it was just fireworks.

“I called mum, asked her ‘Did you hear that?’” she told the JC.

“She said, ‘chill, chill, it’s just a firework’. I was looking to the sky. I was hoping to see the firework, I said ‘mum there is nothing. The sky is clear’.”

Suddenly it became apparent someone was firing a weapon, as people fled the Ghriba Synagogue in terror.

“There were ladies there with their children, they were so afraid, crying,” she said. 

“I was calling Mum saying they’re shooting on us, we have to run. Your mind is like… I can’t describe it, we felt so shocked, and afraid. 

“Your body wants to run, you want to run, there were two moments I thought we would be shot. I was convinced I would be shot.”

The gunman, a policeman, had killed his colleague with his service weapon before seizing ammunition and heading to the Ghriba shul. 

The synagogue, which is Africa’s oldest, was hosting an annual pilgrimage that draws up to 5,000 Jews to the island of Djerba, on which it sits, every year.

For 15 minutes the gunman continued to fire, Thabet said, until he was finally shot dead by security guards. 

In total, the attack left six dead, including two Tunisian police officers and two Jewish cousins: Aviel Haddad, a dual Israeli-Tunisian citizen, and Benjamin Haddad of Marseilles. 

For a number of months beforehand, according to the Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Agency had been monitoring a "serious threat" to the community in Djerba.

Numbering around 1,300, the island’s Jews have maintained a distinct and continuous community since emigrating to the area following the destruction of the first temple. 

Now, according to the Jerusalem Post, the Israeli government say they are working on a plan to bring the population to Israel.  

"In a small Jewish community in Tunisia, Jews are being picked on by the press and by local police, with a sense of antisemitism coming from the local government,” a senior Israeli official reportedly said in a discussion with Jewish leaders two months ago.

Avichai, a member of Djerba’s Jewish community, told the JC a sense of fear had developed among the local population.

“We are here, feeling more afraid of the police than ordinary people, because this terrorist worked for many years in the police,” he said.

“Now the streets are empty, most of the shops are closed.”

Tunisian president Kais Saied has attempted to play down fears that Tunisian Jewry are at risk.

Condemning the “criminal and cowardly” attack, he said: “I want to reassure the Tunisian people and the whole world that Tunisia will remain safe despite this type of attempt intended to disturb its stability.”

While an investigation into the killer’s motive was ongoing, he added, he thought the shooting attempted to, “sow discord, sabotage the tourist season and attack the state.”

Thabet, who manages the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities and works closely with Jewish groups, said she did not expect many locals to make aliyah.

“The Jewish community in Tunisia, they are Tunisians, they love their country,” she said.

“Stupid people who think they’re going to leave their country know nothing… people full of hate and fanaticism are attacking us as Tunisians and attacking the Jewish community because they’re antisemitic.

“Tunisian Jews will not change their mind. It’s their country. They're from Djerba, they’re from Tunis.

Despite a string of attacks over the last two decades, including a 2002 Al Qaeda truck bombing that killed 21 people, Avichai agreed that Jews would not be driven away. 

“I think there are some people who will immigrate to Israel but not many people,” he said.

“Most people will wait and see what happens and then decide.”

“Inshallah the next year we’ll have the pilgrimage and life will go on,” Thabat added.

“We will never give up.”

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