“some groups have raised concerns in recent months over an apparent rise in anti-Semitic language in Tunisia.” Yediot Ahronoth, April 27, 2013
Israel and Tunisia do not have diplomatic relations. Yet, every year Tunisia allows the pilgrimage of thousands of Israelis to the El Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba.The reason is simple, they are a major source of income. On April 27, Yedioth Aharonoth, the largest paid Hebrew newspaper, published an article which includes hints of possible violence toward the Israelis visiting the island during the weekend.
The synagogue is said to be founded on 586BC, by exiles from the Holy Land, who escaped the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. This is the oldest Jewish Temple still active; its festival takes place during Lag BaOmer.
Israel sends messages not through noisy headlines, those eternal decoys, but through sad songs reproduced in the inner pages. Don’t listen to Netanyahu’s formal speech, but look what his aide told another irrelevant person and was reproduced in an inconspicuous page of the newspaper. Thus, the article should be taken seriously; though the source of violence may have nothing to do with “Islamist radicals,” or whatever scapegoat Israel favors this weekend.
Jewish Pilgrims, Tunisia Tunisia
History of Violence
The flourishing tourism is odd considering the history between the countries. On April 16, 1988, Mossad assassinated Abu Jihad, leader of the Fatah military arm. The violent event took place in his home in Tunis, the Tunisian capital. The task force included Shayetet 13 (Fleet 13) naval commando and a team of Mossad assassins. They may have approached the coast with the help of submarines in a similar fashion to the described in Israel Caught Spying on Russia.
Yet, this event has been always overshadowed by the more spectacular Operation Wooden Leg on October 1, 1985. The Israeli airforce attacked the PLO Headquarters in Tunis, using intelligence gained from the USA with the help of a lame spy named Jonathan Pollard.
Yet, dollars have the same color, regardless who pays the bill. Tunis was glad to host Israeli tourists during one weekend of the year. The site of the synagogue is on an island, the tourists arrive in charter flights, and are not allowed access to the mainland. Everybody was happy. At its peak, 8,000 Jews visited the site before the 2001 attacks on New York. Afterwards, the numbers dropped.
On April 11, 2002, a truck loaded with explosives detonated close to the synagogue, during the pilgrimage, and over 20 people were killed. Unsurprisingly, Al-Qaeda was blamed. Unsurprisingly, none of the victims was Israeli.
In 2011, the numbers of pilgrims diminished almost to zero due to the Arab Spring. Most people outside the Middle East ignore that spring is the sand storms season; Arab Spring is a name with a horrendous omen.
In 2012, the Israeli National Security Council travel warnings for the summer recommended Israeli citizens to avoid visiting Tunisia; pilgrims were scarce.
El Ghriba Synagogue, Djerba
2013, An Odd Year
This year, Israel and related Jewish organizations released various odd comments about Tunisia.
In the first week of March, Tunisia’s Jewish community placed an official complaint over anti-Semitic slogans chanted at a protest demanding the imposition of sharia, the Islamic law, in the country. There is a little community of 1,500 Jews still living in the country, out of the more than 100,000 that lived there until 1967; they left after the Six Days War. The same source claims that similar incidents took place in January during a visit by Palestinian Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and in February during the visit of an Egyptian cleric.
In mid February, Israeli Foreign Ministry had instructed Israel’s representatives abroad to ask the international community to pressure Tunisian government officials to safeguard the North African country’s Jewish community, heritage and property. “There appears to be an increase in anti-Semitic statements among local religious clerics and cases of public incitement against Jews,” stated a report written by Gideon Bachar, Head of the Foreign Ministry’s Department for Combating Anti-Semitism.
The reports on the pilgrimage taking place at the time this article was written look equally sinister. This year, there is an increase in the number of pilgrims. The organizers expect one thousand visitors. More than a dozen army trucks were stationed near the synagogue, with police checkpoints set up around the nearby Jewish neighborhoods and on the road linking the airport to the tourist zone.
“Thank God this year is as it should be, not like in the last two years. I came then, but out of solidarity. There were no real festivities. There are police this year, it’s great. There are a good dozen at the entrance to the Hara (Jewish neighborhood). My cousin has even come from Israel,” said Meyer Sabbagh, 63, who left Djerba for Paris after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Yet, the Hebrew newspaper was openly negative, stressing out “Islamist militants have staged numerous attacks since Ben Ali fled, most notably on the US embassy in Tunis last September which left four assailants dead,” “For all the hope and the extra security, however, some groups have raised concerns…” and “A minorities support group in March accused the judiciary of failing to prosecute individuals inciting hatred, including Ahmed S’hili, an imam who called openly for a “divine genocide” of the Jews in a sermon late last year.”
This is odd, considering that the Tunisian authorities have created what security services call “a sterile area” encompassing everything between the airport and the synagogue. Israeli pilgrims would be isolated. What can go wrong? Is Israel planning a new “Al-Qaeda attack?”Are the charter flight the target? Until next Monday, we will know.
Roi Tov is a graduate—among others—of Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science. In addition to his memoir, Tov is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Molecular Physics and other scientific journals. He won various travel writing and photography awards.
In his writings, he tries to reveal life in Israel as a Christian Israel Defense Force (IDF) officer—from human rights violations to the use of an extensive network of underground agents. He was recognized first as a refugee and subsequently as political prisoner of Bolivia.