Jewish pilgrimage to Tunisia
Faith meets politics on Djerba

A Jewish festival at the historic synagogue on Djerba island in Tunisia is often touted as a successful example of Jewish-Muslim coexistence. Yet, as Kerstin Knipp writes, political tensions still play a role

For the first time in the more than two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a large number of Jewish pilgrims to the North African country are currently taking part in religious festivities on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The pilgrimage, which traditionally attracts thousands of worshippers from all over the world, lasts for eight days.

In 2020 and 2021, pilgrimages were cancelled due to the health crisis and access was very limited. But this year, Jewish community leader Perez Trabelsi is expecting between 4,000 and 5,000 visitors. Trabelsi also chairs the pilgrimage organising committee.

The synagogue on Djerba is one of the oldest in Africa and a site of Jewish pilgrimage. This is because, as religious legend has it, the 2,500-year-old place of worship – known as the Ghriba synagogue in Arabic – was built using remnants of the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Bible says the temple was destroyed by a Babylonian king who sent Jewish worshippers into exile. These refugees are said to have brought fragments of the temple with them to Djerba.

Man looks down on Jewish pilgrims in the courtyard of the synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba (photo: Getty Images)
Post-pandemic revival: in 2020 and 2021, the traditional pilgrimage to La Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba was cancelled due to the health crisis and access was very limited. But this year, Jewish community leader Perez Trabelsi is expecting between 4,000 and 5,000 visitors. Many local Muslims also enjoy taking part in the Jewish festivities. In fact, they make up about a third of all visitors to the events, Trabelsi added. "They come to watch and to participate in the celebrations. That's why it's so unique"

Today, around 1,000 Jewish Tunisians live on Djerba. This makes it the largest Jewish community in Tunisia and the second-largest in the Arab world. Only the Moroccan Jewish community in Casablanca, between 1,500 to 2,000 members strong, is larger than Djerba's.

Jewish exodus

After Tunisia became independent from France in 1956, many Tunisian Jews left the country. The economic situation in Tunisia was difficult then, and there were also increasing tensions between the Jewish community and Tunisia's Muslim majority after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Tunisian Jews found themselves marginalised and felt under pressure to emigrate.

A second large wave of migration of Tunisian Jews followed in 1967 after the Six-Day War. Over the years, the Middle East conflict has impacted the lives of Tunisian Jews, with tensions resulting in violence, death and the destruction of Jewish property. Tunisian leaders condemned the violence against the religious minority but did not prevent the latter's exodus. This has had demographic consequences. In the 1950s, there were around 100,000 Jews in the country.

In 2002, the Djerba synagogue was the target of a terrorist attack when an extremist rammed a truck loaded with liquid propane into the building. The explosion killed 19 people, including 14 tourists from Germany. Extremist organisation al-Qaida claimed the attack.

Ghriba synagogue on Djerba is a focus of Jewish life in Tunisia (photo: AA/picture-alliance)
Venerated by Jews: the Ghriba synagogue on Djerba is one of the oldest in Africa and a site for Jewish pilgrimage. This is because, as religious legend has it, the 2,500-year-old place of worship was built using remnants of the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem

In January 2018, petrol bombs were thrown at a Jewish school on Djerba. Although the school was damaged, there were fortunately no injuries.

President Saied's anti-Israel stance

Yet, the Jewish-Muslim relationship in Tunisia continues to be fraught. As in many countries in the region, not all Tunisians differentiate clearly between Jews and Israelis.

Before being elected to office in 2019, the current president of the country, Kais Saied, said he would not allow anyone holding an Israeli passport to enter Tunisia – not even to visit the Djerba synagogue. His statement was an apparent reaction to the ongoing normalisation of ties between Israel and some Arab states, including Tunisia's neighbour, Morocco. Asked about the so-called Abraham Accords during a presidential debate in 2019, Saied replied, "normalisation is the wrong word to use. We should be talking about high treason".

As far as its own relationship with Israel goes, Tunisia's Foreign Ministry ruled out diplomatic ties last summer. Despite this, the entry of Israelis to Tunisia is occasionally tolerated, usually under special circumstances.

However Israeli passport holders are certainly not welcome everywhere in the country. When fighting broke out between the Israeli military and the Hamas movement in May last year, many Tunisians expressed solidarity for Palestinians at local rallies. This spring, the movie "Death on the Nile", a re-make of an old classic, was banned in Tunisia because one of the leads is Israeli actor Gal Gadot.

Tunisian President Kais Saied (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Will comments made by Tunisia's increasingly authoritarian President Saied have an impact on the total number of pilgrims from Israel this year? A few days before the pilgrimage began, Trabelsi admitted that there had been some complications with the issuing of visas to Israeli Jews. These days, however, Jewish people with Tunisian origins live in many other countries around the world, he continued. "Regardless of political background, they all have the right to visit Djerba and the synagogue," Trabelsi argued. "Whether a visitor comes from Israel, or another country, is none of our business. It is always about the individual person"

Peaceful co-existence

In many areas, however, efforts are made to remain as apolitical as possible and to emphasise examples of successful co-existence between Jews and Muslims in Tunisia. Tunisia's chief rabbi, Haim Bittan, declared that the relationship between the Jewish minority and Muslim majority in the country is largely free of tension. "There has always been co-existence between Muslims, Christians and Jews who live in the same neighbourhood, without any problems," he stated.

The head of Djerba's Jewish community, Perez Trabelsi, also talked about the relationship in positive terms, and suggested that the pilgrimage preparations were a good example of this. Many Tunisian Muslims contribute to the success of the pilgrimage, Trabelsi noted. "I myself live more among [Tunisian] Muslims than among Jewish Tunisians," he explained. "Most of the people I work with in the synagogue are also Muslim."

Many local Muslims enjoy taking part in the Jewish festivities, Trabelsi added. In fact, they make up about a third of all visitors to the events. "They come to watch and to participate in the celebrations," the community leader enthused. "That's why it's such a unique event."

Visa problems for Israelis?

It is unclear whether other tensions in the Middle East or comments made by the country's increasingly authoritarian President Saied will have an impact on the total number of pilgrims from Israel this year. A few days before the pilgrimage began, Trabelsi admitted that there had been some complications with the issuing of visas to Israeli Jews. These days, however, Jewish people with Tunisian origins live in many other countries around the world, he continued.

"Regardless of political background, they all have the right to visit Djerba and the synagogue," Trabelsi argued. "Whether a visitor comes from Israel, or another country, is none of our business. It is always about the individual person."

Kerstin Knipp

© Deutsche Welle 2022

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