While the Iraqi military operation to retake the city of Mosul has again drawn attention to Christians’ struggle to live in the Middle East, another minority religion soldiers on in a predominantly Muslim country far to the West.
Though the Jewish population of Tunisia has plummeted to less than 1%, from 18% around the beginning of the Second World War, leaders insist that living in peace with Muslim Tunisians is the norm as they are riding out the current storm of Islamic extremism.
“Now there are around 1500 of us left in the country, and between 300 and 400 in Tunis,” Jacob Lellouche, a scholar and owner of kosher restaurant Lilie Mamy, told Vatican Insider. Lellouche was forced to temporarily close his restaurant after the Ministry of the Interior learned of threats against it by Salafists. That group, along with Wahabbists and adherents of the Islamic State, pose a threat to all Tunisians, Muslim or not, Lellouche said. “The Salafists, the Islamic extremists, resemble your ‘Red Brigades’ more than they do religious fanatics: young people who want to bring the attack to society and are using Islam or sections of the poor population that turn to Daesh to make money. What does faith have to do with it?”
Lellouche was the only Jew to run for the Constituent Assembly elections—he lost by a handful of votes.
Most of the Jewish population lives on the island of Djerba, but Vatican Insider visited the Great Synagogue, on Rue de Palestine in Tunis.
A Muslim history teacher is there waiting for us. Then, when we enter the headmaster Rabbi Batou Hattab’s office, we are received by the mathematics teacher, a young Lithuanian Protestant woman who will soon be walking down the aisle with a Tunisian man. This fascinating melting pot gives a very fitting introduction to the spirit of tolerance and sharing that is typical of Tunisian Jews.
“We have been here for millennia, we really feel we are citizens of this country,” Rabbi Hattab says, smiling behind his bushy beard. “We have never faced any serious problems here and I think that although Islamic extremism has become more widespread since the [Jasmine] Revolution, things are better now. Under Ben Ali, we, like all Tunisians, lived in fear of tomorrow. Now we feel freer. We still get on well with Muslims here.”
Rabbi Hattab knows Islamic extremism first-hand. One of the four people killed in the attack in a kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015 was his 21-year-old son, Yoav.
The rabbi is visibly moved as he shows us the commemoration poster depicting the young boy’s charming face. But he has not lost faith.
“They are not real Muslims, and I still believe it is possible to live in peace. When [French President Francois] Hollande received me, I asked for improved efficiency when it comes to security. Here at home, I think the police are doing a good job.”
Tunisia’s Jewish places, even those which are no longer in use for fear of acts of desecration, are under military surveillance 24/7.
Tunisian Jews do not feel like outsiders but deeply tied to the North African land. “We have been here since the Temple was first destroyed,” said Lellouche, who set up a Jewish museum above his restaurant. “Then the Christians arrived: Augustine, Cyprian and Tertullian, and finally, the Arabs and Islam. We were the majority. … Jews arrived in batches at different points throughout history. First with the Phoenicians, then from Palestine after the first and second destruction of the Temple, then from Europe because of the Inquisition and then from Turkey, from Spain… There has always been Jewish immigration to this land: Carthage, for example, is a word that comes from the Hebrew and means ‘new city.’ Then, a series of factors led to a continued exodus.”
The creation of the State of Israel triggered rifts throughout the Arab world and sparked fears on the one hand but on the other gave rise to opportunity to go to the “Promised Land,” the article points out. Then the country gained its independence from France, which triggered concerns among the Jewish community that they would no longer enjoy the same rights. Finally, the Six-Day War led to suspicions and serious friction between Arabs and Jewish communities present in all majority-Muslim societies. Tunis’s Grand Synagogue was set on fire and incidents were recorded across the country.
But [Habib] Bourguiba, the first president of an independent Tunisia, promised retaliation against anyone who even threatened Jews in the country.
As for Lellouche, the current Salafist and Wahhabi resurgence does not seem to frighten him much.
“I am a public figure and I want to remain so. If there is something that creates fear in our society, then it causes fear among all Tunisians,” he said. As he and the rabbi of Tunis’ Great Synagogue wait for more stability, they express confidence: “We need to share events with a greater spirit of openness and learn to reach out to others,” Lellouche said, “teaching young people to ask the previous generation for help.”