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Tunisian President Asks Jews to Return

Samara Greenberg

New Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, the secular counterweight to the dominant Islamist Ennahda party, this week held a meeting with Tunisian Grand Rabbi Haim Bittan and called for the country’s Jews who fled over the last 50 years to return, stating that Tunisia’s Jews are full citizens. The call follows a statement released by Ennahda nearly two weeks go, which said that the Jews of Tunisia are “citizens enjoying all their rights and duties.”

Tunisia’s 1,500-member Jewish community, mostly concentrated on the island of Djerba, is treating its country’s new developments with uncertainty. Unlike in other Arab countries, Jews in Tunisia were relatively protected by the former regime and openly anti-Semitic acts were rare. Not anymore. In May, due to security fears, the Jewish community cancelled its annual Lag B’Omer pilgrimage to Djerba’s El Ghriba synagogue. And in September, vandals attacked Synagogue Beth-El located in the city of Sfax.

Inside Tunisia’s El Ghriba synagogue

Members of the Jewish community also face Marzouki and Ennahda’s warm comments with skepticism, calling them “opportunists.” According to one member of the Djerba community, “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.”

Tunisia is the birthplace of the 2011 Arab uprisings and the first to hold free elections among the countries affected. Rumor has it that the new constitution, which the Islamist-led parliament will draft in the coming year, will forbid travel to Israel, impacting the Jewish community from visiting family there. But being the first, the new Tunisian parliament has a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a constitution that will set the standard for other ‘Arab Spring’ countries to follow. Its message should be one of acceptance and tolerance.