Approximately 200 Jews began the traditional Lag b’Omer pilgrimage to an ancient African synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, this week despite purported threats of violence against individuals who undertook the journey, reports said. Tunisian officials instituted expansive security measures ahead of the planned trip, months after extremist Islamists killed 22 people in an attack on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, the nation's capital.
Tunisian authorities established security checkpoints on roads leading to Djerba, while police maintained a presence in the Jewish district of Hara Kbira, Agence France-Presse reported. Approximately 700 pilgrims, including hundreds of visitors from foreign countries, were expected to travel to Djerba for Lag b'Omer. The festival's exact origins are unknown, though it's traditionally considered a celebration of the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a second-century Jewish scholar and mystic.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes Lag b'Omer as "a Jewish holiday falling on the 33rd day of the Omer and commemorating the heroism of Bar Kokhba and Akiba ben Joseph." [The Omer is a seven-week period that begins on the second day of Passover.]
“I could not miss this,” one Israeli pilgrim of Tunisian descent, identified as a 54-year-old woman named Janet, told AFP. “It was important for me to make this pilgrimage, whatever the risks.”
The pilgrims lit candles and performed rituals at Djerba’s Ghriba synagogue, which was purportedly built in 586 B.C. Djerba was once home to approximately 100,000 Jews, but now is home to a community of about 1,500. Approximately 8,000 individuals made the trek to Djerba in 2002, but that number has dwindled to less than 1,000 this year after a 2002 suicide bombing and amid renewed threats of violence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Saturday that the Israeli government had obtained information on potential attacks against would-be pilgrims. Tunisian officials downplayed the threat this week and said security measures were in place to protect tourists and pilgrims during the festival.
“Tunisia is a safe country and Djerba too is a safe city. Visitors from the world over are welcome,” Tunisian Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli told reporters last Sunday, AFP reported. “What I am saying now is a response to many who cast doubt over Tunisia’s security and its capacity to secure celebrations.”
At least three gunmen carried out the March 18 attack in Tunis that killed 22 people from various European nations and harmed Tunisia’s crucial tourism industry. Tunisian authorities killed two gunmen at the scene and arrested dozens more in subsequent raids. A Tunisian official who oversees the Lag b’Omer pilgrimage said before the attack occurred that it was expected to draw thousands more tourists this year, AFP noted.