Tunisian Jew reads from the Torah in a synagogue in Tunis
Tunisian Jew reads from the Torah in a synagogue in Tunis Reuters

The Jewish community of Tunisia recently expressed its outrage over anti-Semitic comments made by Islamist groups that have emerged in the North African country in the wake of the revolution that toppled long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

During a visit to Tunisia, Ismail Haniyeh, the Gaza-based leader of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, was greeted at the airport by a crowd that chanted such slogans as “kick the Jews -- it’s our religious duty,” “expel the Jews -- it’s our religious duty,” and “kill the Jews -- it’s our religious duty.”

The Tunisians who shouted the hateful chants are believed to be Salafists, an extremely conservative Islamic sect which has close ties to Saudi Arabia.

Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and other senior government officials later met with Haniyeh.

However, some members of the moderate ruling Ennahda Party condemned the inflammatory language of the crowd.

Rachid Ghannouchi the leader of Ennahda, downplayed the incident by suggesting the negative remarks came from a small, lunatic fringe.

“Ennahda calls on Tunisians of all faiths to stand together and be united for the good of the country,” he said.

“Ennahda condemns these slogans which do not represent Islam’s spirit or teachings, and considers those who raised them as a marginal group,”

Haniyeh actually tried to distance himself from the extremist rhetoric as well.

He told reporters: “We are not against the Jews because they are Jews. Our problem is with those occupying the land of Palestine. There are Jews all over the world, but Hamas does not target them.”

However, according to TunisiaLiveNet, Jews in Tunisia are gravely concerned about the renewed climate of anti-Semitism in the country.

Ezekiel Haddad, a Hebrew teacher who lives in Djerba, complained:.”I don’t understand why the Tunisian government allowed someone with no political legitimacy to come to Tunisia and get the opportunity to tour the country with the welcome that he got.”

Haddad added: “Why is the Tunisian government destroying the goodwill with the world Tunisia has been building since the revolution? I don’t have a problem with Haniyeh visiting Tunisia as a person, but I disagree with the way his visit brought together the worst people in Tunisian society. I want the people who shouted ‘kill the Jews’ punished. All the Jews in Djerba are scared, uptight, and uncomfortable with what has happened, very few will speak truthfully of their level of fear now.”

Roger Bismuth, president of Tunisia’s Jewish community, told The Associated Press: “It is worse than bad, it is catastrophic for Tunisia -- particularly in regard to the repercussions that these attitudes provoke abroad,”

Similarly, an unnamed Jewish jeweler in Djerba lamented to TunisiaLive: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not our problem. I have grown up my whole life breaking bread with my Muslim neighbors, living freely with my Muslim friends. Tunisia has always been an open society and this visit by Haniyeh has caught our community completely by surprise.”

The jeweller also criticized the newly elected government for dragging its heels in condemning Haniyeh and his supporters.

”We don’t know what the government is going to do, they need to punish those who made those chants but since they have not they are tacitly endorsing their message -- that’s a big problem,” he said.

Tunisia depends heavily upon tourism, especially from Jews in Europe and the United States who flock to the country's beautiful Mediterranean beaches and many Jewish historical sites and synagogues. Indeed, Tunisia has long been considered highly secular, tolerant and liberal.

But tourism has remained stagnant since the revolution.

“Tourism was already really low and after Ennahda’s victory, it went even lower,” the jeweller said,

“It’s normal that if the government does not act fast the economy will crash, not just from losing Jewish tourists but because nobody will want to invest here.”

Broadly speaking, Rabbi Daniel Cohen of the Beit Mordechai Synagogue in La Goulette, sees a rise in anti-Jewish feeling in Tunisia.

“The problem between Israelis and Palestinians should not be a concern to Tunisia [to] such an extent that it has pushed some to become extremist and anti-Semitic,” he told media.

“I am sure the Tunisian government does not want this to happen, since even Ennahda cannot afford to have this type of extremism take over a section of the Tunisian community. This harms the country and jeopardizes the interests of Tunisia.”

Cohen added: “The Tunisian media must inform the public that there is no difference between Muslim and Jewish Tunisians, there should be no discrimination based on one’s creed.”

Tunisia is one of the few Arab Muslim countries that still has a significant Jewish community (which traces its origins back 2,000 years).

Before Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956, the local Jewish population numbered at least 100,000 people. However, after independence, the new government imposed a series of anti-Jewish measures, thereby creating much instability and gradually driving Jews out of the country, mostly to Israel and France.

For instance, in 1958, the Tunisian government abolished the Jewish Community Council and ordered the demolition of some ancient synagogues, cemeteries and Jewish quarters.

By 1967, the Jewish population totalled roughly 20,000. After Israel defeated the Arabs in the Six-Day war of that year, the Jewish exodus accelerated out of Tunisia, following a wave of attacks on Jews and the destruction and burning of Jewish-owned homes, businesses and synagogues.

In the 1980s there were periodic incidents of violence against Jews, but the government always acted decisively against the culprits and provided protection for the Jews and their property.

The number of Jews in Tunisia is now down to less than 2,000 – perhaps as little as 1500 -- most of whom either live in Tunis or Djerba (out of a total population of some 10.6-million). There are, by contrast, virtually no Jews left in neighboring Libya or Algeria.

In a faint sign of hope, last month, the new president of Tunisia Moncef Marzouki made a plea asking for Tunisian Jews to return to the country

It will be interesting to see how many, if any, Jews return to Tunisia, or to Libya for that matter, in view of the newly “democratized” governments in these nations.