When Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom publicly urged Tunisia's remaining Jews to move to Israel last week, he got a chilly reception from both the country's tiny Jewish community and the Islamist party Ennahda, which won Tunisia's recent election.
"Tunisia was, is and will be a democratic country that respects its citizens and cares for them regardless of their religion," Ennahda said in a statement. The head of the Jewish community, Joseph Roger Bismuth, added that "no foreign party has the right to intervene in Tunisia's affairs, including those of the Jewish community that has lived in this land for 3,000 years. The Jewish community loves Tunisia and isn't considering leaving."
Only some 1,800 Jews remain in Tunisia, where Shalom was born. About two-thirds of them live on the island of Djerba, home of the famous El Ghriba synagogue, which has been in continuous use since the first century C.E.
The access road to Djerba's Jewish quarter is guarded by a military checkpoint, and the El Ghriba synagogue, which has twice suffered terror attacks, looks like a fortress.
Nevertheless, there is no feeling of fear or persecution in the Jewish quarter. Kosher shops stay open late into the night, and Jews have no qualms about walking around in skullcaps. Every Saturday night, dozens of young Jews gather to play soccer at the island's stadium with no guards present.
During the reign of Tunisia's two dictators, Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, "Jews were protected citizens," one Jewish resident said. "There was even an absurd situation in which if a Jew had a legal dispute with a Muslim, the Jew usually won. Now, we no longer know what will happen. Meanwhile, everything is calm, and the military is guarding us more closely than ever. But our real fear is of the day when Israel once again launches some big military operation in Gaza. Will the army also protect us then, if an inflamed mob storms the neighborhood?"
So far, only about 10 families plan to move to Israel in the next few months. "I no longer want to under anyone's protection," said the father of one such family.
But most feel they have it good in Tunisia, both economically - Jews dominate the business of making jewelry for tourists - and religiously.
Still, one rumor did worry the community: that the committee drafting Tunisia's new constitution planned to include a clause forbidding travel to Israel.
At its peak in the early 1950s, Tunisia's Jewish community numbered some 110,000 people, many of whom ended up in Israel. Thus most of those who remain have relatives here.
Jacob Lellouche, who runs a restaurant in Tunis, is one of the approximately 300 Jews in Tunisia's capital. Most are elderly, and Ennahda, conscious of its image, sent flowers to the city's Jewish old-age home on Yom Kippur, which fell during the height of election season. Lellouche feels the fall of Tunisia's dictator will actually open new opportunities for its Jews.
He himself ran in the elections for a liberal party that didn't make it into parliament. But he was happy nevertheless - because "a Jew could run for election here, and no one cared."
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