The Jews of Djerba Are Waiting to See What the New Tunisia Has in Store

The first drasha I have ever heard in Arabic was here at El Ghriba synagogue, the oldest Jewish house of prayer in continuous use in the world. Walking in, I discovered that it’s also a contender for the most heavily protected synagogue in the world.

DJERBA, Tunisia - "The synagogue is closed today" said the rifle-toting officer standing in the gateway. I was nonplussed. You expect some degree of security restrictions at the entrance to a site that has twice been attacked by terrorists over the last 30 years. But closing a synagogue on Shabbat morning seems a trifle drastic. "But I want to pray," I pleaded with him, hoping that would somehow set me apart from the camera-laden German tourists who had just driven up in a taxi. "Are you a Jew?" he asked and as I answered in the affirmative, I reflected that this was probably the only place in an Arab country that being a member of the faith actually gave me an advantage. He looked at my British passport skeptically and for a moment I thought he was going to demand I recite the Shema or prove my Jewishness in some other incontrovertible way. After five minutes of consultation with unseen colleagues in the guard-house, I was waved through.

The current El Ghriba synagogue, on the isle of Djerba, was built in the 19th century, but by tradition, there has been a synagogue on the site for almost 2,000 years, making it the oldest Jewish house of prayer in continuous use in the world. It is also a serious contender for the most heavily protected synagogue in the world. Until last weekend, I thought that title belonged to Neve Shalom in Istanbul. Eight years ago, I attended Friday night prayers there with two friends. We had to fax our passports to a special office 24 hours in advance and entering the place, via a series of bomb-proof chambers, was like going through the airlocks of a space station. Upon leaving, an entire company of Turkish gendarmes secured the street outside.

tunisia - AP - March 30 2006

To picture the security around El Ghriba, you have to imagine a small desert fortress of the Foreign Legion, complete with tiny guard towers. The Tunisian government built it after Al Qaida set off a truck laden with explosives in 2002 by the synagogue, killing 21 people, most of them German tourists.

Finally inside the courtyard, I was surprised to find no one and feared that the place really was closed but there were voices wafting from inside. The first room was also empty but a row of shoes indicated the presence of members of the community inside. Eight days earlier, reporting from a Muslim Brotherhood rally in Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque, I also had to enter barefoot. There I was given a number, so my boots wouldn't be lost among thousands; here there was no such fear. Only a dozen pairs stood outside the inner sanctum.

Drasha in Arabic

Inside a few men lolled on the benches while one young man, performed both as cantor, and read the Torah portion (parshat va-yetze ) and delivered a 20-minute sermon - the first drasha I have ever heard in Arabic. As the service drew on, my neighbors' eyes steadily closed until I feared that a few of them would begin snoring. At mussaf, they managed to haul themselves to their feet for a couple of minutes before falling back again into near-slumber. I was so depressed by the desultory proceedings that I left just before the end.

"You should have called me on Friday," laughed Mordehai Madar when I spoke to him that evening, "I would have told you that El Ghriba is a museum. Only a few people live in the small quarter in Er-Riad; they can barely muster a minyan. If you had come to Kharat Kabira, you would have found a dozen packed synagogues." And to prove his claim, he took me to the local sports arena which on Saturday night is reserved for the local Jewish community, and was teaming with children of all ages and young men, a few of them wearing kippot, playing or watching three simultaneous games of football.

Some 1,300 Jews live on the island of Djerba, and according to Madar, who runs the local Jewish high school, "everyone here keeps Shabbat and kashrut, no one marries out and we are totally self-sufficient. We have everything we need here: kosher shops, restaurants and butchers, rabbis, a mohel, a sofer, teachers and over 300 children in our schools."

Sixty years ago, 110,000 Jews lived throughout Tunisia. Today only a few hundred live in the capital of Tunis; most of them also have homes in France, while the only viable community remains the one in Djerba. They attribute their longevity partly to their relative isolation, far away from the capital and politics, and from the tourist trade on the island. The Jews manufacture all the jewelry sold to tourists in the island's markets and El Ghriba is one of the major attractions for many visitors.

'Nothing is certain'

Although the Djerba community is only a quarter of the size it once was, the Jews there believe they still have a future - despite the new situation, with the old government that traditionally protected the Jewish community overthrown and a new Islamist-dominated coalition in power. The Jewish quarter is under constant army security, with checkpoints and soldiers at its main entrances.

"President Ben Ali actually discriminated in the Jews' favor" says one community member. "If there was a legal dispute with a Muslim, the Jew would almost always win. With the new government, nothing is certain. They have said that the Jews will be respected but what if Israel has another war in Gaza? Will they stop people from rioting here in the Jewish quarter?"

The new Tunisian parliament is to spend the next year drafting a new constitution and one rumor circulating is that it will forbid citizens from visiting Israel. Since all the Jews in Djerba have family in Israel, this would be a major blow. For now though, most of the community is staying put; only a handful of families are planning to emigrate. "I don't know what the future holds but I have decided that I don't want to live on anyone's sufferance any longer" said the father of one of these families.

Two months ago, on Yom Kippur, the Islamist party Ennahda sent flowers to the Jewish retirement home in the capital Tunis, as a sign of their tolerance of minorities. Tunisia's Islamists are being called "moderates" in the western media and they are aware of being under international scrutiny. The fate of the Jews of Djerba may be a kind of litmus test. Whether the community continues to thrive or whether all that remains in a few years is a museum-cum-synagogue at El Ghriba will be an important indicator of how the new Islamist-majority governments in the region plan to govern.