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Tunisia Leader Facing Flack Over Jewish Pilgrimage to El Ghriba

Tourism professionals determined that “the pilgrimage to Ghriba must be successful for the tourist season to be successful.”
The interior of the El Ghriba synagogue -- the oldest synagogue in North Africa -- on the Tunisian island of Djerba in 2009.

The interior of the El Ghriba synagogue -- the oldest synagogue in North Africa -- on the Tunisian island of Djerba in 2009.
Photo Credit: Hegor / Wikimedia Commons

Just one day after Tunisia’s leader urged officials not to make a fuss over normalization of ties with Israel, the country’s parliament voted to “interview” its tourism minister for deciding to allow Israelis to participate in the annual Lag B’Omer pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba.

The elected National Constituent Assembly (NCA) has announced it will question Tourism Minister Amel Karboul over the decision to allow Israelis to enter Tunisia.  Also to be “interviewed” will be Security Minister Sefar Ridha, according to international media reports.

“Our problem is not with our Jewish brothers who come for the pilgrimage but with the Zionist entity that occupies Palestinian territories,” said leftist Democratic Alliance head Mohammed Hamdi.

Since the country’s Jasmine Revolution in January 2011, Tunisia has struggled with a massive economic crisis.  Interim Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa warned the parliament Tuesday it was in Tunisia’s best interest to “make the tourist season a success, because tourism is one of the activities that brings immediate cash to the country.”

Of those activities, Jomaa noted, tourism professionals have determined “the pilgrimage to Ghriba must be successful for the tourist season to be successful.” He added, “This is a tradition known to us – the pilgrimage has been taking place for years.”

The tourism industry in Tunisia employs some 400,000 people and accounts for seven percent of the GDP.  Jomaa’s decision to create a policy of tourism “transparency” means that Israelis can for the first time use their official passports to enter the country for the pilgrimage, rather than a specific Tunisian embassy-issued document.

Tunisia had “offices of interest” in Tel Aviv in 1996, and Israel had one in Tunis as well. Those ties were established just two years after the closure of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters which had existed in Tunisia for the twelve years prior.  But the fragile ties established between Tunisia and Israel were torn apart in October 2000 when the PLO succeeded in launching the second intifada in Israel – prompting Tunis to freeze ties in a protest against Israel’s efforts to quell the violence.

For years Jews have gone to Tunisia for the pilgrimage, with or without formal Israeli-Tunisian diplomatic ties. But an Al Qaeda terror attack on the synagogue in 2002 left 21 people dead, and killed the tourist event for the next decade. The Jasmine Revolution and the Arab Spring did the rest.

About the Author: Hana Levi Julian is a Middle East news analyst with a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Southern Connecticut State University. A past columnist with The Jewish Press and senior editor at Arutz 7, Ms. Julian has written for Babble.com, Chabad.org and other media outlets, in addition to her years working in broadcast journalism.


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