Back in December, Tunisia-born Vice Prime Minister of Israel Silvan Shalom called on the Jews still living in Tunisia to immigrate to Israel. That call was rejected with much derision by the remnants of Tunisia’s once thriving Jewish community.
But with new legislation being proposed in the Islamist Ennahda led government, Tunisian Jews may need to rethink their loyalty to a country that no longer wants them.
The Tunisian Parliament is working to pass a law that will prohibit the import of religious books, kosher food, and even visitors from Israel.
The Jews of Tunisia are working to reach a compromise with the government to prevent the parliament from passing the law in a few months time.
In an interview with Makor Rishon, Rav Haim Biton, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in Tunisia said, “Today, the government lets us bring in food, medicine, religious and educational books from Israel. If this law passes, our condition will completely change.”
He continued on to say that they are trying to explain to the government that if the law passes, in a few months from now, their relatives from Israel won’t be able to visit, they will not have much needed kosher food items, and, of course, they won’t be able to bring in religious and educational materials.
Other community members were less optimistic as they believe this is the government trying to cut off Jews from their culture. “Behind this law to prohibit the import of kosher products and visiting relatives is their desire to cut off our connection to Israel,” they said.
In November, Tunisia passed a separate law limiting NGOs to importing medicine only from foreign sources in with diplomatic ties with Tunisia, which, obviously, excluded Israel.
Despite the fact that the new proposed law hasn’t yet been passed, Israeli citizens who have requested permission to visit Tunisia recently have been repeatedly turned down, while eight months ago, they could visit.
Tunisia’s Jewish community is divided over the best way to fight the proposed legislation: quietly and behind the scenes, or with public petitions.
The opposition to the petition proposal sees no chance the law will pass, with less than two months before the end of the term of the interim government. They prefer to keep a low profile and to avoid conflicts with the new government.
Tunisia is set to hold elections on October 23rd, assuming they don’t delay them again as they did in July. If this law passes, it will be a clear failure of Tunisia’s fledgling democracy and its ability to protect the basic rights of its minority citizens.
At its peak Tunisia had 110,000 Jews. Fewer than 2000 Jews remain today in one of the Diaspora’s oldest Jewish communities, which some sources say was first settled by Jews around the time the First Temple was destroyed.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Levites living in Djerba, Tunisia, didn’t listen to Ezra the Scribe’s call to return to Israel. Maybe this time Tunisia’s Jews should listen to Silvan Shalom.Stephen Leavitt