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April 21, 2014 / 21 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Tunisia’

Arab Moderation Murdered in Tunisia

Monday, February 11th, 2013

Originally published at Rubin Reports “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph in the world is that good men do nothing.” –Edmund Burke

And if the good men are murdered by the forces of political evil than they certainly cannot do anything. Hence, the outcome is assured.

Thus, the “Arab Spring” has just been murdered with bullets and hijacked amid bloodstains. Here is the list of countries in the Middle East area currently ruled by Islamists: Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Iran, Lebanon, and Turkey. Syria will probably join them soon. Qatar has a pro-Islamist policy. Morocco technically has an Islamist government though the king neutralizes it in practice. Saudi Arabia is ruled by a strict Islamic regime but opposes the revolutionary Islamists though its money often spreads their doctrines elsewhere. Everyone is being forced into Sunni or Shia Islamist camps, backing radical forces in other countries so that their religious allegiance can conquer.

In this situation, only in Tunisia could the non-Islamists win fairly conducted elections. But an election isn’t fair if one side uses violence to ensure its victory and its ability to transform the country into a social-political dictatorship afterward.

I know that whenever I write an article on Tunisia it will have fewer readers than other topics. That’s understandable from the standpoint that Tunisia is a small country with little international impact and limited U.S. interests.

Yet Tunisia was the country where the “Arab Spring” began. And Tunisia is going to be the place where the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Spanish Civil War will be fought. In other words, it is the only place where moderate and “secularist” forces are going to fight and the only country where the moderates have a majority of the population–though not a majority of the guns–behind them.

Given that bellwether factor, they have just suffered a massive defeat which is simultaneously a major victory for the Islamist forces.

Briefly, what people who believe the Arabic-speaking world is heading toward democracy don’t understand is that they have helped unleash forces quite willing to engage in violence and that will not stop until they’ve achieve a total triumph. It’s sort of like Pandora who opened the box to unleash its spiritual whirlwinds and said, “This ought to be interesting!”

That’s why the assassination of Choukri Belaid is so important. He was leader of the Democratic Patriot party and a leader of the Popular Front opposition coalition. While the story will be obscure in the West it is devastating for Tunisia, the Arab liberals, and the future of the region. Belaid was the single most outspoken and determined anti-Islamist leader in the country, and indeed the most important openly anti-Islamist politician in the entire Arabic-speaking world. He wasn’t the only moderate politician in Tunisia but he was the main one who rejected Islamist rule and warned against Islamist intentions.

And how did the Islamist-dominated coalition react? The moment the leading opposition figure—the man around whom an anti-Islamist coalition might have been built following the next elections–was murdered, it called for new elections.

Get it? The Brotherhood’s moderate coalition partners didn’t want elections now. And if you eliminate the tough moderate, those remaining may be more pliable about caving in. It was quite conceivable that the non-Islamists would get a majority in the next elections–as they did in the previous one. But a majority divided among four parties isn’t enough. Last time, the moderate parties got 60 percent but their disunity allowed the largest single party, the Brotherhood, to take control of the government coalition with only 40 percent of the vote.

But a man like Belaid might have forged a moderate coalition government that would keep the Brotherhood out of power. In other words, though he led only the fourth largest party, Belaid was the key to forcing the Brotherhood out of power by convincing the four moderate parties to work together against the Islamist threat. His elimination isn’t just a crime, but a political strategy.

As I predicted a few days ago, destroying the left is going to be the Islamists’ priority and Tunisia is the only country where the political left poses a danger to them. Elsewhere it is too weak, confined to isolated individuals and publications.

Two Years Later, Arab Spring’s Success Dubious

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012
It is now two years since the rude jolt that sent several Arab leaders hurtling to the hard ground of the reality that they themselves have had no small part in creating. Dozens of years of dictatorship, criminal neglect, political corruption, cronyism and nepotism, have turned the Arab world into a barrel of extremely explosive gun powder.  The Arab satellite media, especially Al Jazeera, the jihad channel of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been flooding the area with high octane gas fumes by broadcasting unrestrained propaganda against the Arab dictators – “the rulers of the 99 percent below zero” in their words – led by Mubarak, Asad, Qadhaffi and Saddam Hussein.
This channel served as the pyromaniac who carried the burning torch from one arena to another, from Tunisia to Egypt, from Libya to Yemen, from Bahrain to Syria as its spokesmen, headed by  the Emir of Qatar asked: “Who will be next?” The masses, addicted to this channel since the end of 1996, did what was expected of them by the people of the channel, chiefly the Emir of Qatar, Hamed bin Khalifa al-Thani, who built up tremendous power for himself by means of the  reckless satellite channel, which exerts control over the hungry, neglected, oppressed and wretched masses.
It is not within the scope of this article to give a detailed review of the last two years in each one of the states involved in the upheaval, but we shall mark the end point to which each of them arrived.
Tunisia – The Opening Shot
In December 2010, in the peripheral town of Sidi Bou Said, a young, unemployed man by the name of Muhammad bou Azizi immolated himself, and the flames ignited the fumes wafting around the Arab barrel of gun powder. The demonstrations caused president Zine al-Abadine bin Ali to flee the country, but not before he and his wife stole a ton and a half of gold from the central bank.
In elections held in 2011, the Islamic party, which had been banned until then, won first place. However, since it did not win a majority of seats in the parliament, it had to form a coalition with a secular party headed by Munsaf al-Marzouki, a liberal intellectual, who fought for years for human rights in Tunisia and lived in exile until 2011 because of his criticism of President bin Ali. The leader of the Islamic stream, Rashid al-Ghanoushi, offered  the secular al-Marzouki to serve as president of Tunisia, which made it easier for the secular sectors of society to accept the legitimacy of the new regime, even though the Islamic party was predominant.
From this point of view, the change in Tunisia is a source of inspiration, especially in light of the fact that it is the first experiment to create a democratic political system  after long years of the autocratic rule of presidents Bourugiba and bin Ali. The hopes of the citizens of Tunisia skyrocketed.
But the relative stability in the political arena did not bring about meaningful change in the life of the individual, especially in his economic situation. There are many reasons for this: the corrupt governmental system, large parts of which remain from the days of bin Ali and continued to conduct itself according to the practice of “a friend brings a friend”; the infrastructures are still in the same miserable state that they were in during bin Ali’s time; The investors do not rush to invest in initiatives in Tunisia that might create sources of livelihood; the economic crisis in Europe prevents significant growth  of production. The Tunisian citizen now understands that his political hopes, which were fulfilled well, did not translate into a significant improvement in his economic situation.
Another issue that did not undergo a meaningful change is the social stratification in Tunisia. The Tunisian population is polarized between the urban elite and the marginal layers that live in the agricultural suburbs and the desert, the greater part of whom live within a tribal framework. The city is much more open, secular and liberal than the periphery, which remain closed, religious and traditional.
The ethnic issue also has a negative influence on the sense of unity in Tunisia, because in addition to the Arabs who live there, there are also Berbers and Africans, who suffer from a negative image. This situation exists regardless of the regime and the change resulting from the removal of bin Ali has had no influence on the social stratification in Tunisia.
As a result of the economic difficulties, Tunisia has witnessed a series of protest demonstrations against the regime in recent months, mainly in the periphery. Things have even reached the point where President al-Mourzuki, who came last week to the town of Sidi Bou Said – the focal point from where the upheaval that eventually encompassed the Arab world began – in order to participate in a ceremony in memory of Muhammad Bou Azizi, was forced to retreat from the place because of the rocks that were rained down upon him, and because of the cries and curses that were hurled at him. He wanted democracy and got it right in his face, and the people wanted democracy but have now understood that it is not a money-printing machine.
There is not an optimistic forecast for Tunisia: the economic situation in the world in general and in Europe in particular is not expected to improve dramatically in the near future; the administration will not change its imbedded habits of corruption, and social stratification will continue to have a negative influence on opportunities for the country, especially for the youth who live in the social and economic periphery. The resentment that results from these flaws has a negative influence on political stability and the lack of stability may have a negative influence on investments and consequently on the economic situation as well.
For the Tunisian masses who support the Islamic movement it has become clear that the movement was no magic wand that can solve the country’s problems, and it is not clear if there is anything at all to the slogan “Islam is the Solution”, which was the watchword of the party.
Egypt – A Complicated Tangle
On the 25th of January, it will be two years since the beginning of the upheaval in Egypt. There are  are many significant accomplishments of the revolution: Mubarak, the corrupt dictator sits in the defendant’s cage, the heads of his government have been removed – some of them to prison – in disgrace, the Muslim Brotherhood has won the office of presidency and half of the seats of parliament, the military “has been put in its place” by an Islamic president, and even the president of the United States receives the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood as a fait accompli.
However, the situation in Egypt is complicated and complex on a number of levels:  the free youth of the revolution, the liberals, the secular, the educated and the unemployed, who with their bodies removed Mubarak and paid for the demonstrations against him in blood, have discovered that their revolution has been stolen from them. In their worst nightmares they did not foresee that the civil revolution would become an Islamic revolution. Women in casual shirts and jeans who demonstrated two years ago in Tahrir (“liberation”) Square did not expect that as a result of the revolution, representatives of the Salafist party, those who believe that “the best hijab for a woman is her house,” would occupy a quarter of the seats of parliament.
But the political disappointments – as great as they are – are much, much less disheartening than the economic ones. In Egypt too, most of the administration of the previous regime has remained in place, and it is filled with layers of hidden unemployment, excess employees, cumbersome bureaucracy, and nepotism. The chance that it will bring the country to a state of development and prosperity are no greater than in the days of Mubarak.
Tourism, which, in the days of Mubarak granted livelihood to millions of Egyptians, has disappeared and with it, this important source of livelihood for many Egyptians. These people today live far below the poverty line, which, in Egypt, is quite low to begin with. Foreign investors have refrained for the past two years from investing in Egypt, because the security situation is not stable and it is not clear to them if they will see any profit at all from their investment, which might go down the drain.
The lack of investments has a negative influence on the creation of new sources of employment for the masses of Egyptians who enter  the work force every year, to establish a family and to support it. The many unemployed university graduates who come up against the severe employment reality, cause an explosive social situation; the average age of  marriage is rising and has passed the 30 mark, establishing a family (“opening a home”) has become an impossible economic task for most of the youth and this is enough to launch them into the streets to let off the steam that has accumulated against the symbols of the regime, institutions of the state and police stations.
The constitution, which was recently approved, grants many authorities to the president at the expense of the other institutions, mainly the parliament, and it starts to smell like a dictatorship. Many – even among the religious sectors of society – ask if this is what the Muslim Brotherhood has come to power for.
The activity of parliament, which was elected about a year ago, was frozen by an edict of the court, and it doesn’t seem that the president is rushing to renew the activity of the parliament. He does not want to be called upon to answer embarrassing questions that might be addressed to him from parliament, which has authority  because it was chosen by democratic and fair elections. Morsi is not interested in a parliament that will pass budgetary laws that are not consistent with his opinion, and in general – the combination of a president with a clear cultural, social and political agenda and a parliament which is polarized within by various contradictory trends, is not a prescription for political stability, but rather for a dead end, with the two sides stuck in an embrace where each side sticks a knife into the other.
Two years after the upheaval in Egypt and this country seems like a rickety wagon with several formidable and powerful horses pulling it at full speed, but in different directions: the president, the constitutional committee, the members of parliament, the military, the government, which is always temporary, the secular street, the religious street, the Salafis and supporters of Mubarak.
The forecast for the future is not rosy, because the constitutional-governmental knot has a bad influence on the economy, which is collapsing in the first place, and the struggle for the cultural image of Egypt slips too many times into violence that causes more violence from the police and raises the ire of the public to levels reminiscent of the rage that accompanied the struggle against Mubarak.
In retrospect it could be that among the Muslim Brotherhood there are those who feel that it was a mistake on their part to try to drive the rickety Egyptian cart, because there is no chance to come to any positive goal, and they – despite inheriting a very difficult situation form Mubarak and Tantawi – will be identified with the failure.
Syria – The Next Massacre
For 21 months, since March of 2011, observers of the events have the sense that the collapse of Asad is near, and with his collapse the state will be broken up into homogeneous units: Kurds in the northeast of the country, Alawites in the west, Druze in the south, Bedouins in the East, Damascenes in the center and residents of Aleppo in the North. The idea that an autonomous Alawite unit might be established comes from information that the regime is streaming heavy weapons, ammunition and heavy equipment into the area of the mountains of Ansariyya in the West of the country, the traditional dwelling place of the Alawites, so that they will be able to defend themselves against the Muslims’ attack on the mountain and its inhabitants.
In recent days, information has begun to surface that units belonging to the Free Syrian Army are attacking the mountains of Ansariyya, and that tens of Alawite villages have been abandoned out of fear of Muslim knives that are filled with hatred for the Alawites and because of the Muslims’  strong desire to avenge upon them the deeds of slaughter that the regime has carried out against the citizens of Syria for the past two years, and also in previous periods, such as the period between 1976 and 1982, when the Muslim Brotherhood first arose, that ended in the slaughter of thousands of men, women and children in the city of Hama in February of 1982.
If this information is indeed correct and Asad’s opposition is indeed taking control of Ansariyya, this might be the physical end of the Alawaites and the end of their dream to control even themselves. The blood that will be spilled when the Muslims slaughter them will be much more than was spilled until today and it is not clear how much the world will feel compelled to help this group when push comes to shove and knives are at their throats.
What does this say about the future of Syria? It seems that Syria is sinking in a swamp of blood, fire and tears, as it is torn into pieces by hundreds of militias, some of which have cultural and religious orientation identical to that of bin Laden and al-Qaeda. This development might be very problematic for Israel because neighbors like these do not bode well and if heavy weapons or weapons of mass destruction fall into their hands, Israel might find itself  in the near future coping with threats that it is not used to.
Libya – Tribal Wars
In this country, stricken by tribalism, a coalition of tribes together with massive  NATO support succeeded to remove Qadhaffi, but since he was eliminated by his opposition more than a year ago, Libya has become an arena for battles between tribes over economic and governmental interests  and for territory and influence. Eastern tribal headquarters – Cyrenaica – are fighting against the tribes of the West – Tripolotania, and the southern tribes are enemies of all the others.
Libyan society is polarized also on an ethnic basis, around the Arab-Berber split that has economic and governmental implications as well. The prediction is that as long as Libya continues to be one state it will continue to be an arena for tribal struggles. Why? Because – that’s the natural situation between tribes, and especially those that live in the Sahara, who for hundreds of years and more, have developed strong and dangerous “atsabiyya” (tribal rivalry) , mainly towards “the other” (anyone who is different from him). The fact that weapons are widespread in the Libyan desert means that the violence inherent to the culture of the region, is turning the matter into something particularly deadly.
Qatar – Hypocrisy At its Worst
The upheaval in the Arab world is the result of a basically terrible situation created by the regimes, an atmosphere of enmity toward the regimes created by the Al Jazeera channel and the huge fire that Muhammad bou Azizi ignited. During the past two years, the principality of Qatar has been, and still is involved up to its neck in funding the chaos and sending various types of support to Libya and Syria, and the Al Jazeera channel, which is the operative agent, ignites the problem in Arab countries by calling for democracy, human rights and freedom of expression in these countries.
But Qatar itself cannot stand up to Al Jazeera’s standards when it comes to democracy: in the beginning of this December, the Qatari court sent a 36-year old poet by the name of Muhammad ben al-Dhiab  al-Ajami to prison for life, because while he praised the revolutions in the Arab world, he also criticized the Emir of Qatar. Al-Ajami went even further and called for revolution in Qatar, even though he knew that the punishment for this is death.
If the Emir of Qatar does not pardon al-Ajami, he will be inviting sharp criticism from anyone who has a mouth and a tongue in the Arab world, but he will pay no heed to the criticism and will continue to encourage the Muslim Brotherhood to take control of the rest of the countries of the Arab world, while shutting mouths in his own back yard.
A General Picture
Two years after the beginning of the upheaval in the Arab world, the  picture does not arouse too much optimism. The rulers of still more countries are standing on shaky ground, and the wave may reach them too.
Israel again appears as an island of stability and sanity in a roiling and stormy sea, where rickety boats are about to sink along with their inhabitants. May Allah save the Arab peoples.

Originally published at Middle East and Terrorism. Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav.

Kidnapping Plot Against Tunisian Jewish Community Reportedly Foiled

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

A network plotting to kidnap and ransom members of a southern Tunisia town’s Jewish community was broken up by the country’s national guard, a Tunisian newspaper reported.

The network was started by a police officer who was formerly responsible for protecting the Jewish community, according to the report  in Al Hacad, a Tunisian weekly. The officer was reportedly recruiting young Tunisians to take part in a kidnapping operation that aimed to force Tunisian Jews to leave the country. He had a car registered in Libya as well as firearms stockpiled.

A Jewish resident of the southern Tunisian town of Zarzis told JTA that extra security measures had been taken up by the national guard in the Jewish neighborhood, where about 100 Jews live.

“I was wondering why we had a new army truck stationed about 40 meters from our synagogue for the past week, and then I read about this,” he said.

The police officer reportedly was known for being involved in an Islamic extremist group and was plotting to carry out a kidnapping operation on a Friday evening when local Jews spend Shabbat on the beach.

After the plot was foiled, all those behind it were arrested. The case has been referred to the Court of First Instance in Tunis.

While relations between Muslims and Jews in Zarzis have been relatively calm in recent years, there have been past incidents where the Jewish community was the target of violence.  In 1982 the synagogue in Zarzis was torched, and Torah scrolls were destroyed in the blaze. The arson attack was considered a response to the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon.

The Trouble with Tunisian Values

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

Like millions of people around the world, Jamel Gharbi marked the end of summer by taking his family to the beach. Gharbi, a French Socialist regional councilor, had taken his wife and 12 year old daughter back to the Tunisian city where he had been born and had lived until the 1970s before moving to France.

The tide of the Arab Spring had washed over Tunisia and left Gharbi’s homeland a very different place. Furious Salafi Islamists attacked them for wearing shorts, offending Islamic values. When Gharbi tried to defend his family, he barely escaped with his life.

Bertrand Delanoe, the Socialist mayor of Paris, condemned the attack as the work of an “extremist minority” in contradiction to “Tunisian values.” “The Tunisian people I know,” he said, “are committed to tolerance, democracy, pluralism and human rights.”

Secretary-General Jean-Francois Cope, of the French conservative UMP opposition, agreed that the Tunisian people were not to blame. The perpetrators, he said, only “pretend to be animated by religious convictions,” and dubbed them fanatics and extremists who “do not represent the people of Tunisia.”

The peculiar phenomenon of Bertrand Delanoe and Jean-Francois Cope telling the Tunisian people what their values are is not limited to Gallic shores. As the tides follow the moon, Muslim terrorist attacks are followed by Western leaders asserting that the terrorists do not represent Islam and its tolerant values.

When Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square Bomber, appeared for sentencing, he declared, “If I am given a thousand lives, I will sacrifice them all for the sake of Allah, fighting this cause, defending our lands, making the word of Allah supreme over any religion or system.”

Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum told Faisal Shahzad that he needed to “spend some of the time in prison thinking carefully about whether the Koran wants you to kill lots of people.” The trouble was that Faisal Shahzad had already decided what his religion had to say about killing lots of people. Similarly the Tunisian people had already decided what their values are.

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia when a male vendor shamed at being struck by a female police officer set himself on fire. It ended with the election of an Islamist party and murderous violence at the sight of a 12-year-old girl wearing shorts.

The Islamist Al-Nahda Party won a landslide victory in 2011 with more votes than every major party combined. It was the only party to cross the one-million vote mark and its popularity is undeniable. Tunisian values, which may not be pluralistic or democratic after all, are the secret to its success.

In an Al-Jazeera poll, nearly half of Tunisians identified strongly with Islamism, while less than 20 percent identified with either Arab nationalism or liberalism. Numbers like these have made the outcome of the Arab Spring inevitable, along with the accompanying attacks on 12-year-old girls and expat Socialists.

The Al-Nahda Party, described with the obligatory “moderate” soubriquet in news articles, has proposed blasphemy laws that come with harsh prison sentences, and one of its constitutional articles defines women as inferior to men. Al-Nahda’s view of women can be gleaned from Rachid Ghannouchi, the intellectual leader of the movement, who praised the mothers of suicide bombers as “a new model of woman.”

Democracy is the truest test of a nation’s values. The Secretary-General of the UMP may be convinced of the moderate values of the Tunisian people, but the Secretary-General of Al-Nahda, Hamadi Jebali, was equally convinced that Al-Nahda’s victory was a harbinger of the Sixth Caliphate.

The values of the Tunisian people turned Hamadi Jebali from a prisoner into the leader of the dominant Tunisian political party and from there into the Prime Minister of Tunisia. The Arab Spring’s democratic elections have been the acid test of whether Tunisian values and Egyptian values are truly those of “Tolerance, democracy, pluralism and human rights.” And the verdict is in.

It took official protests from French leaders for the new Tunisian Islamist government to condemn the attack on Jamel Gharbi. The actual attackers are still not in custody, and the inaction of the police is becoming routine in a country where Islamist thugs dispensing vigilante Sharia justice are swiftly becoming the law.

Tunisian Spring Is Turning Into a Jewish Winter

Saturday, September 1st, 2012

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.

Tunisian Boy “Brave” for Refusing to Compete With Israeli in Chess

Monday, May 7th, 2012

A ten year-old Tunisian boy is gaining fame across the Aram world for having refused to compete against an Israeli opponent in the World School Chess Championship.

The eighth annual competition took place in Romania, with 640 participants competing.  Rather than compete against an Israeli, Tunisian Muhammad Hamida withdrew from the competition.

Director of the Ministry of Youth and Sports in Gaza, Ahmed Machisan, called the forfeiture a “show of bravery”, according to a report in Ynet.

Tunisia to Jews: Keep Coming to Djerba for Lag B’Omer

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

The annual Jewish Lag B’Omer pilgrimage to the oldest synagogue in Africa should be maintained as a symbol of Tunisian openness, according to Tunisia’s tourism minister on Tuesday.

Jews have been living on the island of  Djerba since 500 BC, with the local synagogue believed to be the oldest in Africa.  In the 1960s, Tunisia’s Jewish community numbered 100,000.  Most Jews left following the 1967 Six Day War.  Now, almost all of Tunisia’s 1,500 Jews reside on the island near the border of Libya.  Djerba was once called the “Island of Cohanim” because so many of the Jewish families there could trace their ancestry back to Moses’ brother Aaron, the first High Priest and father of the priestly class.

Elyes Fakhfakh’s public support for the annual Jewish event comes as the rise of fundamentalist Islamic Salafi groups threatens to drive out Tunisia’s remaining Jewish population.  Anti-Semitic rhetoric has increased since the overthrow of longtime president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 as part of the Arab Spring.  Unrest in Tunisia led to the cancellation of Lag B’Omer events that year.  Several thousand Jews – many of whom immigrated to France from Tunisia – are anticipated to attend this year.  On March 9-10, they will celebrate the victory of the Jews over the Romans prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, as well as the passing of the writer of the mystical Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

Fakhfakh called the annual Jewish celebration in Djerba a rite which “should not change because it illustrates the openness of Tunisia to the world.”  Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali of the Ennahda party Monday concurred with Fakhfakh, saying “the Jewish pilgrims are welcome to Djerba”.

On April 11, Tunisian President Moncep Marzouki, accompanied by Tunisian grand rabbi Haim Bitan, laid a wreath and observed a moment of silence to remember the victims of an Al-Qaida truck bombing, which killed 21 people at the El Djerba synagogue on Djerba ten years ago.  Included in the killings were 16 tourists – 14 from Germany and 2 from France.  At the event, Marzouki called discrimination against Jews and attacks on their person or property “forbidden” and called Jews “an integral part of our people.”

On March 25, Salafi activists demonstrated in favor of the implementation of sharia Islamic law, chanting slogans to “prepare for the fight against the Jews”.

Under the rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Jews enjoyed official protected status, a privilege which has not been renewed by the new Islamist government.

Tunisia’s Jews Fear Erosion By Islamists Of Country’s Moderate Tradition

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

TUNIS – More than a year after Tunisia became the first Arab country to overthrow its dictator through a popular, nonviolent uprising, two political movements are challenging Tunisia’s cosmopolitan political and social attitudes, and are threatening to reverse the country’s longstanding moderation toward Israel and Jews.

In October, the Islamist Ennahda party won 43 percent of the vote in Tunisia’s first post-uprising parliamentary elections, putting an explicitly religious party in charge of a country with a secular and republican tradition.

Although Ennahda in late March officially dropped its demand for Islamic law in the country’s new constitution, many Tunisians still fear that the party could take the country in an uncomfortably radical direction.

Party co-founder Rached Ghannouchi has publicly praised the mothers of suicide bombers and spoken about “the extinction of Israel.”

Tunisia also has a growing and increasingly vocal Salafist movement. Tunisia’s Salafists are Islamic fundamentalists inspired by Saudi Arabia’s restrictive version of political Islam who felt oppressed by the secular, republican character of the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes. On March 23, Salafist protesters chanted anti-Semitic slogans in downtown Tunis, provoking a tense standoff with a group of artists gathered in front of Tunisia’s national theater.

Every major political party, including Ennahda, condemned the Salafists. A week later, Salafists called for a ban on normalization with Israel in a protest in front of the National Assembly building in Tunis.

So far, Tunisia’s moderate and secular political culture has kept the Salafists on the social and political fringes while frustrating Ennahda’s ambitions for an overtly Islamic constitution. And as far as the Jews are concerned, Tunisian moderation has endured during the transitional period.

Tucked on a quiet side street blocks from the Mediterranean Sea, the last kosher restaurant in the Tunisian capital is a thriving center of Jewish tradition in a country of 10 million with nearly an entire Arab and Muslim population.

Yet Jacob Lellouche, who has owned and operated Mamie Lily since it opened 16 years ago, says his business is hardly a Jewish bubble.

Most of his customers are Muslim, and on a recent Thursday night, the restaurant’s cozy dining room is dominated by a large party of Tunisians sipping boukha – a fig-based liquor that Tunisian Jews traditionally drink on the Sabbath – while chattering in Arabic and French.

Lellouche says the guests are liberal activists who have come to the restaurant to draft a statement on freedom of speech in the aftermath of the revolution that toppled Zine Abdine Ben Ali’s regime in January 2011.

“The civil society in Tunisia sustained the Jewish community of this country,” says Lellouche, explaining that relations between Tunisia’s educated and politically engaged citizens and the country’s 1,500 Jews have always been mutually beneficial. “As long as there are Jews in the world there will be Jews in Tunisia,” he says.

Located just 80 miles off the coast of Sicily, Tunisia has been colonized by foreign powers from the Roman Empire to modern France. But unlike other countries with a long colonial history, Tunisia has historically been a place where Middle Eastern and European values and ideas have converged, reinforcing one another without causing conflict or social discord.

Educated Muslim Tunisians acknowledge that Jews are a crucial part of this history. “The Jews came to Tunis and developed commerce and trade here, and many came after they were expelled from Iberia,” says Abdel-Hamid Larguech, a history professor at Manoura University. “These were factors in how Tunisia became more cosmopolitan.” Kedya Ben Saidane, who has researched the country’s Berber community, claims Berbers living in Tunisia first began practicing Judaism nearly 3,000 years ago.

Modern Tunisia has had a history of moderation on Israel-related issues. In 1965, Habib Bourguiba, the president from 1957 until 1987, caused a brief crisis in relations between Tunisia and several other Arab governments when he outlined a plan for recognizing Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Official diplomatic contact between Israel and Tunisia, established in 1996, lasted just four years, yet Tunisia does not take as hard line a position on the Jewish state as other Arab countries.

“Tunisian Israelis come here with no problem at all,” says Rabbi Haim Bittan, the leader of the small Jewish community in Tunis, adding that travel to Israel is fairly routine for the country’s Jews. Tunisia is also one of the few Arab countries accessible to Israeli passport holders, despite the lack of official recognition. Yet since Ben Ali’s ouster, there have been hints that Tunisia’s moderation – and its moderate position toward Israel – could be eroding.

“Ennahda’s election favored the emergence of a new fundamentalist section of the society, the extremists,” Larguech says. “And the two enemies of the democratic revolution are populism and extremism.”

Ennahda confirmed moderates’ fears by proposing a constitutional ban on normalization of ties with Israel during a mock parliament held just after Ben Ali’s ouster. A year later there is almost no mainstream support for such a provision. Ennahda, which has proven responsive to the criticism from the country’s large secular-liberal wing, also now opposes the normalization ban.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/middle-east/tunisias-jews-fear-erosion-by-islamists-of-countrys-moderate-tradition/2012/04/04/

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