Along a central Tunis street, the bustle of shops, stalls and cafes stops abruptly for a stretch of barbed wire, police guards and army patrols in front of a grand, white building. After a passport check and some polite but careful questioning, a Tunisian security official escorts me round to the off-street side. There, the official introduces me to a bearded man at the back-door of the building; as a visiting British journalist and, in slightly lowered tones, as “also Jewish”.
This is the entrance to the Grand Synagogue, built in 1937, in what was the historic Jewish neighbourhood of Lafayette, Tunis. Inside, the bright orange and blue dome is flanked with a stained glass window bearing a giant Star of David. Switching from Arabic to Hebrew, his voice echoing around this cavernous synagogue, rabbi Binyamin Hatab says the congregation here once reached a thousand – with the women segregated on the upper floor. Now, just over a dozen men and boys gather to pray on the last evening of the Jewish festival of Sukkot (which marks the year Jews spent in the desert after exodus from slavery in Egypt). The only woman present, I am seated in an adjoining room and asked not to take notes or pictures, in honour of the holy day. As the men sing in Hebrew to an Arabic melody, the sound of the Muslim call to prayer rises from a nearby mosque.
Tunisia’s Jewish community, which dates back three millennia, used to number over 100,000 but has dwindled to 1500, in a country with a population of over 10 million. The creation of Israel in 1948 and Tunisian independence from French rule in 1956 were both factors in the exodus, mostly to those two countries. Now, after the ouster of reviled dictator Zine el AbidineBen Ali and as the country counts the votes for its first free elections, which were held on Sunday and have left the country's moderate islamist party Ennahda with the greatest share of the vote, this tiny community is cautious over what lies ahead.
“We have absolutely no problems living here,” says Roger Bismuth, 85, head of Tunisia’s Jewish community. “In periods like this we worry a little, because of the [Islamist] religious parties who have an agenda that may not be so good for us.”
The concerns are over a potential rise in power of Tunisia ’s previously banned Islamic Ennahda Renaissance) party, predicted to take a chunk of the votes. Ennahda campaigned over moderate, pluralist credentials, but secular Tunisians worry it could impose a religious agenda on a society that is one of the most liberal in the Arab world.
Ben Ali, for all his corruption and abuses, maintained the Tunisian rulers’ tradition of safeguarding the Jewish community. “If the situation remains OK, we can continue to live freely and happily,” says Bismuth.
Earlier this year, a small crowd presumed to be Salafists – who follow conservative, strict Islamic teachings – demonstrated outside the Grand Synagogue and chanted anti-Jewish slogans, prompting security to be tightened to current levels. Back then, Bismuth described the incident as isolated and urged the Jewish community “not to panic needlessly”. The Israeli government took a different tack and, after the Tunisian revolution, wanted the Jewish community to emigrate. But the offer was refused amidst accusations of interference. “People living in Tunisia now don’t want to go,” says Bismuth. “I love to live here and will never leave my community, my country. We are very attached to our country and want to remain as normal citizens.”
Among those sharing this sense of place is Jacob Lellouche, the only Jewish candidate to contest the elections, representing the small, newly formed Republican People’s Union (UPR), a leftist party. It is one of over 100 new parties that took part in the elections. “I decided to become involved because I want to preserve the idea in Tunisian minds that the minorities – be they Jewish, Christian, Bahai, Black or anything else – can be involved in political life as they have been for years,” says 50-year-old Lellouche. “People made this revolution happen because they want democracy and dignity. If you look for these things, you see that minorities and their rights are a part of these goals.”
Lellouche lives in the port town of La Goulette, in northern Tunis, where he owns a Kosher restaurant – popular with Jews and Muslims and probably one of few remaining in the Arab world, excepting Morocco. The town also has a Jewish presence and an old synagogue – but today, most of Tunisia ’s Jewish community lives on the island of Djerba, on which stands one of the oldest synagogues in the world.
Lellouche says that Jewish parliamentarians in Tunisia have previously been designated, rather than elected: both the president after independence from French rule, Habib Bourguiba, and his successor Ben Ali, appointed Jewish ministers.
“I go to the markets in Tunis and people see me in the streets and say, ‘I know this guy, he’s the only Jew standing in the election.’ They heard about it on Facebook.” He adds that the street canvassing is a novelty to Tunisians, used to the old regime’s style of minimal contact with the people.
Back in Lafayette, there is testimony to a previously commonplace co-existence across the street from the Grand Synagogue, where a small butcher’s store bears signs in Arabic and Hebrew announcing it as Kosher. The shop is owned by Khemais Saidi, a Muslim, whose father set up shop in the early 1950s. “We all lived together as a community then, so it was not unusual,” he says. Today he runs the meat shop with Aaron, a Jewish man in his 60s, who is also key-keeper for the Grand Synagogue. Albert Chiche, 62, who stopped by to chat to the two and smoke nargila, says that Tunisia is exceptional in this matter.
“There isn’t an atmosphere between Jews and Muslims in Tunis,” says Chiche, director of a Jewish retirement home in La Goulette. “We are brothers and big friends. We celebrate each other’s festivals, we hug. We hope that this will not change.” A bearded man with a prayer blister on his forehead, who dropped by at this shop that seems more like a talking salon, nods in agreement with Chiche. “We know our history” he says. “Jews are a part of it.” And a part, they all say, of Tunisia’s future, too.