The Last Jews of Tunisia

20 June 2012

Jews lived all over the Middle East and North Africa for thousands of years, and they lived among Arab Muslims for more than 1,000 years, but they’re almost extinct now in the Arab world. Arabs and Jews didn’t live well together, exactly, but they co-existed five times longer than the United States has existed. They weren’t always token minorities, either. Baghdad was almost a third Jewish during the first half of the 20th century. Morocco and Tunisia are the last holdouts. In Tunisia, only 1,500 remain.

What happened? What changed? Islam didn’t happen all of a sudden, nor did the arrival of Arabs in Mesopotamia, the Levant, and North Africa. Both have been firmly in place since the 7th century. A far more recent cascade of events transformed the region, and for the worse: the occupation of Arab lands by Nazi Germany and its puppet Vichy France, the Holocaust, post-Ottoman Arab Nationalism, Israel’s declaration of independence, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As a consequence of all that, rather than the Arab invasion or the rise of the Islamic religion, almost the entire Arab world is Judenrein now. And since the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic regime in Iran, relations between Arabs and Jews are worse than they were at any time during the entire history of either.

Yet 1,500 Jews hang on in Tunisia. The ancien Ben Ali regime kept them safe, as has Tunisia’s relatively tolerant and cosmopolitan culture. But what will become of them now that Ben Ali is in exile and his government is overthrown?

I met with Haim Bittan, the chief rabbi of Tunis. My colleague Armin Rosen joined me, as did our fixer and translator Ahmed Medien.

“You should say something to the rabbi in Hebrew,” Ahmed told Armin. Armin is Jewish and speaks a bit of the language of Israel. “It will make him happy.”

The three of us met the rabbi and his assistant in an office behind an enormous synagogue in central Tunis. I wanted to take a picture of the synagogue, but the police wouldn’t let me. They’re worried someone might bomb it. I found one on Wikipedia, though.

Armin took Ahmed’s advice and greeted the rabbi and his assistant in Hebrew. Their faces lit up. It was an interesting moment. There were five of us in that room. Three Jews, one nominal Christian (me), and one nominal Muslim (Ahmed). For the first time since Armin arrived in the country, he wasn’t the token Jew in the room.

“How has the situation here changed for the Jews of Tunisia,” I said, “since the fall of Ben Ali?”

“Nothing has changed,” the rabbi said. “It’s the same situation since Ben Ali’s fall.”

“This is a country ruled by an Islamist government,” Armin said. “Do you feel that presents any problems for the Jewish community?

“There’s no problem between the government and the Jewish community,” the rabbi said.

“But I have seen photographs of Salafists with their black flag in front of the synagogue here intimidating people,” I said. “Was that a one-time event, or are you worried they might become increasingly dangerous?”

“They don’t bother me,” the rabbi said. “They lived with us before. That incident was their business, not ours.”

What kind of answers were these?

Ahmed, our Tunisian translator and fixer, had a question of his own for the rabbi.

“Does it bother you that some people want Islamic law in the constitution?” he said.

“There’s no problem at all,” the rabbi said, “because the constitution is not written.”

“He doesn’t want to answer,” Ahmed said quietly to Armin and me as he leaned back in his chair.

I’m not even sure why the rabbi agreed to be interviewed. He answered almost all of our questions this way, as did his assistant. They answered as though the entire Arab world would judge them for what they said and pounce if they uttered a peep of complaint. They reminded me of citizens of police states who are asked on the record what they think of the government.

I didn’t want to get them in trouble or give them the third degree, but I needed something other than packaged boilerplate answers, so I chose a question that couldn’t be easily dodged. The rabbi’s assistant wore a black yarmulke or kippah on the top of his head, which marked him out as an obvious Jew, and I addressed my question to him.

“Do you walk around, either of you, on the street wearing the kippah?”

He vigorously shook his head. “We don’t,” he said. “People might think we’re Zionists and we don’t want that, so we wear a hat.”

They had at least one problem then. They felt the need to be closeted, at least on the street. That’s never a good sign.

Christians don’t have to hide the fact that they’re Christian. Everyone in Tunisia who so much as glanced at me surely assumed I’m a Christian (that is, if they gave the matter any thought in the first place) since I look European. Nearly all were perfectly friendly.

They were perfectly friendly to Armin, as well. His complexion makes him look ethnically ambiguous. He could be Hispanic, Arab, Italian, Israeli. He could be many things. He received no more and no less hospitality than I did. But what if he walked around wearing a kippah or a necklace with a six-pointed star? The rabbi’s assistant wouldn’t dare.

It’s hard to say, though, how much trouble Armin actually would have faced had he done that. Israelis can and do visit Tunisia. They can do so on their own passports. They don’t have to use second passports from a country like Britain or the United States the way Israeli visitors to Lebanon do.

And here’s the thing: when you visit Tunisia you have to produce your passport a lot.  You have to produce your passport every time you check into a hotel. You have to produce your passport to rent a car. You have to show your passport to police officers and the national guard at checkpoints. (That happened to me a number times.) So Israelis—not just Jews, but Israelis—can and do wander around all over Tunisia and announce to the police and to the staff at hotels, airports, and car rental offices that they’re Israelis. And supposedly they don’t experience any problems.

I’m not sure what to make of it. I’d like to report that the Jews are doing just fine, but if that’s the case, why were the rabbi and his assistant so cagey? And why wouldn’t they go out in public looking like Jews? Ahmed didn’t even blink when Armin told him he’s Jewish, nor did he mind in the slightest that Armin and I have both been to Israel. Ahmed, though, is a well-educated tri-lingual professional, and his own views of the Arab-Israeli conflict are, shall we say, unconventional compared with those of his neighbors.

Armin asked the rabbi why Libya and Algeria are entirely free of Jews while Tunisia is not.

“Jews in Tunisia don’t have any problems living with other people,” the rabbi said. “In the other countries they did.”

And that’s all he had to say about that.

“But a lot of Tunisian Jews did leave and go to Israel,” I said. “Why did they leave while you stayed?”

“Only a few Tunisian Jews went to Israel,” he said, “but they went for economic reasons. Maybe they didn’t have a lot here and they wanted to go there for the economic opportunities. Those who had good lives here stayed.”

Such cautious answers! Move along, nothing to see.

He might have answered differently had I not been a reporter, but who knows? There’s always a chance he has internalized what he’s saying to keep his stress level down, but I don’t think so. I can’t psychoanalyze the man, but his tone of voice and body language suggested he was extremely reserved and not entirely sincere in what he was saying.

“What’s the Jewish community’s view on relations between Tunisia and Israel?” Armin said. Tunisia had low-level diplomatic relations with Israel during the 1990s, but Ben Ali severed those relations during the Second Intifada. “There’s talk of banning normalization with Israel in the constitution.”

“That’s a matter for the government to decide,” the rabbi said, “not the Jewish community here.”

“But the Jewish community surely has an opinion,” Armin said.

I understand that he has to be careful, but we wanted the truth even if we couldn’t quote him. “You can answer off the record,” I said. “I’ll turn my voice recorder off if you want.”

He didn’t want me to turn off the recorder, but he understood that I didn’t like his evasiveness so he gave me a better answer.

“If Tunisia normalized relations with Israel,” he said, “then the Muslims here might bother Jews. So we would rather Tunisia not have normal relations with Israel.”

That was an on-the-record response. So at least he was willing to acknowledge the potential for trouble for Tunisia’s Jews.

I don’t mean to suggest that they’re oppressed and that the chief rabbi of Tunis answered questions with a gun in his back. I do not believe they are oppressed. At least I’m unaware that they are oppressed. But it’s hard to be a minority anywhere in the world. And it has been so hard to be a Jew in the Arab world lately that there are almost none left.

The rabbi can’t be entirely wrong. Tunisia’s Jews are not prisoners. They’re free to leave if they like. They can visit Europe without any problems. They can visit Israel without any problems. Since they can visit Israel, they can make aliyah and receive citizenship automatically upon arrival. All a Tunisian Jew has to do if he wants to permanently relocate to Israel is buy a one-way ticket to Tel Aviv for 200 dollars. That’s less than an average month’s salary, so coming up with the money wouldn’t be hard.

Even if it’s more difficult to live as a Jew in Tunisia than the rabbi and his assistant let on, it’s possible to live there as a Jew. More than a thousand do so voluntarily. That’s something. Isn’t it?

I wanted to know if Tunisian Jews and Muslims socialize with each other or if they live entirely separate lives. Do they visit each other’s houses? Do they hang out in cafes?

The rabbi’s assistant answered by shaking his head.

It’s always a good idea to talk to minorities in the Middle East. They see things at a different angle from everyone else. The Jews I met in Tunisia, though, had no more to say about the revolution, the new government, or where Tunisia is heading than they did about their own circumstances. They were too cautious to say much of anything.

Perhaps the Christians could help. They have fewer reasons to be wary than Jews. Christians are having a hard time in lots of Arab countries, but in most places they live in a multicultural paradise by comparison.

Tunisia’s Christians, though, aren’t Tunisians. They’re foreigners. The number of Christian Tunisians is apparently almost zero. Nearly all are Europeans and sub-Saharan black Africans. There are quite a few churches around—and they’re full on Sundays, too—but you won’t find many Arabs inside.

Armin and I spoke to Father John MacWilliam, a Catholic priest and missionary with the White Fathers movement. He’s from Great Britain and spent years in the inferno of Algeria before moving to Tunis.

“Is it true that most Christians here aren’t Tunisians?” I said.

“I’m British,” he said, “and I’m Christian, but most Tunisians, 99% or more, are Muslims, at least officially. If you go to any church on Sunday, all the people are foreigners.”

“There isn’t even a little community of indigenous Christians here,” I said, “like the Copts in Egypt? What happened to them?”

“By the 15th century there were no indigenous Christians living in this part of North Africa,” he said.

They all converted to Islam. Judaism, though, kept a toe hold in the country, a toe hold it still has. Most Tunisian Jews are the descendents of Berbers, the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa before Arabs invaded in the 7th and 8th centuries. Two-thirds of Tunisia’s Jews live on the southern island of Djerba, a part of the country that is still more Berber and less Arabized. (Djerba, by the way, is the famous island of Homer’s Lotus Eaters in the Odyssey.)

Father MacWilliam moved to Tunis from Algeria, where he lived for thirteen years.

“Were you driven out?” I said, but he shook his head. “No? You were there during all that trouble? I know a lot of Christians were killed.”

By “trouble” I was referring, of course, to the Algerian civil war in the 1990s when radical Islamists waged a ferocious terror insurgency that killed more than 100,000 people.

“It was a black decade,” he said. “How many hundreds of thousands of people were killed, I don’t know, but only a very small proportion were Christians. In the Catholic church there were 19 altogether killed. Most people know about the six monks in Tibhirine. Four of my congregation in Tizuzu were killed. There were others. It was difficult, but in other ways it was enriching because we were there helping. I opened libraries and supported university students. A lot of foreigners left, a lot of embassies closed, a lot of companies left. The Catholic church didn’t leave. We stayed. When things get difficult you don’t leave your friends.”

Westerners who live in Arab countries are often treated better than locals. They’re given a certain amount of latitude and liberty that governments sometimes think would be dangerous if enjoyed by everyone else. I’ve never worried that secret police would arrest me, for instance, if I insulted the president at a cafe. I don’t want to be tailed or spied on in my hotel room, of course, but if they bug my phone, at the end of the day, what are they going to do? The worst an Arab police state will do to me is arrest me, interrogate me, throw me out of the country, and put me on a blacklist. Citizens in oppressive Middle Eastern countries worry the police will show up at their house with a blowtorch and pliers, that their children will go missing, that they’ll be tortured to death.

The people I need to worry about most in the Middle East are criminals and terrorists. Foreigners were right to leave Algeria during the 1990s. They were singled out for destruction along with liberals, artists, feminists, intellectuals, cosmopolitans, teachers—basically anyone who didn’t precisely fit the description of an ultra-conservative Salafist nutjob. So it’s rather extraordinary that only 19 Christians were killed during that time.

My hat is off to Father MacWilliam. When things get difficult you don’t leave your friends. That’s what he said. But if I was in Algeria while Salafists were hacking thousands of people to death with machetes, I would have left. Almost anyone would have left. Maybe MacWilliam is a better person than I am. Maybe he’s nuts. Maybe he’s both. Either way, he grit his teeth and stayed through an unspeakable bloodbath.

Tunisia must feel like Switzerland by comparison. Christians in Tunisia have it pretty good. They have a few restrictions placed on them, but they can basically do whatever they want, partly because as foreigners and they’re subject to less social pressure. What if they weren’t foreigners, though? What if they were Tunisians? Would they be second-class citizens like the Christians of Egypt?

Probably not. The Jews aren’t. They clearly face a great deal of social pressure, but 1,500 live there by choice. And they’re equal under the law, at least on paper. Those facts right there are extraordinary even if the Jews do have to hunker down nervously amongst themselves.

The question is: how long can they last? Will they still be there in 100 years? Perhaps Father MacWilliam could safely address that question more directly than the rabbi.

“People here talk a lot about the religious extremists who are against the liberal values of other parts of the society,” he said. “But we have religious freedom. Religious freedom is important to Tunisians. This is a country with a long history as a civilization. Tunisians are proud of the fact that it’s a country with a multitude of civilizations. And since independence it has developed human rights. On the issue of women’s rights, for instance, Tunisia is more advanced than other Arab countries.”

It’s true. Women and men have been equal under the law in Tunisia for decades. Ninety-five percent of Egyptian girls reportedly have their clitoris removed when they’re young, but female genital mutilation doesn’t even exist in Tunisia. Wikipedia has a page that lists the percentage of FGM incidence by country and Tunisia doesn’t even appear next to an asterisk.

Ahmed, my fixer, told me a Salafist group brought Egypt’s notorious Jew-hating creepjob Wagdy Ghoneim to Tunis. The man proposed Tunisia start cutting off little girls’ clitorises and the entire country freaked out. Human rights activists sued him just for bringing it up.

But what about the Jews? I had an awfully hard time getting straight answers. How are things really going these days? I asked Father MacWilliam about it directly. He, at least, eschewed sugar-coating.

“I don’t know the Jewish community here,” he said. “There are Tunisian Jewish families who have been here for centuries. Their synagogue, of course, is protected. It functions, but I think they keep a fairly low profile. There’s an amalgam of what is Jewish and what is Israeli. Many Arabs assume that anyone who’s Jewish is also Israeli and Zionist and is oppressing the Palestinians and so on. That doesn’t make it easy for somebody who’s Jewish to openly be known as Jewish. They are probably a more oppressed minority.”

But how oppressed are the Jews, really? It’s so hard to say. I can’t very well report that they’re oppressed when I have no more evidence for that than you’re reading here in this article. I also can’t say they’re perfectly fine because they say they’re perfectly fine. Not when the rabbi and his assistant were so reluctant to say anything. I’ve been in this business a long time. I know how people behave in interviews when they’re nervous. And those two were nervous.

I did meet one Tunisian Jew, though, who spoke a little more freely. His name is Jacob Lellouche and he owns a kosher restaurant called Mamie Lily (after his grandmother) in the posh Tunis suburb of La Goulette.

Ahmed took me and Armin there for dinner. Armin and I were both surprised to discover that we were the only non-Muslims having kosher Jewish food for dinner that night. Nearly all Lellouche’s customers are Muslims. Why? “Because Tunisia’s Jews are used to eating this food at home,” Lellouche said. The place was packed, too. We had to wait almost an hour for a table.

Armin asked if his restaurant business has changed since the revolution. Has it gotten better or worse?

“My clients here are the same,” Lellouche said. “A lot of Tunisians come here, and some people come from France also. But this isn’t a touristic place.”

“So,” Armin said, “is there some appreciation then among Muslim Tunisians for the country’s Jewish culture?”

“I’m not only the owner of this restaurant,” Lellouche said. “After the revolution I created the first cultural Jewish association. It’s called Dar al-Dekra, the house of memory. Ninety percent of the association’s members are Tunisian Muslims. The civil society sustains the Jewish community. An Arab Tunisian association whose name translates to ‘I’m Free and I Work for My Country’ is here tonight to write a communiqué, a press release.”

Lellouche says his business is doing okay. That’s good, especially with the post-revolutionary economic depression. But how are Jews faring in general after the fall of Ben Ali? Are they doing better or worse?

“I wouldn’t say better,” he said. “We have to live our lives and make our place in this country. That’s all. We have to keep our culture in Tunisia’s memory. We are its guardians. Our association will create the first Jewish museum in Tunisia.”

He says he believes Jews will always remain in Tunisia. Not only are the Jews not enjoying their last days in the country, there won’t ever be any last days. Maybe he really believes that. Maybe he only wants to believe it. Maybe it’s even true, but we shouldn’t assume it. Muslim-Jewish relations are in the abyss. What will happen if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heats up again or if the mushrooming Salafists go on a rampage like they did next-door in Algeria?

“Was it possible,” Armin said, “to have an organization like yours before the revolution?”

“It was difficult,” Lellouche said, “because Mr. Ben Ali, our last president, instrumentalized the Jewish community. He wanted to project an image of tolerance and say to France and America that the Jews still live here because he wants them to live here. But I don’t think that was true. We don’t have problems with the society, though perhaps there is some trouble now with the Salafists.”

Salafists haven’t threatened Lellouche or his restaurant, but mobs of them have been wrecking havoc in several parts of the country since the revolution, and they rhetorically declared war on “the Jews” a number of times.

“Last week,” Lellouche said, “they held a demonstration in Tunis on Habib Bourguiba Avenue. They called for the killing of Jews.”

“Were they referring to Israel, to you, or to both?” I said.

“This is the third time they called for the murder of Jews,” he said. “The first time, we thought they were speaking about Zionists. And the second time, we thought they were speaking about Zionists. After the third time, though, it was clear that they meant the Jews.”

Post-script: I need your help with travel expenses. This is the off season in an off year when everything but the air fare is discounted, but I still can’t do this without your assistance. If you haven’t supported me recently (or ever), please help me out. PayPal donations add up to plane tickets, and so do sales of my book In the Wake of the Surge.

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