Fueled by courage and desperation, the people of Tunisia toppled their authoritarian government this month, sending a message of warning to leaders of Arab states. The citizens of some of those states, most notably Egypt and Yemen, have been studying this message and crafting their own.
In writing a book and narrating a film on what happened in Arab lands during the Holocaust, I have studied Tunisia closely over the past decade. Only 90 miles from the southern tip of Italy, this small North African country was the sole Arab state to suffer a full-fledged German occupation during World War II. I have visited the places where SS officers rounded up Jews and sent them to concentration camps.
Yet Tunisia was also where I found the most stories of Arabs protecting Jews during the war. As in Europe, these Muslim rescuers were ordinary people performing extraordinary acts - like the Tunis bathhouse owner who hid a Jewish man in his hammam or the Mahdia country squire who sheltered two dozen Jews on his farm. This moment in Tunisian history - which had a much happier ending for Jews than did events on the other side of the Mediterranean - gives hope that the current chaos will end reasonably positively.
Tunisia's largely homogeneous population has blended a 1,400-year-old Sunni Arab identity with an organic, deeply embedded connection to Europe. Its capital once rivaled Beirut and Alexandria as the most cosmopolitan Arab city, with large communities of Italians, French, British and Maltese injecting a heady mix of energy and ideas into the local culture.
What next for Tunisia and its Jews? Talk by Dr Saul Zadka on 1 February in London. See Harif for details.