Sunday, April 24, 2011

At Passover, Tunisian Jews ponder their exodus

The bottom has fallen out of Djerba's tourist industry where the Al-Ghriba synagogue is the main attraction. Meanwhile, Islamists are making a comeback. Tunisia's remaining Jews ponder whether they should stay. GlobalPost reports:

DJERBA, Tunisia — As Jews around the world celebrate the Passover holiday this week, which commemorates the Biblical migration of the Israelites from ancient Egypt, some in Tunisia’s Jewish minority are considering their own modern-day exodus.

In the three months since the ouster of former strongman President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s interim government has struggled to reinstate normalcy in this once prosperous Mediterranean nation.

For some in Djerba’s small Jewish community, many of whom work in the tourism industry, the financial uncertainty is becoming too much to bear.

The long absence of security on the streets in Tunisia seems to have scared away many foreigners and their vital tourist dollars, a large component of the country’s economy.

Most European tourists came for the whitewashed, dome-topped bazaars and lavish five-star hotels dotting the desert landscape on this resort island.

And with the conflict worsening next door in Libya — just a short drive from Djerba’s sunny beaches — Tunisia’s already battered tourism sector has largely dried up.

“I have only seen one customer all week long,” said Haddad Sion, the owner of a gold shop in Houmt Souq, the largest city in Djerba. “If business continues as is, I will have no choice but to leave, either to go to Paris or Jerusalem.”

Djerba has long been home to one of the oldest and largest communities of Jews in North Africa.

Their numbers have dwindled to about 1,500 over the past 50 years — only a tiny fraction compared to Tunisia’s nearly 10 million Muslim residents. At its peak in the 1950s, Tunisia's Jewish population numbered about 100,000, according to sociologist Claude Sitbon.

Djerba’s Jews have long coexisted peacefully with their Muslim neighbors, working side-by-side in the narrow alleyways of the old market in Houmt Souq that is now largely deserted.

Today, with secular Ben Ali out of the picture, Tunisia’s once-banned Islamists are making a political comeback – to the dismay of many of Djerba’s Jews.

“Ben Ali was good for the Jewish people,” said Daniel Sayada, a jeweler in Houmt Souq. “Since the revolution, being a Muslim is coming back in fashion. And I’m very uncertain on whether this is a good thing for us.”

The Islamist al-Nahda, or renaissance, movement has registered to form a political party and announced their intentions to compete in parliamentary elections scheduled for later this summer.

Al-Nahda members have argued that freedom and democracy in post-revolution Tunisia means that all political parties should have the chance to compete freely.

Still, some Jews here are fearful that Islamist leadership would drastically alter the laws in the secular North African state.

“We’re definitely scared about the idea of what a takeover by Al-Nahda would look like. I worry that many things here would change,” said Gabriel Attea, who has already moved his family from Djerba to Paris.

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