Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tunisian Jews seek place in the sun

Article in The Forward profiling the two most prominent Jews in Tunisia today and their varying responses to the previous and present regime. Nate Lavey reports:

Bismuth and Lellouche are secular Jews who live far more cosmopolitan lives in Tunis than their co-religionists in Djerba. Both hail originally from the seaside town of La Goulette, which used to have a significant Jewish population. But they are very much men of their respective, quite different, times.

Bismuth, who was born in 1926, is a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Tunisia. He became a multinational businessman and is, perhaps, the most famous Jew in the country. As a major figure in the community, Bismuth was close to Ben Ali. In 2005 he was listed in U.S. diplomatic cables, later leaked via WikiLeaks, as a “notable” Ben Ali loyalist. His election in 2005 to the Tunisian Senate made him one of the few Jewish legislators in the Arab world, though the body itself was toothless. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bismuth has fond memories of the old government — and contempt for Tunisian revolutionaries.

Speaking of Tunisia’s large numbers of unemployed college graduates, he said, “These are even more dangerous than the lower-class people, because the lower class can live with almost nothing, but these people, when they graduate, they expect they have a right to have a job.”

Jacob Lellouche, a kosher restaurant owner, ran for the Constituent Assembly following the revolution.
(Photo: Nate Lavey) Jacob Lellouche, a kosher restaurant owner, ran for the Constituent Assembly following the revolution.

High unemployment has been a central complaint for Tunisians with and without degrees, but not for Jews, Bismuth said. “The Jews work! These unemployed people… they don’t want a job, they want a salary. Working for them is not a need, where for us [Jews], we cannot think of not working,” he said.

Lellouche, who is more than 30 years younger than Bismuth, believes that the revolution had broader goals and that it “was made in the name of dignity and democracy.” He believes it holds opportunities, too, for Tunisia’s Jews. Under the Ben Ali regime, “it was not really possible to create a Jewish association,” he explained. For years, Lellouche wanted to found a group that, unlike Bismuth’s, operated independently of the Ben Ali government to promote Jewish cultural heritage in Tunisia. And after the revolution, he did just that.

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