It takes a seasoned Middle East-watcher like Michael Totten to see conditions as they are - not as government minders and fixers would like them to be seen. This World Affairs Journal account of Totten's interview with the chief rabbi of Tunisia and a Catholic priest is a must-read (with thanks: Eliyahu):
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.”
Haim Bittan, chief rabbi of Tunisia...'evasive'
“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.