Wednesday, November 28, 2012

North African Jews face precarious future

Old man at prayer in the al-Ghriba synagogue, Djerba, Tunisia

Deutsche Welle has a reasonable summary of the current state of two Jewish communities on the verge of extinction - in Egypt and Tunisia, under new threat from the 'Arab Spring'. But their plight is not just a function of the Israel-Arab conflict.

The re-opening of the Maimonides Synagogue was overshadowed by political and religious conflicts. Representatives of the Egyptian government did not attend the ceremony, citing Israeli aggression against Palestinians. Tensions caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impact the Jewish community in Egypt, even though Cairo signed a peace treaty with the Jewish State in 1979. Hopes that the so-called Arab Spring would help ease tensions have been largely disappointed.

"The situation hasn't improved in any way," David) Harari (of the Association for Egyptian Jewish Heritage in Paris)  said. The head of the Jewish community in Cairo is surveilled by the Egyptian state and cannot speak freely, he added. In Alexandria, the authorities closed the city's synagogue this year during Jewish holidays, according to reports in the Israeli media. Egyptian officials later rejected this accusation.

Maimonides Synagoge im ehemaligen jüdischen Viertel Haret al-Yahoud von Kairo. Hier: Das Innere der frisch restaurierten Synagoge mit Bimah und Thoraschrein. Kairo, Ägypten, 21.03.2010 +++picture alliance / JOKER  
The Egyptian government financed the Maimonides Synagogue restoration, but did not attend the opening ceremony
There is concern among Cairo's Jews about what will become of their once vibrant community's property. Their buildings in Cairo and Alexandria are on valuable plots of land, which are being eyed by businesspeople and politicians.

"When the last Jew in Cairo dies, the valuables will be confiscated by the state,"  said Harari.

 In Tunisia, there is still a functioning Jewish community. In the capital and on the island of Djerba, a few synagogues are open on the Sabbath. But compared to the past, fewer and fewer people attend services on the high holy days, according to Roger Bismuth.

"The situation began to change in 1967 with the Six Day War and the dangerous and unfair equation of Jews with Israelis," Bismuth, president of the World Center for North African Jews in Marseille, told DW. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a conflict between Jews and Muslims, precipitating the emigration of most Jewish families in Tunisia, he said.

The revolutionary upheaval of the Arab Spring had brought hope for greater religious equality in Tunisia. In early 2011, former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was deposed. Jewish establishments were attacked twice during the ensuing chaos. In one of the attacks, Islamists attempted to force their way into Tunis' main synagogue, yelling anti-Semitic epithets.

Interim President Moncef Marzouki promised the Jewish community protection. In the future parliament, Jews may be allotted two seats. But concerns remain. Perez Trabelsi, the head of the Jewish community in Djerba, recently called for more protection after a failed attempt to kidnap a Jewish person in the city of Zarzis. And the Israeli government has discouraged its citizens from participating in the traditional pilgrimage in Djerba this year, fearing terrorist attacks. In 2002, the Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba was devastated in an al Qaeda attack, killing 21 people including 14 German vacationers.

Bismuth believes the Tunisian government hasn't taken a clear position on Jews and minorities, because "the ruling Ennahda party has Salafist allies," who are very anti-Semitic. He worries that if the situation deteriorates, then the last Tunisian Jews will emigrate.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Deutsche Welle article has no original content from the ground. The two people quoted are both living in Europe.

Any constructive article should have quotes from Islamist leaders next to the fact that on the ground they are not enforcing the tolerance that they are preaching. Nothing could be a better example of this than what appears to be the recent sacking of the Synagogue in Sfax, which the article does not mention.