Three or four families left after the revolution that overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. “They had large families and not enough work,” said Youssef Gamoun, who, like many of the Jews here, has a jewelry shop in Houmt Souk. “After the revolution, there was less work and a problem of crime. The tourists stopped coming, and there were burglaries. Things were really tough.”
The 2002 suicide attack signaled that the synagogue had become a target along with other Jewish sites in North Africa. The people of Djerba are reticent about what happened, but 21 people were killed, including 14 German tourists, when the bomber exploded a tanker filled with propane gas at the entrance to the synagogue.
The attack was hushed up by Mr. Ben Ali’s government — the charred walls were whitewashed within hours of the explosion — and Tunisia’s connections to Al Qaeda were never fully explained. That lack of openness has kept German tourists away to this day, said Rene Trabelsi, a Jewish tour operator and hotelier whose father is keeper of the Ghriba synagogue.
The Tunisian government has nevertheless provided a permanent police guard to protect the synagogue since the attack. Dozens of police and plainclothes intelligence agents locked down the entire area during the pilgrimage last month, and military helicopters patrolled overhead. “What happened in 2002 cannot happen again,” said Haim Bittan, Tunisia’s chief rabbi.
Many Tunisians like to emphasize their cosmopolitan history, yet the country is predominantly Muslim and Arab and has been affected by the shocks emanating from the Middle East. Rioters burned shops and synagogues in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli war, causing an exodus of Jewish families. The massacres at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982 prompted more to leave, Mr. Trabelsi said. Tunisia hosted the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat for 12 years, and Israel bombed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s headquarters near Tunis in 1985.
So when the newly appointed minister of tourism, Amel Karboul, decided to promote the Ghriba pilgrimage this year as a way to bolster tourism and champion the Jewish minority as an example of Tunisian tolerance and plurality, members of the National Constituent Assembly gave her a sharp rebuke.
Legislators threatened to censure Ms. Karboul and a senior Interior Ministry adviser over the issuing of travel documents to Israeli tourists. (Israeli visitors are not issued visas but a laissez-passer, which avoids recognition of their Israeli passports.)
“We wanted to make the point not to allow people with Israeli passports and not to establish diplomatic relations with Israel,” said Issam Chebbi, one of the assembly members who supported the motion of no confidence in the minister.
The political furor scared off some Jewish visitors, yet some welcomed democratic discussion of the issue. For the first time, a Jew, Mr. Trabelsi, was proposed for the post of minister of tourism in the new government in December. He did not get the job — “Maybe it is not the moment,” he said, shrugging — but added that for the first time, many Tunisians saw a Jew speaking fluent Arabic just like them on national television and reacted positively.
“Perhaps Jews before were hidden, and now today people find the Jewish question is important,” he said. “Tunisians want to show they are tolerant.”