Thursday, September 20, 2007

Still in love with Tunisia after all these years

Three hundred people thronged the Centre Rashi in Paris for an evening on 17 September on the exodus of the Jews of Tunisia. More had to be turned away.

By way of introduction, Jean-Pierre Allali, member of the French-Jewish representative body CRIF and French coordinator of the Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) campaign, emphasised that the event was not directed against Tunisia in any way: "We passionately love our homeland. The number of Tunisian Jews who go back every summer for the holidays is proof enough. On the other hand we have a duty to record the past and see justice done. We must clearly establish why almost an entire community (120,000 or more Jews) left, who had been settled in Tunisia since Antiquity and well before the Arabs."

After the screening of Nedjma Scialom's film Tunis-Paris, the Tunisian exiles told of their difficult integration into France, with journalist Jean Corcos on the panel with Jean-Pierre Attali, Armand Attal, Claude Sitbon and Andre Nahum.

During the discussion with the audience it became clear that the reasons for their exile were not unique to Tunisian Jews. More reasons to leave arose between 1954, when Tunisia became independent, and 1967, when serious antisemitic incidents took place including the destruction of the Great Synagogue.

Milestone dates were the dissolution of the Beth Bin in July 1957, the dissolution by Presidential decree of the Council of the Jewish Community of Tunisia, the Bizerte affair in 1961 and local repercussions of the Israeli-Arab wars. The expropriation of the Tunis Jewish cemetery, turned into a park, and the demolition of the Great synagogue of the Hara as part of a urban renewal scheme, were also key events.

The speakers were unanimous that Jews were pushed towards the exit by a series of small steps - taxes, financial controls by stealth, the miserly distribution of commercial licences, the blocking of Jewish civil servants' careers. The young professor Armand Attal found his career frustrated by what the historian Paul Sebag called 'Muslim preference'.

The President of CRIF, Richard Prasquier, noted the difference between himself, a native Pole, and these Tunisians who were still viscerally in love with their dear Tunisia 50 years after their exodus. He asked the key question: "were these Jews who left Tunisia really refugees?" Jean Pierre Allali made the distinction between those with French or other European nationality, who were given logistical and financial help, and the majority Tunisian nationals, whose suitcases were searched with a fine tooth comb and were only allowed to bring out the equivalent of one Euro. Some, the more Zionist among them, chose Israel, while 50,000 opted for France. They were people of modest means who stood for hours in humiliating queues waiting for permits, who slept in maids' rooms or on the floor, crowded in temporary accommodation provided by friends or relatives in Belleville, Sarcelles or Montmartre, subsisting in misery and patiently rebuilding their lives. Yes, these were refugees.

Claude Sitbon, who had come from Israel, said that "the tears of exile had given way to the lights of exile". Andre Nahum drew a parallel between the Palestinian refugees and the Jewish refugees, saying there had been a population exchange. " Our Arab friends," he hammered the table," must understand and admit it." All the speakers noted that the younger generation of Tunisians were unaware of the existence of an ancestral, dynamic and prosperous Jewish community.

A minority expressed different views: a Jewish air hostess was recruited into a Tunisian company and her sportsman husband represented Tunisia at high level international events. Another, who said she still lived in Tunisia, said that people still had assets which they were free to buy and sell.

Read article in French

Future CRIF events: Jews of Yemen: 20 November; Jews of Libya: 5 December

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