Inside the Al-Ghriba synagogue (Photo: Jan Parik)
The yearly Lag La'Omer pilgrimage to the Al-Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba is trumpeted as a shining example of Muslim-Jewish coexistence and tolerance. Behind the peaceful facade, however, lurks a suppressed scandal of harassment and abuse, resulting in the closure of the Djerba Yeshiva (seminary) and a prison sentence for its rabbi.
For the last four or five years a seamstress by the name of Vassila Ben Kirat, a member of an Islamist group, has been harassing teachers and visitors to the Yeshiva on Djerba from her premises nearby. She repeatedly brought lawsuits against them for no apparent reason, forcing the rabbi to make almost weekly court appearances and engage a lawyer. Her shop is owned by the Yeshiva, but she has taken control. In spite of having served a two-year prison term, she has verbally and physically abused the Yeshiva head, Chief Rabbi Matsliah Haddad.
Rabbi Haddad and several parents of Yeshiva pupils were given three-month suspended prison sentences. He resigned and closed the Yeshiva down.
According to AMIT, an association of Jews from Tunisia, fourteen parents of Yeshiva pupils complained that Ben Kirat had beaten them up on arrival. A young mother had been beaten and dragged against her will to the woman's shop. Ben Kirat had uttered blasphemous insults against Jews arriving for prayers. In March 2008 she had spat at and abused the Yeshiva head's children in the presence of a policeman. On the advice of his superiors, the policeman chose not to give evidence.
The woman was acquitted in the absence of conclusive proof which, AMIT alleges, the police refused to record. The plaintiffs received prison sentences - suspended and overturned on appeal - for perjury. AMIT is convinced that Ben Kirat gets support from Islamists both local and in the capital, Tunis, and was visited by local notables and even an official from the Ministry of Justice.
AMIT believes that only an appeal to the Tunisian president himself, a friend of the Jewish community, would put a stop to this sorry saga if he knew of it. Just before this year's Al-Ghriba festivities, the organisation set up an internet petition, sought help from other Jewish organisations, and urged a visitors' boycott of the Lag La'omer pilgrimage. But fearing a drop in tourists, this year at a record 6,000, travel and tourism agencies hushed the scandal up and kept it from the press.