Friday, January 21, 2011

Sitbon: Jews of Tunisia have no reason to be afraid

Claude Sitbon (Photo: Tali Mayer)

No matter how 'good' rulers like Ben Ali have been to the Jews, 'Jewish minorities always live in fear and if you spit on them, they call it rain'. Enlightening interview by Yair Ettinger of Haaretz with Tunisian-born sociologist Claude Sitbon on the current situation for Tunisia's Jews. They have nothing to fear at the moment, but Sitbon confirms that the community's leaders, Roger Bismuth and Khlifa Atun, are now in Paris.

Claude Sitbon, do the Jews in Tunisia have reason to be afraid?

"In terms of personal safety, there is no reason to fear. The main fear of the Jews and others is about the country's political future. Many people say they hope the country will continue to be secular, and the opposition to Islamic fundamentalism is forceful.

"For 23 years, President Zine al-Abidine ben Ali wiped out opposition and freedom of speech. Since 1987, when he took over from Habib Bourguiba, he did some good things, like advancing women's status. He also attacked Islam.

"The Europeans saw his destruction of fundamentalism as a legitimacy stamp, but what they didn't notice until a decade ago was that he did not recognize human rights and even worse, he was corrupt. His wife has 10 brothers and sisters who took control of everything worth something in the Tunisian economy, from the telephone companies to hotels and tourism. It is awful, and I believe that is the straw that broke the camel's back."

Tell us about Tunisia's current Jewish community.

"There are two prominent figures in the community. When I called to ask how they were, both were already in Paris. That doesn't mean everyone has left for Paris. When the president was in control, relations with him were good.

"We must remember that in the 1950s, when the community peaked at 110,000 Jews, half left for Israel and half for Paris. Now there are some 1,000 Jews on the island of Djerba and that is very interesting, because they have everything, they have a full community life. There are 700 in Tunis.

"The community in Tunis consists mainly of very old people and there is an old-age home, while Djerba has a much more organized community with direct contact with Israel. They all speak Hebrew."

How was Ben Ali's era for the Jewish community?

"I can't say that something bad happened to the Jews when Ben Ali was president. Moreover, when Bourguiba was in power he set up a senate with a list of notables including a Jewish man, Roger Bismuth.

"From that perspective, you cannot say the ties were bad. He renovated all the country's synagogues. He strengthened the ties with Israel, particularly regarding tourism. The first group of Israelis to visit Tunisia was in December 1993, and I had the honor of joining them. Now there are lots of groups."

Don't the Jews of Tunisia have anything to lose?

"The great fear is that after 23 years of all the elections giving Ben Ali 96 percent to 98 percent of the vote, people won't know how to handle real democracy and real elections. The opposition have been wiped out.

"Now we have a problem because according to the constitution, elections must be held within 60 days, but most of the parties, except for the Communists perhaps, are not ready. So apparently the only alternative is a national unity government.

"Right now I don't see any reason to fear, because the Tunisians are an easy-going people. I have visited more than 10 times in recent years, and I traveled freely in the north and the south without fear - not from what I saw, and not from what I heard."

Could anyone have foreseen this spontaneous uprising?

"Over the past decade, every year the terrible feeling increased that you couldn't speak, that the police were in control, that this gang was gaining control. So people knew the day would come. They didn't know when, but everyone thought that Ben Ali's position wasn't good, that's clear."


To what extent did Ben Ali leave his mark on the relations with the Jews?

"His term was very smooth for them. Jewish minorities always lives in fear and when someone spits on them, they prefer to call it rain. You can't say that during Ben Ali's tenure something bad happened to them. It is an open society, very western.

"But Ben Ali is gone and has no chance of returning, so much hatred has been expressed toward him in the last month. It's not that they threw him out, he fled, and that raises questions. The hat is burning on the thief's head.

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