Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Djerba Jews face uncertain future

In this lavishly-illustrated piece, JTA takes a realistic look at the Jewish community of Djerba, one of the few surviving bastions of Jewish life in the Arab world. Antisemitism is a threat, but the tipping point comes when a Jew cannot find a partner or make a living. (In other news, the announcement that Tunisian women are legally allowed to marry non-Muslims (without them needing to convert to Islam) is a major positive development for minority rights). (With thanks: Imre, Lily)

A Lag Ba'Omer pilgrim at the al-Ghriba synagogue in Djerba (Photo: Reuters/Anis Mili)

Belonging to one of the Arab world’s few active Jewish congregations, their patience reflects a determination to preserve their ancient tradition in a tight-knit community of 1,000. Many members feel duty-bound to remain on the island even though they can envisage no future here for their children.

“Everybody’s thought about leaving, myself included,” says Ben Zion Dee’ie, a 30-year-old yeshiva teacher who walked four miles to the El Ghriba Synagogue from his parents’ home in Hara Kebira, where nearly all Djerba Jews live. “The economy’s bad, the currency’s plummeting, tourism’s suffering because of terrorism and jobs are scarce and not well paying. It’s not perfect.”

But leaving “would be very difficult,” adds Dee’ie, who comes each year with other congregants to make sure El Ghriba has a minyan. “It feels wrong to leave where my ancestors lived for so many years.”

Nonetheless, various factors, including state-tolerated violence against Jews following Israel’s victory over its neighbors in the 1967 Six-Day War, have gradually almost emptied Tunisia of the 110,000 Jews who lived here before 1970. A few dozen families left following the 2011 revolution that briefly installed an Islamist and anti-Israel party in power.

That bout of instability was the latest chapter in the story that led to the near-total disappearance of centuries-long Jewish life from the Arab world amid hostility and poverty.

Jews on Djerba have also experienced these problems, not least in the explosion that al-Qaida terrorists set off outside the El Ghriba Synagogue in 2002 in which 20 people died, including 14 German tourists.

The explosion occurred three weeks before the Jewish holiday of Lag b’Omer, when hundreds of tourists, including some from Israel, gather at the El Ghriba for a pilgrimage that is particularly popular among Jews of Tunisian descent.

“It’s the only time of the year that we can count on having a minyan,” Dee’ie said at the synagogue, where the sounds of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah blended with the Muslim call to prayer and the chiming of church bells.(...)

“It’s a very good thing the police are here, they protect us, just like they protect you in Israel,” Dee’ie, who studied at a religious seminary in Israel in 2007. He returned to Hara Kebira but moved away last year to Zarzis, where his wife was born and he teaches a classroom of 15 children from that city’s Jewish community of 130 members.(...)

But in Tunisia, expressions of anti-Semitism, often featuring anti-Israel vitriol, continue to occur, reminding the country’s remaining 1,700 Jews “that the Arab, he is very easy to incite,” Dee’ie said.

A recent example came when Tunisia joined several other countries in banning the film “Wonder Woman,” apparently because its lead character is portrayed by the Israeli film star Gal Gadot. The Jewish-French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who is not Israeli, was greeted during a 2014 visit to Tunisia by dozens of Islamists carrying signs calling on “Levy the Zionist” to leave.

The invitation to a Tunisian festival in July of the Jewish comedian Michel Boujenah provoked protests in Tunisia that local anti-racism activists said were anti-Semitic. Tunisia has several pending bills, introduced by Islamist and secular nationalists, proposing a blanket boycott on Israel and a ban on any Israelis from entering the country.

Notwithstanding, Tunisia’s government is showcasing its Jewish heritage sites, including Djerba, whose ancient synagogue is on Tunis’ list this year for locales put forth for recognition as world heritage sites by the United Nations. The government has made several statements about the positive role of its Jewish citizens, invested considerable resources in renovating sites of worship and is considering allocating two seats in parliament for representatives of the Jewish community.

But in parallel, authorities in Tunisia are “quietly confiscating” Jewish antiques, including a 15th-century Torah scroll whose whereabouts the government is refusing to disclose, according to an expose published last month by the French news site Dreuz.

The effects of anti-Semitism in Tunisia may be “unpleasant at times, but they are not a threat to the survival of this community,” said Dee’ie, who was ready to immigrate to Israel last year with his wife because they could not find an affordable apartment to their liking in Zarzis.

“Practical things matter: Whether Jews can find a Jewish partner, make a living and live a comfortable life,” he added. “I grew up here, but I don’t know if this is the place where my children will grow up.”

Read article in full


Sylvia said...

You write
"the announcement that Tunisian women are allowed to marry non-Muslims is a major positive development for minority rights".

What do you mean? Please explain.

bataween said...

It's a kick in the teeth for sharia law, which insists that a non-Muslim man must convert to Islam to marry a Muslim woman.(I will clarify)

Sammish said...

It is my understanding that a Muslim man can marry a woman of any faith, because it is presumed(even taken for truth)given the extreme patriarchial culture that men must dominate women, and that women are weak and of feeble mindset,therefore the wife will automatically follow her husband faith, given that she will always be under the control of his extended family members and under severe restrictions of social contact with outsiders. In a formal ceremony, a man needs 2-3 witnesses in front of a Muslim judge to make the marriage official. It is easy for a man to get 3 witnesses. They can be drawn from his extended family. The non-Muslim woman need not to even recite the article of faith (There is a name for it, I think it is called the Shahadah?) It is the belief in one G.. and M is his prophet.

It is however entirely different with Muslim women marrying outside their faith. It is entirely forbidden by Sharia law. It a certain death sentence for a female non-conformist. It is impossible for young Muslim virgins to find someone outside their faith unless they live and work in non-Muslim countries. And even in Europe, and North America, I have read and learned of exceptions which can take years because of the woman not being able to find a mate. In Muslim countries, it is of a rare occurrence. Even then, the would-be husband must not only go through a formal ceremony with a judge by reciting the profession of faith Shahada? but he also needs to have 12 witnesses present.

Good luck finding 12 adult male Muslims when you are a non-Muslim hopelessly wanting to marry a Muslim woman.

Tunisia legalization of its women to marry outside the faith is nice and dandy. But wait, the nation's laws are not the same as the tribal-family laws. Yes, she can marry, if she wants to be shunned and utterly rejected by her family (if not murdered by some brothers or cousins- heard of honor killings lately?). If, however, her family is progressive enough (less likely) and has relaxed attitudes, then all is paradise of marital bliss and merriment.

This reminds me of the recently passed law in Morocco which revoked one Sharia law, a morbid stain of decency and morality within the Islamic faith, which is the accepted and dutiful execution by any mean necessary of any Muslim who change his/her faith. Thanks Morocco. I am impressed. Now the Moroccans can live free of threats and have choice of faith when in reality, there is none whatsoever, simply because no institutionalized religion exists in these countries other than the mad man religion.

That's what makes their mad faith baseless when compared with Jewish faith. A Jew/Jewess can become a Buddhist, a Christian, or anything (even becoming a member of the altar of Baal), but he/she will always be a Jew/Jewess regardless, because he is defined as such and was given a trait that transcends the mere choice of shopping and changing religions. He/she can always come back to the fold and be happily accepted and it is even better if he/she makes Teshuva.

No change in the laws of these so-called progressive Muslim countries can change the people's deep seated narrow mindedness because it cannot never be "unlearned" or "untangled". It might take many generations. I, however, would not count on it.

bataween said...

Hi Sammish
Thanks for that very comprehensive explanation.
Here is the link to the article on the revocation of the death penalty for apostasy in Morocco

Sammish said...

Hi Bataween,
I was aware of your BlogSpot article last February. I have read it then. I followed the issue very closely the French media in December and January when it was debated in Morocco. Sorry I haven't commented by then on your entry. I am not sure why. Maybe I was busy or something. The move to rescind the apostasy law is well intended, but having lived in Morocco for so long, I am still skeptical about its impact and genuine application.
Several young Moroccan this summer were thrown in jail and given harsh sentences because they wanted to defy the ban on eating in public during the fast month of Ramadan. It goes to show that the laws mean nothing in Muslim country. These young people did not want to exit their religion they just wanted to break one commandment which is that of not fasting. It is an utter governmental hypocrisy. Well the response of the government is that they are not going to be killed like in Saudi Arabia, just a light punishment of 8 or 10 months in prison. I find this despicable. And all this for eating in a restaurant terrace. Beware of deceptions from these progressive countries. It is all a fa├žade.

Selina said...

Sammish, Islam is inherited through the male line so it doesn't matter who a Muslim man marries, their kids will be considered Muslim. Such an easy and convenient way to acquire more wives like cattle and have as many children as they want without consequence, no matter the ruling that only if they afford it, they can have

Sylvia said...

But how does it explain Bataween's assessment that it is positive for minority rights in the context of Djerban Jews unable to find a marriage partner?

His children will not be Jewish since the mother is a Muslim so it doesn't make any difference whether he converts or not. Where,exactly, is the positive for minority rights?

bataween said...

I did not intend to leave the impression that the liberalisation of marriage law should be seen in the context of Djerban Jews finding a marriage partner, Sylvia - it was 'other news'.... a progressive move towards reducing the stranglehold of Islam over personal relationships. Although Sammish is sceptical, any progress towards equal rights for people of other religions and none must be hailed as a good thing, and should lead to an improved status for minorities, at least on paper.

Sylvia said...

So I take it you're in favor of a similar law in Israel.

As you know, in Israel unless one of them converts Jewish women cannot marry foreigners, Shiites cannot marry Sunnites, Arab Christians cannot marry Arab Muslims etc etc
They go to Cyprus for a civil marriage, just like Tunisians are probably going to Malta.

bataween said...

There is a strong case to be made for non- religious marriage to be introduced in Israel,
But the Tunisian case is a bit different. The non Muslim spouse no longer needs to convert to Islam. Would a Muslim woman who marries a Christian Man in Israel be allowed to convert to Christianity? Surely there is no Israeli law against it.

Sylvia said...

In Israel a Muslim woman only thinking of marrying a Christian will likely be honor-killed by her family before she gets to the altar. Not as progressive as Tunisians.

bataween said...

That's precisely Sammish's point - that social mores lag behind the law. But repealing a legal ban has to be a positive first step.

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