by Joshua Runyan and Tamar Runyan
As Tunisian forces battled to maintain order amidst days of deadly protests against ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, representatives of the country’s ancient Jewish community reported that, as the violence was primarily political in nature, there did not appear to be any actions targeted against ethnic minorities.
According to Rabbi Shmuel Pinson, director of Ohel Menachem in Brussels, Belgium, and son of the longtime Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries to Tunisia, people he was in contact with were safe, but apprehensive. One Jewish shopkeeper’s business was robbed, but so were countless others, said Pinson, who was raised in the North African country.
“Today is a little better than yesterday,” he detailed late Sunday. “But here and there, there are demonstrations and gangs are stealing and breaking windows. There is complete anarchy.”
News reports said that the quickly escalating violence had claimed more than a dozen lives, including that of a French-German photographer. Armed gangs appeared to be using municipal and emergency vehicles from which they fired indiscriminately, but forces loyal to the interim president, former parliament speaker Fouad Mebazaa, were trying to restore calm to the capital city of Tunis. According to The Associated Press, more than 50 people have been arrested for acts of violence.
Mrs. Rachel Pinson, who established a Jewish school system in Tunisia with her late husband, Rabbi Nisson Pinson, said that schools throughout the country were closed. Speaking from France, where she lives with family for part of the year, she said that she was hopeful she would soon be able to return.
“Hopefully, it will calm down and I will be able to return there to assist local Jews,” said the octogenarian. “G-d should help that there should be no more casualties.”
Approximately 3,000 Jews call the North African country home. The community, situated in Tunis and Djerba, dates back to ancient times.
In the late 1950s, the Pinsons – who took up residence in the country at the behest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory – requested that the country’s chief rabbinate assist them in creating a curriculum and purchasing books for what would become the Ohr Hatorah day schools.
Owing to Arab and Muslim antagonism against the young State of Israel in the early 1960s, the community, which once included a quarter of a million Jews, dwindled to just 47,000. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War further reduced the population as families fled North Africa for Europe, the United States and Israel. Of those that remained, many were among the poorer of the country’s Jews and lacking the means to pay for a Jewish education.
The Pinsons, however, gathered Jewish teens together to continue their education at the Oholei Yosef Yitzchak Lubavitch school that they founded in Djerba.
According to their son, a school official is meeting with Jewish families at their homes until things quiet down. The Jerusalem Post, meanwhile, reported that a group of 20 Israelis had successfully fled the country.
“There is a curfew from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m.,” said Shmuel Pinson. “People go out, get some things from the store and go home. Today, the market opened again, but there weren’t many vegetables and there was a shortage of bread.
“People are worried that things may take a long time.”
This article originally appeared in Chabad.org News; reprinted with permission.
update: a letter from Natan Sharansky, Tunisian Crisis Update and Consequences for the Jewish Community