Tunisian Crisis Update and Consequences for the Jewish Community

A letter from Natan Sharansky, Chair of the Executive, Jewish Agency for Israel:

Dear Friends,

We are witnessing the unfolding of dramatic events in Tunisia. While the armed forces of the country work to restore order after the ousting of dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the 1500-member Jewish community is undergoing a period of great uncertainty, including widespread shootings, arson, political insecurity and the ever-present possibility of anti-Jewish sentiment leading to violence against the Jews of Tunis and Djerba.

I thought you would find it instrumental to understand the background of the Jewish community and the political environment.

Tunisia is a Moslem country situated between Algeria and Libya. Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Tunisia.

Since 1987 the country has been ruled by Zine Ben Ali. It was a corrupt and “kleptocratic” dictatorship in which families close to him control the economy. In the last few weeks there have been riots because of the difficult financial situation.

The Jewish Community

[The] Jewish community is very unified and is centered in four major communities. There are approximately 1500 Jews – 1100 on the island of Djerba, 300 in Tunis, 100 in Zarzis, 30 in Suss, and 20 in Sfax. Each city also has Jewish institutions, including an old age home, synagogues, community buildings, and kindergartens. Djerba has three schools, while Tunis has one. The Chief Rabbi is located in Tunis.

Most of the Jewish community works in jewelry-making, silversmithing, and trading in gold. Before the revolt, Ben Ali had a tolerant attitude towards the Jewish community. The Jews are seen as supporters of Ben Ali’s regime, as well as connected with the wealthy in the country.

Until the revolt, there was no blatant anti-Semitism; however, an uncomfortable relationship between the Jewish community and Arab population exists. In 2002 there was a terrorist attack on the Great synagogue, with 21 deaths, mainly tourists from Germany. Al Qaida took responsibility for the attack.

Al Qaida has terrorist cells in Tunisia, and there is a possibility that the community could possibly be a target of violence.

As a result of the recent events, the police have closed the Jewish Quarter. Despite these precautions, a truck with ammunition was found adjacent to the Jewish Quarter. There is no existing contact person in the government, to whom the Jewish community can turn to in case of an emergency. Local Jewish sources confirm that the situation is tense. Many in the Jewish community would like to leave some of them want to make aliya as soon as possible.

The situation is very worrisome. Gangs are rioting and looting businesses. In spite of a heavy police presence, the riots are continuing, due to the support that soldiers in the Tunisian army are thought to be giving to the revolt.

The Jewish Agency is using all of its emergency response assets and is working with its partners in such operations to monitor the situation and to provide the needed assistance to the members of the Jewish community. As more information becomes available and can be shared – I will update you to the extent possible without jeopardizing our efforts.