The Situation in Tunisia

As of this evening, the situation in Tunisia is both sensitive and fluid. Absolutely no violence has been targeted against the Jewish community, whose ties to Tunisian society have always been good. The protests are purely economic. “We’ve explored all the scenarios and options and we’re considering the needs of the community,” Judy Amit, JDC’s global director of international development, told me. “They’ve been living there for 2000 years so they are the best to decide what’s best for them.”

Tonight, The New York Times is reporting,

Five or more ministers from opposition parties resigned from Tunisia’s unity government on Tuesday, bowing to a wave of street protests against the cabinet’s domination by members of the ousted president’s ruling party and putting mounting pressure on his prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, to resign as well.

… The Tunisian revolution began in the hard-pressed provinces with demands for more jobs, especially for Tunisia’s soaring number of young college graduates, nearly a third of whom are estimated to be unemployed or seriously underemployed. It spread to the workers, small business owners and the coastal professional class as a revolt mainly against the flagrant corruption associated with Mr. Ben Ali’s family.

But on Monday, the protesters in the streets appeared more working-class, including some hardened, veteran dissenters abused by Mr. Ben Ali’s government.

Here’s more from Dr. Irving Smokler, president and Steve Schwager, CEO, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) (written just prior to Shabbat):

With turbulent political events occurring in Tunisia, we share with you how the situation is impacting the small, but vibrant Jewish community there.

Tunisia is essentially shut down by a general strike, with massive anti-government demonstrations appearing everywhere. But the Jewish community – 300-500 in Tunis, 100 in Zarzis, 60-80 living in Sfax and Sousse, and approximately 1,000 Jews on the island of Djerba – is not the focus of any demonstration thus far.

As a precaution, police buses now block the entrance to the Jewish Quarter in Djerba.

Although there was a large demonstration of workers in nearby Houmt Souk today – Jewish life in Djerba remains calm and continues almost as usual.

The government has intensified heavy police protection for the Grand Synagogue of Tunis and the central building of the Jewish community. A massive street demonstration on the main boulevard passed by the synagogue without incident; the focus of the protesters remains the current government.

Security forces protecting the Jewish Old Age Home in La Goulette have been increased; no incidents have been reported.

All schools and universities were shut down earlier this week as a precaution against violence and protest vandalism.

Although the Jewish schools in Djerba continue to function normally, the Chabad School in downtown Tunis closed so that it would not to be viewed as different from any other educational establishment there.

Prayer services at the school continue as usual.

Yechiel Bar-Chaim, JDC’s Country Director for Tunisia, reports his main concern for the small 100-member Jewish community in Zarzis on the Tunisian mainland.

On Thursday, four non-Jewish civilians were killed during the protests there and a Jewish shop was among the many that were looted in the city center.

Their funerals today will most probably be followed by an outpouring of public grief and anger.

The Jews of Zarzis live in a two-square block area just off the town center, surrounded by their synagogue, Jewish schools, the mikveh, and the place where chickens are kashered.

On an adjoining street are the jewelry stores where most of the members of the Jewish community earn their living.

Until today this self-imposed “ghetto without walls” was carefully protected 24/7 by the Tunisian police.

But the police have simply disappeared from the streets of Zarzis and the army presence there is basically a passive one.

In fact the police have reportedly disappeared in many places throughout Tunisia. But the Jews in Zarzis will be vulnerable if the demonstrations after the funerals take a wrong turn.

And in fact, four Jewish families from the town have already taken temporary refuge in Djerba.

JDC has been active in Tunisia since 1950, but Jewish communal life there dates back at least 2,300 years, when 30,000 Jews were forced to move from Palestine to Tunisia by the Romans under the Emperor Titus.

After World War II, estimates of the size of the Jewish population in Tunisia range from 105,000 to several times that number.

The community declined to 23,000 by the end of 1967 and to 9,000 by 1990.

And so we call its estimated 1,500 members a remnant, yet still thriving Jewish community.

We will continue to monitor the situation closely and will update you periodically.