The Last Jews of Tunisia
June 25, 2012
Jews lived all over the Middle East and North Africa for thousands of years, and they lived among Arab Muslims for more than 1,000 years, but they’re almost extinct now in the Arab world. Arabs and Jews didn’t live well together, exactly, but they co-existed five times longer than the United States has existed. They weren’t always token minorities, either. Baghdad was almost a third Jewish during the first half of the 20th century. Morocco and Tunisia are the last holdouts. In Tunisia, only 1,500 remain.
What happened? What changed? Islam didn’t happen all of a sudden, nor did the arrival of Arabs in Mesopotamia, the Levant, and North Africa. Both have been firmly in place since the 7th century. A far more recent cascade of events transformed the region, and for the worse: the occupation of Arab lands by Nazi Germany and its puppet Vichy France, the Holocaust, post-Ottoman Arab Nationalism, Israel’s declaration of independence, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
As a consequence of all that, rather than the Arab invasion or the rise of the Islamic religion, almost the entire Arab world is Judenrein now. And since the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic regime in Iran, relations between Arabs and Jews are worse than they were at any time during the entire history of either.
Yet 1,500 Jews hang on in Tunisia. The ancien Ben Ali regime kept them safe, as has Tunisia’s relatively tolerant and cosmopolitan culture. But what will become of them now that Ben Ali is in exile and his government is overthrown?
I met with Haim Bittan, the chief rabbi of Tunis. My colleague Armin Rosen joined me, as did our fixer and translator Ahmed Medien.
“You should say something to the rabbi in Hebrew,” Ahmed told Armin. Armin is Jewish and speaks a bit of the language of Israel. “It will make him happy.”
The three of us met the rabbi and his assistant in an office behind an enormous synagogue in central Tunis. I wanted to take a picture of the synagogue, but the police wouldn’t let me. They’re worried someone might bomb it. I found one on Wikipedia, though.
Armin took Ahmed’s advice and greeted the rabbi and his assistant in Hebrew. Their faces lit up. It was an interesting moment. There were five of us in that room. Three Jews, one nominal Christian (me), and one nominal Muslim (Ahmed). For the first time since Armin arrived in the country, he wasn’t the token Jew in the room.
“How has the situation here changed for the Jews of Tunisia,” I said, “since the fall of Ben Ali?”
“Nothing has changed,” the rabbi said. “It’s the same situation since Ben Ali’s fall.”
“This is a country ruled by an Islamist government,” Armin said. “Do you feel that presents any problems for the Jewish community?
“There’s no problem between the government and the Jewish community,” the rabbi said.
“But I have seen photographs of Salafists with their black flag in front of the synagogue here intimidating people,” I said. “Was that a one-time event, or are you worried they might become increasingly dangerous?”
“They don’t bother me,” the rabbi said. “They lived with us before. That incident was their business, not ours.”
What kind of answers were these?
Ahmed, our Tunisian translator and fixer, had a question of his own for the rabbi.
“Does it bother you that some people want Islamic law in the constitution?” he said.
“There’s no problem at all,” the rabbi said, “because the constitution is not written.”
“He doesn’t want to answer,” Ahmed said quietly to Armin and me as he leaned back in his chair.
I’m not even sure why the rabbi agreed to be interviewed. He answered almost all of our questions this way, as did his assistant. They answered as though the entire Arab world would judge them for what they said and pounce if they uttered a peep of complaint. They reminded me of citizens of police states who are asked on the record what they think of the government.
I didn’t want to get them in trouble or give them the third degree, but I needed something other than packaged boilerplate answers, so I chose a question that couldn’t be easily dodged. The rabbi’s assistant wore a black yarmulke or kippah on the top of his head, which marked him out as an obvious Jew, and I addressed my question to him.
“Do you walk around, either of you, on the street wearing the kippah?”
He vigorously shook his head. “We don’t,” he said. “People might think we’re Zionists and we don’t want that, so we wear a hat.”
They had at least one problem then. They felt the need to be closeted, at least on the street. That’s never a good sign.
Christians don’t have to hide the fact that they’re Christian. Everyone in Tunisia who so much as glanced at me surely assumed I’m a Christian (that is, if they gave the matter any thought in the first place) since I look European. Nearly all were perfectly friendly.
They were perfectly friendly to Armin, as well. His complexion makes him look ethnically ambiguous. He could be Hispanic, Arab, Italian, Israeli. He could be many things. He received no more and no less hospitality than I did. But what if he walked around wearing a kippah or a necklace with a six-pointed star? The rabbi’s assistant wouldn’t dare.
It’s hard to say, though, how much trouble Armin actually would have faced had he done that. Israelis can and do visit Tunisia. They can do so on their own passports. They don’t have to use second passports from a country like Britain or the United States the way Israeli visitors to Lebanon do.
And here’s the thing: when you visit Tunisia you have to produce your passport a lot. You have to produce your passport every time you check into a hotel. You have to produce your passport to rent a car. You have to show your passport to police officers and the national guard at checkpoints. (That happened to me a number times.) So Israelis—not just Jews, but Israelis—can and do wander around all over Tunisia and announce to the police and to the staff at hotels, airports, and car rental offices that they’re Israelis. And supposedly they don’t experience any problems.
I’m not sure what to make of it. I’d like to report that the Jews are doing just fine, but if that’s the case, why were the rabbi and his assistant so cagey? And why wouldn’t they go out in public looking like Jews? Ahmed didn’t even blink when Armin told him he’s Jewish, nor did he mind in the slightest that Armin and I have both been to Israel. Ahmed, though, is a well-educated tri-lingual professional, and his own views of the Arab-Israeli conflict are, shall we say, unconventional compared with those of his neighbors…