May 16, 2014 Special Dispatch No. 5745

Debate In Tunisia Over Israeli Jews' Pilgrimage To Synagogue On Djerba Island

May 16, 2014
North Africa, Tunisia | Special Dispatch No. 5745

A public debate is currently raging in Tunisia over the unwritten permission given to Jews from Israel to visit the El Ghriba synagogue on Djerba Island in southeast Tunisia for the upcoming Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer, which falls this year on May 17. This arrangement was in effect prior to Tunisia's Arab Spring revolution. The synagogue, considered one of the oldest in the world, is linked to miracle stories that have made it a pilgrimage site for Jews and non-Jews alike; in 2002, it was the target of a terrorist attack in which 16 tourists were murdered.

The debate intensified following reports that, in late April, some 60 Israeli tourists were allowed to disembark from a cruise ship docked at La Goulette port in Tunis and to visit a number of other Tunisian cities; previously, Israelis had only been allowed into Tunisia via the Djerba airport.[1]

On May 9, 2014, the Tunisian parliament discussed the issue, after MPs demanded the firing of Tourism Minister Amel Karboul and Deputy Interior Minister Ridha Sfar, claiming that they were promoting normalization with Israel. However, only 80 of the required 109 MPs supported the move.[2]It should be mentioned that some of the MPs who initially supported the move later reversed their position; among them were members of the largest party in the Tunisian parliament, Al-Nahda, which is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).[3]

The following is a review of the support for and opposition to the permit given to the Israeli Jews to enter Tunisia, along with excerpts from an op-ed on the subject by writer Ahmed Maghrabi.

The El Ghriba synagogue (image:

Supporters: Israeli Tourism Will Benefit The Economy

Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa argued that permitting Israelis to enter the country would benefit the economy.[4] He said that "the season of pilgrimage to the El Ghriba [synagogue] must succeed so as not to harm the tourism season,"[5] and stressed that "the practice of allowing Israelis into the country has existed for years in an unofficial capacity." He added, however, that his government "was dealing transparently with this issue." Tourism Minister Amel Karboul said that the success of the pilgrimage could help the tourism season and "Tunisia's image, and can serve as an indicator of the country's security and stability."[6]

This position received substantial support from Rached Al-Ghannouchi, head of the MB-associated Al-Nahda Party, who said that "the pilgrimage to Djerba takes place every year, and previous governments agreed to it." However, Al-Ghannouchi stressed that Tunisia stands with the Palestinian people, "supports its rights... and opposes normalization [with Israel]."[7]

Opponents: The Move Constitutes Normalization With Israel, Harms Palestinian Honor

The camp opposed to the permission granted to the Israelis includes Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou and various MPs.[8] A MP from Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki's Congrés pour la République (CPR) party, Selim Ben Hmidane, told, "Post-revolution Tunisia's slogan is that honor comes before bread, and that normalization is a red line."[9] MP Azad Bady from the Wafa Movement said that "the success of the tourism season does not require normalization with and the hosting of those who legitimized the spilling of the blood of our brethren in Palestine and stole our land and honor."[10]

This is not the first time that elements in the Tunisian parliament have attempted to pass anti-normalization resolutions, but they have thus far been unsuccessful. For instance, several months ago a group of MPs demanded the addition of an article to the constitution rejecting normalization with Israel, but the parliament dismissed it.[11] Furthermore, when Amel Karboul was appointed tourism minister in January 2014, MPs demanded that she be fired because she had visited Israel in 2006. Karboul actually submitted her resignation, but Prime Minister Jomaa did not accept it.[12] However, in March 2014, Tunisian authorities stopped 14 Israelis from disembarking from a cruise ship anchored in Tunis, claiming they did not have the proper permits.[13]

'Al-Hayat' Writer: I Support Visits By Israelis But Oppose The Zionist Enterprise

Lebanese journalist Ahmed Maghrabi, CIT and science editor for the London daily Al-Hayat, wrote that he supports Israeli tourism in Tunisia, calling it a testament to "the enduring legacy of the Tunisian people" and to its openness and ability to separate the Jewish faith from "the Israeli occupation enterprise." He added that people used to be aware of this distinction, particularly in North Africa, and that this enabled Jews to join the political leaderships of those countries and take part in the struggles of their peoples.

Maghrabi stressed that the conflict with Israel is national and cultural, not religious, and that the Arabs should therefore make a clear distinction between the Jewish religion and the "Zionist Settlement Enterprise" – a distinction which he says infuriates Israel more than anything else. They should also refrain from directing their criticism at issues like Jewish pilgrimage or like the Holocaust, for this plays into the hands of Zionist propaganda that uses the Holocaust to justify the occupation. He also argued that criticism directed at Israel by Jews around the world and even in Israel itself is the most effective measure against its exploitation of the Holocaust and its "racist actions" against the Palestinians. He wrote:[14]

"There is nothing sadder than the Arabs shouldering the burden of others... and volunteering to strangle themselves and exacerbate their own catastrophes for the sake of causes that are not their own. Isn't this the case with the misguided debate concerning the Jewish pilgrimage to Tunisia, [pilgrimage] that has become part of the enduring legacy of the Tunisian people and [its ability] to view religion from a broader cultural perspective? Have we learned nothing from the [Arabs' general tendency to] passionately serve non-Arab causes by involving themselves in tragic discussions about the Holocaust, [for example]? How comi-tragic is the fact that Hitler's Nazism in Germany, under the banner of Aryan supremacy, carried out the heinous massacre of the Holocaust – and that the Arabs now defend the actions of Hitler's racism and his Aryan Nazi fanaticism? This tragedy reaches a crescendo when Arabs defend Hitler's massacre, while Zionist ideological propaganda exploits the slaughter [of Jews] during the Holocaust and even [uses it] to justify the colonial occupation in Palestine and the expulsion of the Palestinian people, as well as the eradication of its national and cultural identity. Jewish-American intellectual Norman Finkelstein, who has relatives who are Holocaust survivors, called this despicable exploitation 'the Holocaust Industry.' [At the same time], some Arabs defend the Holocaust with enthusiastic Arab passion... without knowing that they are serving the Zionist enterprise...

"The conflict with the Zionist enterprise in Palestine is patriotic, nationalist, and cultural; it is in no way a conflict with the Jewish faith. One of the most despicable aspects of the Zionist enterprise is its exploitation of the Jewish faith and of the tragedies in the collective Jewish memory – which do not concern the Arabs – to justify the Israeli settlement occupation. Because Hitler's Nazism focused on the Jews as a religious group, Zionism saw this as the clearest and cruelest example of Jewish persecution, and therefore included it in their extremist ideological discourse – a discourse that uses Hitler's actions in Germany to excuse the takeover of Palestine. Thus, Zionism itself becomes a racist ideology with Nazi attributes, in the sense that it is the mirror image of Nazism.

"The Zionist discourse includes a massive and heinous exploitation of the Jewish faith... For this reason, it is always important to mention that nothing disproves Zionism's claims better than Jews who object to its political statements and racist actions against Arabs. It is also worth mentioning that nothing angers Zionism more than the attempts to separate Judaism, a monotheistic faith, from the Zionist ideology, a political settlement enterprise that serves the interests of powerbrokers and superpowers – and in particular, [their desire for] hegemony over the Arab region.

"One small example of someone who caused arrogant Zionists to lose sleep by directing attention towards the difference between the Zionist settlement enterprise and the Jewish faith is the intellectual Edward Said. Said worried the Zionists, who directed every ounce of their fury at him for many reasons, including his friendship with Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim and the fact that the two together established the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Pilas, Seville [Spain,] to remind people of Arab-Jewish coexistence in Andalusia.

"When the Arab liberation project was rising in prominence and cultural consciousness, its ranks were full of Arab elements that were diverse in terms of religion, race, and ethnicity. These days, when the extremist Islamic discourse in the Arab world has expanded to such tragic dimensions that it has replaced the [true] image of Arabs and Muslims with its own extremist terrorist [image], things have become surreal. However, during more open times, the Egyptian Jew Henri Curiel[15] became a founding member of the Democratic Movement for National Liberation, which played a crucial role in the Egyptian people's struggle against Hitler's fascism and the British occupation. Similarly, back when there was greater awareness of the difference between the Jewish faith and the Israeli settlement enterprise, [Jewish] Moroccan intellectual Abraham Serfaty[16] was one of the leaders of the Palestinian liberation movement. Also [back then], a Jewish warrior like author Selim Nassib[17] joined the Lebanese left wing... There is yet another shining example: Daniel Bensaid, a French [Jewish] intellectual of Moroccan descent, whose mildest term for Israel is 'a racist entity.'

"Since the establishment of the Zionist enterprise, Israeli elements that also oppose fascist Zionist ambitions have emerged. The Israeli peace camp and enlightened left-wing liberal elements are examples of Israelis who oppose fascist Zionism...

"In light of all this, which is merely the tip of the iceberg, it is a shame that the Jewish pilgrimage to the El Ghriba synagogue on Djerba Island is a topic for argument in Tunisia, [particularly] following the success of its Jasmine Revolution. In all likelihood, the Tunisian people's enduring experience in cultural liberalism that opposes the Israeli enterprise [but accepts Jews] constitutes cultural progress that elevates both Tunisia and Palestine, as well as Arab peoples and the Islamic faith."


[1], April 25, 2014.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 11, 2014.

[3] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 10, 2014.

[4] It should be mentioned that two international cruise lines have cancelled 16 stops in Tunisia because of its ambiguous policy vis-à-vis Israeli tourist entry to the country. Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 9, 2014.

[5]; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 25, 2014.

[6] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 8, 2014.

[7], April 27, 2014.

[8], April 25, 2014.

[9], April 26, 2014.

[10], April 25, 2014.

[11], May 4, 2014.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), January 30, 2014.

[13], April 25, 2014.

[14] Al-Hayat (London), January 30, 2014.

[15] A Jewish Egyptian left-wing activist and head of the Democratic Movement for National Liberation. He was expelled from Egypt in 1950 and later aided the Algerian National Liberation Front. He was assassinated in Paris in 1978.

[16] A political activist, member of the Moroccan Communist Party, and an opponent of King Hassan II in Morocco, he struggled against colonialism and was imprisoned for 17 years, after which he was exiled from Morocco for eight more years. After King Hassan II's death, and following political changes in Morocco and pressure from human rights organizations, Serfaty returned to Morocco in September 2000 following a special royal decree. He died in November 2010.

[17] A Beirut-born Middle East affairs reporter who has resided in France since 1969.

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