May 21, 2014 Special Dispatch No. 5752

Tunisian Journalist: 'Whatever Their Nationality, Jews Were And Will Always Be Welcome In Tunisia!'

May 21, 2014
North Africa, Tunisia | Special Dispatch No. 5752

A public debate recently raged in Tunisia over the permission given to Jews from Israel to visit the El Ghriba synagogue on Djerba Island in southeast Tunisia for the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer, which fell this year on May 17.[1] This arrangement was in effect before Tunisia's Arab Spring revolution. The synagogue, considered one of the oldest in the world, attracts Jewish pilgrims from numerous countries, including Israel, many of them Jews of Tunisian origin.

Supporters of the arrangement whereby Israelis are allowed to visit the synagogue argued that this tourism benefits the Tunisian economy and that legitimate criticism of Israel need not cause unjustified hostility towards Jews. Opponents, on the other hand, argued that allowing visits by Israelis constituted normalization with Israel and harmed the Palestinian cause. The debate intensified following reports that, in late April, some 60 Israeli tourists had been 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.[2] On May 9, 2014, the Tunisian parliament even discussed a motion by several MPs who demanded the firing of Tourism Minister Amel Karboul and Deputy Interior Minister Ridha Sfar, on the grounds that they were promoting normalization with Israel; however, only 80 of the required 109 MPs supported the move.[3]

Eventually, Israelis were allowed to take part in the three-day pilgrimage this year,[4] and on May 18, Tourism Minister Amel Karboul even paid a visit to the Jewish community in Djerba and the synagogue itself, and attended some of the rituals.[5] Several days before the start of the pilgrimage, Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou, of the Islamist Al-Nahda movement, likewise visited the Djerba Jewish community and the synagogue to inspect the security arrangements being made. [6]

Tourism Minister Amel Karboul lights candles in the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba (image:, May 19, 2014)

Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou greets Perez Trabelsi, head of the Jewish community in Djerba (image: Patriotes Juifs Tunisiens Facebook page, May 13, 2014)

As part of the public debate prior to the pilgrimage, Nizar Bahloul, editor of the Tunisian e-daily Business News, wrote an article in which he supported hosting the Israelis and slammed those who were against it. He slammed the MPs who objected to this, saying that they were seeking publicity and dealing with trivialities instead of addressing the country's real woes. He added that it would be indecent and immoral of Tunisia to prevent Israeli Jews from performing their pilgrimage, and that Tunisia must not behave as the Israelis do when they deny Palestinians entry to the Al-Aqsa mosque. Bahloul clarified that normalization with Israel is not, and has never been, on the table. Finally, he advised Amel Karboul and Ridha Sfar (the officials who were accused of normalizing relations) to bluntly tell their accusers to shut up.

It should be noted that he also claimed that Jews have much clout in the European tourism trade, so angering them could hurt tourism in Tunisia – an idea that was voiced by other media outlets as well.[7]

The following are excerpts from his article, titled "Whatever Their Nationality, Jews Were and Will Always Be Welcome in Tunisia!":[8]

The El Ghriba Synagogue Was Built Long Before The Arrival Of Islam In Tunisia

"The MPs of the National Constituent Assembly [the body currently acting as Tunisia's parliament] do not miss any opportunity to interfere with the hope of reviving Tunisian economy. [To them], the most important thing is to be at the center of attention, at the front of the stage and on the front pages of the media. Nobody heard them talking about the economic crisis, requesting a hearing with the Minister of Foreign Affairs concerning the kidnapping of two Tunisians (one of whom is a diplomat) in Libya, or demanding the prosecution of former ministers involved in scandals of nepotism, fictitious jobs and embezzlement.

"No, our MPs are only concerned with the [upcoming] visit of a few dozen Israelis, who intend to do a pilgrimage to one of the sites most symbolic for them, the El Ghriba [synagogue] in Djerba. The El Ghriba [synagogue] has been there for over two thousand years; [it was built] long before the arrival of Islam in Tunisia. The pilgrimage [too] has been carried out for more than two thousand years, since long before the Tunisians became Arabs and Muslims. [But] our MPs disregard the history of this country and of their forefathers...

"In January 2012, when Palestinian Hamas leader Ismail Haniya arrived in Tunisia, hundreds of locals gathered at the Tunis-Carthage airport yelling 'Death to the Jews!' The MPs had nothing to say to that, [though] the Islamist El-Nahdha party took swift action to calm down its troops by issuing a communiqué condemning these antisemitic slogans... Now nobody will insult the Jews again, since this is politically incorrect, but they will continue to insult Zionists and Israelis.

"In April 2012, before the El Ghriba pilgrimage, then-prime minister Hamadi Jebali [of Al-Nahda] said that Tunisia would host Jewish pilgrims in El Ghriba, as it always had. The message [conveyed by] the head of this Islamist government was clear: Israelis were welcome, since there had always been some Israelis among the El Ghriba pilgrims. And, for those who still had doubts, the official Tunisian press agency, TAP, further clarified the issue. A dispatch from April 16, 2012 read: 'The El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba hosts almost six thousand pilgrims annually, most of them from Europe and Israel'. [Later], under the government of Ali Laarayedh, [also of Al-Nahda], we saw then-minister of tourism Jamel Gamra posing for a photo with a famous Israeli singer [Bezalel Raviv, whose song "Tunisia" became a hit in that country[9]]. Back then no MP reacted. Why are they acting like this now?

Israeli singer Bezalel Raviv with former Tunisian tourism minister Jamel Gamra and Rene Trabelsi, of the Djerba Jewish community (image:, April 25, 2014 )

Tunisia Has No Right To Bar Pilgrims From The Synagogue; Nobody Suggested Normalizing Relations With Israel

"Current Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, [the head of the Jewish community in Djerba] Perez Trabelsi, and the Tunisian Hotel Federation have [all] reminded us that the El Ghriba pilgrimage is important for Tunisian tourism. An MP from Wafa, one of the most extremist Tunisian parties, pretended not to understand the connection between the Israelis' visit and tourism. Do we need to remind him that most of the tour operators in Europe, who fill up our hotels, belong to the Jewish community, and that they will not tolerate discrimination against their co-religionists?...

"Furthermore,... there is a question of principles. Tunisia does not have the moral right to prohibit anyone from performing his religious rites just because it controls access to this religious site. This is both indecent and immoral. Muslims are well acquainted with the sense of injustice [felt] whenever Israel denies Palestinians access to the [Al-Aqsa] mosque in Jerusalem. We Tunisians should not behave like the Zionist Israelis do in Israel. Don't we often say that Islam is of a religion of peace and tolerance? Then let us implement these values!

"As for Israel and the question of normalizing [relations] with the Jewish state, the Mehdi Jomaa government has never suggested [this possibility] or even hinted at it. Even [former presidents] Ben Ali and Bourghiba never blatantly put this issue on the table. Under Ben Ali, [the establishment] of a liaison office was considered, but the geo-political and historical context [at the time] was rather unique. This was back in 1994, when Yasser Arafat received the Peace Nobel Prize together with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. There was [an atmosphere] of peace and normalization, which failed because of the many hawks on both sides. The story ended in 1995 with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin...

Pilgrim lights a candle at the El Ghriba synagogue (image: gettyimages)

"I would like [Deputy Interior Minister for Security] Ridha Sfar and [Tourism Minister] Amel Karboul to tell the parliament, preferably in blunt and undiplomatic terms: 'Ladies and gentlemen, you were elected for one year and your mandate ended on October 22, 2012. You were elected to draw up a constitution, and now the constitution is done. You were silent when the Israelis came in 2012 and 2013, under the Troika government. You were also silent when Tunisians were assassinated under this government, nor do you seem overly concerned by the kidnapping of our countrymen. Now please shut up! You know nothing of politics, you know nothing of economics, you know nothing of history, so shut up and let us work. If you keep silent we will be better able to serve Tunisia.'"


[1] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5745Debate In Tunisia Over Israeli Jews' Pilgrimage To Synagogue On Djerba Island May 16, 2014.

[2], April 25, 2014.

[4] According to reports, some 1,500 people participated in the three-day pilgrimage this year, including French, Italian and Israeli nationals., May 19, 2014.

[5], May 19, 2014

[6] (Tunisia), May 18, 2014.

[7] See for example, April 23, 2014.

[8], April 28, 2014.

[9] For the song, see:

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