A question I’m asked frequently these days: is it safe for Jews to travel in countries like Tunisia? So far, my answer continues to be yes.
Turmoil in Tunisia
Concerns stem from the recent ouster of longtime dictator Zine Abidine Ben Ali. While he was an inflexible ruler, his government did provide protection to the Jewish community. Apart from an isolated incident in 2002, when a terrorist attack on a Jerba synagogue killed 21 people (none Jewish), the community had not felt under seige since the days of official state persecution and pogroms.
In a recently published interview with the president of Tunisia’s Jewish community, hope was expressed for the future, based upon the fact that many local Jews considered themselves to be a part of the upheaval that led to Ben Ali’s ouster. While they are happy that his dictatorship has gone, hope is guarded, due to concerns that someone might exploit the power vacuum and Jews become caught in the middle. But so far, the only troubling event has been the burning of a synagogue, but this was felt to be part of a larger wave of arson overtaking the country.
Jewish Roots in Tunisia
The corner of the Mediterranean in which Tunisia is located has been home to Jews since antiquity. Prior to the 1940s, approximately 100,000 Jews resided in Tunisia. By 1967, the number had dropped to 20,000. Today, only about 1,500 Jews live there, mainly in the capital city of Tunis and on the island of Djerba (or Jerba). Djerba has been a Jewish stronghold for over 2,000 years.
Judaism in Tunisia Today
While the Jewish community’s numbers are greatly diminished, only one Jewish family appears to have left the country for good since the January 2011 uprising. Pilgrimages are still made to Jerusalem, but travelers generally return to Tunisia. Jews live peacefully in a country that is almost entirely Muslim and that holds Islam as its state religion. However, Jews are permitted to hold joint Israeli-Tunisian nationality, and Jewish and Muslim neighbors co-exist comfortably.
Apart from the synagogue, few Jewish institutions still exist. There is no Jewish school in Tunisia, no social club or community center. The primary event that focuses Jewish celebration of its traditions is the annual pilgrimage to La Ghriba Synagogue by thousands of Sephardic Jews from not only Africa but elsewhere. Together, they celebrate the holiday of Lag B’Omer, and enthusiastic crowd fill the streets with festive music and food. I was privileged to experience this event, and joined students and pilgrims in toasts of fig liquor and a huge barbecue. I also watched as Torahs, some over 200 years old, were paraded through the streets of Hara Seghira.
If you’re feeling more reassured about the safety of Tunisia for Jewish visitors, let me share with you some of the sights and experiences of Tunisia that would make a visit worthwhile.
Tunisia sits on an upper corner of Africa, on the Mediterranean coast between Libya and Algeria, and just a stone’s throw from Italy. As a Middle Eastern country without oil, Tunisia relies heavily upon tourism. And there’s certainly much to see, from ancient ruins to beautiful seas and desert vistas.
Following are some of my top recommendations.
The Island of Djerba
Famous for its beautiful sandy beaches, olive and fig groves, quaint villages, and the Ghriba synagogue, the island is Tunisia’s primary tourist attraction. Djerba is sometimes known as the “Land of the Lotus Eaters” of Homerian legend. Like the famous Greek character, if you eat the fruits of Djerba, you may be in danger of forgetting your past life, too. It’s a hypnotic and lovely island. Its centerpiece is the Ghriba synagogue, originally built in 586 B.C.E.
Built by Arabs centuries ago, medinas are a common feature of many North African cities. They consist of walled sections of the old city, with narrow and maze-like streets, usually closed to all but pedestrian traffic. There you’ll also find merchants setting up their wars in markets that are famous for both their variety and their vigorous haggling. You can buy anything from jewelry to a donkey — but be prepared to barter! My favorite is found in the capital city of Tunis. Make sure you venture behind the more touristy section. Many of the streets are cobblestoned with arched stone gates, and you’ll find diverse shops, cafes, a mosque, and museums. Wear comfortable shoes and take your time. I have often sat in a little café and sipped mint tea with pine nuts while watching the street life.
The “Tunisian Riviera”
The city of Hammamet is a resort town with a prime location on the Mediterranean. Check out its Roman baths and palm-lined beach. Travel a bit farther inland, and you’ll come upon one of its most unusual sights, and a favorite of mine. The villa of George Sebastian, built in the 1920s, is such a striking building that it led the architect Frank Lloyd Wright to declare it the most beautiful house he’s ever seen. It’s now a cultural center which you can tour. Check out the 4-person baptistry-style bath and the huge arcaded swimming pool, among other features.
Some Final Thoughts
If concerns about safety are still in your mind, let me offer this final reassurance. Whenever I’ve treated people in Tunisia with kindness and respect, they’ve usually reciprocated. Remember to say thank you — shukran. They’ll be delighted at your efforts, and you’re sure to earn smiles.