Hope, tight security for Tunisia’s Jewish pilgrimage

Published: Updated:

Pilgrims began arriving on Friday at Tunisia’s Ghriba synagogue, the oldest in Africa, expressing hope that 2013 would mark a turning point for the ritual despite a rise in Islamist unrest since the 2011 revolution.

The annual pilgrimage, which runs from Friday to Sunday and involves two processions, is taking place amid tight security, with reinforcements deployed around Djerba, the Mediterranean resort island that houses the synagogue.

More than a dozen army trucks were stationed at Ghriba itself, where an Al-Qaeda attack in 2002 killed 21 people, with police checkpoints set up around the nearby Jewish neighborhoods and on the road linking the airport to the tourist zone.

Organizers hope to welcome between 1,000 and 1,500 pilgrims over the weekend, including some 500 foreigners, among them several dozen Israelis for the first time since the revolution.

Before Friday’s procession, the faithful entered the 2,500-year-old place of worship barefoot and with their heads covered, to light a candle, take a sip of Boukha, or local fig wine, and receive a blessing from the rabbis.

“Thank God this year is as it should be, not like in the last two years. I came then, but out of solidarity. There were no real festivities,” said Meyer Sabbagh, 63, a real estate developer who left Djerba for Paris after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War also known as the Yom Kippur war.

“There are police this year, it’s great. There are a good dozen at the entrance to the Hara (a Jewish neighborhood). My cousin has even come from Israel,” said the businessman.

The anticipated number of pilgrims is still far below the 8,000 that came before the 2002 attack, and even the 3,000 that came before the revolution that toppled former strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

The event was cancelled that year with the country on edge after the mass uprisings, but it resumed discreetly in 2012 and no incidents were reported.

Friza Haddad, known as Micha, a Tunisian singer and familiar voice at the annual Ghriba ceremonies, said he wanted to believe there was a future for the pilgrimage, on an island where Jews and Muslims have coexisted harmoniously.

“Here is there is no problem, we live as a community. There are Jews here and Muslims there. But it’s only on Djerba that things are like that. In the last two years there have been problems elsewhere” in Tunisia, said the old man.

A wave of attacks by Islamist militants has rocked the country since Ben Ali fled, most notably on the US embassy in Tunis last September.

For all the confidence of the organizers at the extra security, some groups have raised concerns over an apparent rise in anti-Semitic language in Tunisia, accusing the authorities of not taking the problem seriously.

A minority’s support group last month accused the judiciary of failing to bring prosecutions for inciting hatred, a crime punishable by three years in jail.

The group pointed to the case of Ahmed S’hili, an imam from a suburb of the capital who has still not faced investigation after calling on God to eradicate the Jews in a sermon late last year.

The Ghriba ritual, which begins 33 days after the start of the Jewish Passover festival, is a central event in the calendar of Tunisia’s Jewish community, which has shrunk to around 1,500 members, from 100,000 before independence in 1956.

According to legend, the synagogue was founded in 586 BC by Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.