This year, after two consecutive years of holding conferences and film screenings to mark the Season of Twinning in Tunis, we decided to take our 2015 Season of Twinning event into the streets of the city. Part of our message in in doing so is that despite two high profile ISIS-inspired terror attacks in Tunisia this year which took a horrific toll in innocent lives, Tunisian Jews and Muslims are friends and not afraid to publicly encounter each other.
In cooperation with Yamina Thabet and her Tunisian Association in Support of Minorities, FFEU European Coordinator Samia Hathroubi led a tour of the old Jewish quarter of Tunis and held meetings with members of the small, but influential Jewish population which has remained there.
In 1945, there were more than 100,000 Jews in Tunisia, with the majority in the capital. Today, about 700 Jews remain in Tunis, with 1200 more in the ancient community on the island of Djerba. Yet many from the large Tunisian Jewish diasporas in France, Canada, Israel and elsewhere remain engaged with the community and visit here frequently for religious pilgirimages.
The tour of the Jewish Quarter began with a visit to the Cimetery Borgel, where the visitors were informed that 70 years ago the Jewish population of Tunis was a vibrant mix of people who had lived for generations in Tunisia, and others known collectively as “the Grana” who had migrated here from Italy, Portugal and Malta.
After that, we went to the Commemoration Masoleum, where we stood in silence in memory for all the Tunisian Jews who either died in work camps established by the Nazis in Tunisia during their occupation of the country in 1942-1943 or were deported to the death camps of Europe during the same terrible period.
We then headed to the Hafsia, the heart of the former Jewish quarter located in the heart of the medina (marketplace) of old Tunis. Within a cramped several bloc blocks almost 60 synagogues once stood. Today, many of these buildings are chic coffee houses, yet if one looks closely it is possible to find tell-tale signs–such as now empty alcoves in walls that once held mezuzzot —revealing that here were once Jewish homes and places of worship.
Moche Uzan, assistant to the Chief Rabbi of Tunis, Benjamin Hattab, gave a passionate presentation of the history of the Hafsia, complete with many colorful and moving anecdotes. The two men are now collaborating on a book showcasing the glorious history and complex present day reality of the Tunisian Jewish community.
Following the visit to the Jewish community, Samia Hathroubi held a meeting with members of Tunisian young adults organizations to give an overview of her work on behalf of FFEU in strengthening Muslim-Jewish relations across Europe. Participants in the event were all in their 20’s and included members of the Youth Council of Tunisia and of Yala, a youth empowerment organization.
The discussion focused on the pressing need for Tunisians to better understand their pluralistic identity, including its Judaic component. Embracing this identity, and affirming the rights of Jews, Christians and other minorities to full citizenship and participation in public life will spur the process of democratization here five years after the Arab Spring was launched with demonstrations in Tunis against the dictatorial regime then in power.
Participants in the Young Adults event expressed enthusiasm for the mottos #NousSommesUnis and #Werefusetobeenemies. They vowed to participate in the Season of Twinning 2017, which will be a cultural event focused on the multi-faceted identity of Tunisia, including its Jewish part.