A policeman stands guard outside the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia.(FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
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For Tunisian Jews, Firebomb Attacks on Synagogue Open Old Wounds

No one was hurt in several bombing attacks, but as social unrest in Tunisia grows, what will become of the Jews of Djerba?

Jesse Bernstein
January 11, 2018
A policeman stands guard outside the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia.(FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Legend has it that the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, a small island town just off the coast of Tunisia, has roots going back to the Babylonian Exile. The kohanim, the rumor goes, wanting to preserve the parts of the Beit HaMikdash that they could carry, lugged a door and a stone from Jerusalem to Djerba to establish it as a Diaspora outpost. The current building was erected in the 19th century, and most historians peg the original structure as being around 2,000 years old, but the myth has persisted anyway, and each year, Jews from the around the world make a Lag B’Omer pilgrimage to El Ghriba, often described as the oldest synagogue in Africa.

Amid violent protests against over government austerity and the rising cost of living, bombs were thrown into the synagogue, as well as two Jewish schools in the town, earlier this week, a community representative told a Tunisian news outlet. El Ghriba sustained damages, but neither of the schools did. No one was hurt.

Elie Trabelsi, the son of the synagogue’s president, Pérez Trabelsi, took to Facebook to spread the news: “There was a failed attempt to burn down a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Djerba through the use of Molotov cocktails, but thank God, no one was hurt and security and civil protection are now doing their duty.”

As of now, the bombings don’t seem to be connected to the content of the protests, but rather, were the work of opportunistic arsonists who took advantage of the thinly spread government security forces. “These acts were carried out at night and have nothing to do with the ongoing protests,” the ministry’s spokesman, Khalifa Chibani, told a Tunisian news outlet.

The Tunisian embassy did not respond to requests for comment.

El Ghriba has, regrettably, seen worse: In 1985, a policeman charged with watching over the Simchat Torah celebration opened fire on the revelers, killing three, and in 2002, a suicide bomber who was eventually traced to al-Qaeda blew himself up in a truck outside the synagogue and killed 21. Before that attack, up to 8,000 travelers would come to Djerba, home of one of the most unique sects of Judaism in the world. The number is now in the low hundreds, and in 2011, during the Arab Spring, the event was canceled altogether.

The history of Jews in Tunisia is one of the odder collections of up’s and down’s you can find, and I encourage anyone to go and spend a little time researching it. In 1956, just before Tunisia wrested independence from France, 100,000 Jews called the country home; today, there are around 2,000, 700 of them in Djerba. Tunisia has been home to everyone from Max Azria, founder of the global clothing brand BCBGMAXAZRIA, to Victor Perez, a world champion flyweight boxer who died in a death march between Nazi sub-camps (not to mention an Israeli Supreme Court justice, a Chief Rabbi of France, and two cartoonists killed in the Charlie Hebdo shootings). It’s a history of insulation from dominant forms of Judaism that has resulted in a very specific brand of Sephardi ritual, and of being violently subject to the ever-changing whims of the government. Here’s to hoping this is just another chapter, and not the last.

Jesse Bernstein is a former Intern at Tablet.