Under tight security, a large group of 5,000 Jews returned to Africa’s oldest synagogue last week for their first large-scale visit since 2011. Located in the Tunisian island of Djerba, the El Ghriba synagogue is believed to date back to the time of the destruction of the First Temple, when high priests escaping their Babylonian persecutors carried artifacts from the holy site in Jerusalem and settled in Tunisia. The site is now a destination for Jewish pilgrims, who arrive every Lag BaOmer to pray there.
The holy site is not without its history of violence: In 1985, a Tunisian policeman opened fire on a crowd of Jews celebrating Simchat Torah, killing three people, one of them a child. In 2002, al-Qaeda terrorists detonated a truck bomb nearby, killing 21 people. The annual celebration was canceled in 2011, after the uprising that ended President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s longtime regime, and was attended by small numbers of Jews every year thereafter due to security concerns.
This year, however, thousands of Jews returned to Djerba, many saying that the rising levels of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence in Europe make them feel safer in Tunisia. “Today,” one French visitor told the Israeli press, “we feel safer in Tunisia than in Paris.”
The celebration included two days of chanting and dancing, as well as lit candles and wrote wishes on eggs. Many celebrated by enjoying boukha, a fig liqueur that is popular with Tunisian Jews. Once a thriving community numbering more than 100,000 people, the Tunisian Jewish community today has fewer than 2,000 members. And while the community has been targeted in recent anti-government demonstrations, last week’s festivities were secured by hundreds of law enforcement officials patrolling the area surrounding the synagogues and by checkpoints around the perimeter, ensuring that no unauthorized person came near.
“This celebration,” said Isabel Guez, a visitor from Paris, “is a great opportunity for rapprochement between Muslims, Jews and other religions and an opportunity to call for peace and love across the world.”
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.