Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Tunisia an Ancient Jewish Pilgrimage, Controversy - and Hope

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Tunisia an Ancient Jewish Pilgrimage, Controversy - and Hope

Article excerpt

Pilgrims were crowding into the sanctuary, votive candles were glowing under the arches, and a singer from Jerusalem named Moshe Giat was atop a low bench, leading the men in an old and rousing song in Hebrew that ended, "Hear, O Israel!"

Jerusalem? No. This scene took place in Tunisia, where about a thousand Jews are gathered this weekend for an annual Jewish pilgrimage and festival on the island of Djerba. The presence of Israeli visitors like Mr. Giat has become the focus of a sharp controversy among Tunisia's political leaders.

On May 9, legislators at a raucous parliamentary hearing cited support for the Palestinian cause, opposition to Israel, and Israeli attacks on PLO figures in Tunisia in the 1980's as grounds for removing two government ministers and reversing a recent decision to formalize procedures for Israelis visiting Tunisia, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. The government says the move will boost Tunisia's struggling tourism industry by projecting a message of openness.

The polemic is quintessentially Tunisian, combining fears for an economy battered by the country's 2011 revolution, evocations of the Arab world's most enduring cause celebre, and the tumultuous politics of an emerging democracy. For Tunisians, it's also an occasion to weigh their country's priorities.

Ancient rootsAccording to tradition, Jews fled from ancient Israel to Djerba bearing a stone from the temple following its destruction in 586 B.C. by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Today the stone rests in the foundation of the La Ghriba synagogue.

Tunisia's Jewish community has dwindled to about 1,000 since the mid-20th century as regional tensions over Israel and the prospect of jobs abroad led many to emigrate. But the La Ghriba pilgrimage for the Jewish festival of Lag Ba'omer has remained a big draw for Jews of diverse origins.

One is Mr. Giat, who is attending for the sixth time since 1992. After singing, he is seated at a courtyard table in a building beside the synagogue where food is being served and a band is in full swing, eating almonds with fellow Israeli Alan Debasc.

Mr. Debasc, a who owns a pizzeria in Rome and traveled on his Italian passport, recalls bigger crowds in years past. "Then came the intifada and Bin Laden, and everything changed," he says.

In April 2002, a terrorist truck-bombing struck the La Ghriba synagogue, killing 21 people. Most were German tourists. Meanwhile, tensions over the 2000 Second Palestinian Intifada uprising had led Tunisia to close an overseas affairs office in Israel that that had provided entry permits for Israelis since opening in 1996. Yet then- president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali still wanted to reassure Western allies that Tunisia was friendly to Jews.

Israelis continued to visit Tunisia under an ad-hoc arrangement whereby they surrendered their passports to border police in exchange for temporary entry permits. That practice continued after Ben Ali's 2011 overthrow.

Cruise revoltControversy erupted in March after police at La Goulette, near Tunis, barred 14 Israeli cruise ship passengers from going ashore on the grounds that they lacked proper travel documents. The cruise operator, Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Lines, then canceled stops in Tunisia, with other cruise lines reportedly following suit. …

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