Jewish pilgrims ignore threats to attend Tunisian festival

Jewish pilgrims ignore threats to attend Tunisian festival
Feature: On May 6-7, Tunisian Jews will congregate at Djerba Island's synagogue to celebrate Lag B'Omer, despite previous attacks and warnings of more.
3 min read
06 May, 2015
Tunisian Jews will celebrate Lag B'Omer amid tight security [AFP]

Each year, thousands of Jewish pilgrims flock to al-Ghriba synagogue at the Tunisian tourist resort of Djerba Island.

Ghriba is said to be the oldest synagogue in Africa, and sits in the town of al-Riadh, in the centre of the island, and one of the last significant Jewish communities in the Arab world.

During the Lag B'Omer Jewish festival, pilgrims pay their respects at the tombs of famous rabbis.

Lag B'Omer, or 'counting of Omer', is a time when a mourning period is lifted, and Jewish people across the world celebrate with parties, weddings, and family outings.

The pilgrimage will last for two days - from Wednesday night to Thursday evening.

Officials hope that it will boost the tourist industry, which took a heavy blow when militants stormed Tunis' Bardo Museum in March, shooting dead 21 people.

The authorities are taking no chances this year, and security has been stepped up.

If successful, Tunisians hope it will show their country as a place of tolerance and peaceful interreligious coexistence.

Mohammed Najem Gharsalli, the interior minister, paid a visit to Djerba Island on Saturday to check on security arrangements for the festival.

He said Tunisia could protect the island's Jewish community and pilgrims "better than any other country", and said he was confident that the security measures in place will ensure a safe and peaceful festival for visitors.

"Tunisia is a safe country and Djerba, too, is a safe city. Visitors from the world over are welcome," Gharsalli said.

'Concrete threats'

"What I am saying now is a response to many who cast doubt over Tunisia's security and its capacity to secure celebrations."

     Tunisia is a safe country and Djerba, too, is a safe city. Visitors from the world over are welcome.
Mohammed Najem Gharsalli, interior minister 

This was not enough to reassure Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who warned pilgrims against visiting Tunisia because of "concrete threats" against Jews.

"Information indicates that there are plans for terrorist attacks against Israelis or Jews in Tunisia," read a statement issued by the Israeli PM's office on Saturday.

Perez Trabelsi, the head of the Ghriba synagogue, has grown used to such attitudes and urged Jews from across the world to come to Djerba Island for the festival.

He told al-Araby al-Jadeed that every year he hears the rumours that militant attacks on pilgrims have been planned, but tight security ensures the festival passes peacefully.

However, in 2002 al-Qaeda targeted Ghriba synagogue with a huge explosion that killed 19 people.

Before the attack as many as 10,000 pilgrims would visit the island.

This year, Trabelsi predicts that 2,000 will come. Most will be Jews from the island and the rest of Tunisia, along with some French and Israelis with Tunisian roots. 

Although the 2002 attack scared away many Jewish tourists from the country, Tunisian Jews spoken to by al-Araby say they do not feel under threat - both during the pilgrimage or at any other time.

There are 1,500 Tunisian Jews today, although this is down from the 100,000 who lived in the country when Tunisia gained independence in 1956.

A Tunisians Jewish man from Zarzis Haim Haddad told al-Araby that his coreligionists have the same rights and duties in Tunisia and the Muslim majority.

He trusts the state to protect the Jews during their pilgrimage and is not worried about statements made by "foreigners" about his country – whether Jewish or not.