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Tunisia’s Jews – a Letter to the Editor

July 3, 2007

Explanation: A week ago Sylvain Hayoun wrote an opinion piece in the Boulder Daily Camera criticizing one that Ida Audeh had written. The exchange was mostly about Israel. Ida claimed Israel is a failed state, Sylvain considers it a great success. In his argument Sylvain suggested that Tunisia, a place where I spent 2 1/2 years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, treated Jews badly, that he lived in a repressive environment. This did not correspond with the realities I experienced there. Below is my response.

Response Sylvain Hayoun’s Op Ed: Israel A Successful State:

There are some points Sylvain Hayoun makes in his response to Ida’s piece that are misleading.

The picture that he paints of Tunisia’s Jewish Community does not correspond to the realities I experienced there as a Peace Corps Volunteer 40 years ago.

There is a Jewish community in Tunisia. True, it is much smaller than in the past, but it still exists. Despite a somewhat despotic president (Ben Ali), Tunisians are a tolerant, urbane people whose Islam is a far cry from Saudi Wahhabism, Jews have lived among the Tunisian Arab majority for a long time with very few problems including after independence in 1956. Jewish institutions are protected by law, and perhaps even more importantly, anti-semitism is foreign to the spirit of most Tunisians.

Tunisian Jewry produced one of the more interesting liberal thinkers of the mid 20th Century and sociologist of French Colonialism – Albert Memmi. He is still alive and I had the pleasure of listening to an interview with him last November on the French radio where he suggested that charges of rampant anti-semitism in France are overstated. His book The Colonizer and the Colonized made an impression on me and in some ways it is a useful guide to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as Tunisian-French relations.

There is a beautiful synagogue in downtown Tunis – a few steps from where I taught at L’Institute Bourguiba des Langues Vivantes (an annex of the University of Tunis). One of the oldest synagogues in the world exists on the island of Djerba. In an attempt to terrorize Tunisia’s Jews and punish Tunisia for its tolerant policies, Djerba’s synagogue was blown up a few years ago by an Al Qaeda bomb attack, a both a tragedy and a vicious and politically stupid act. The entire nation rallied to rebuild it.

My very, very, very tolerant (tolerant to the foibles of two American young men in their 20s) landlord, Monsieur Cohen Salel was Jewish. His daughter has become an internationally renowned scholar. I knew and met frequently with Jews in Tunis and Sousse. Tunisian Jews were attracted to Zionism already and were torn between staying in Tunisia and leaving but were generally pulled more towards Paris than Tel Aviv.

To suggest that Jews were driven out of Tunisia, or that they suffered from some systematic anti-semitism or discrimination is simply historically inaccurate. I can’t help thinking it little more than propaganda to so distort the Tunisian reality.

Many Jews did leave. They were leaving already in the 1960s. But, like in Algeria (where the separation and the history is far more tragic and violent), most Tunisian Jews did not leave to go to Israel. They went to France instead. Far more went with other North African Jews to Paris where there are whole neighborhoods of Tunisian Jews. Like Algeria’s Jews, those in Tunisia had, since the late 19th Century largely assimilated to French culture and to a considerable degree identified with French culture and as a logical extension to French Colonialism. When the period of French Colonialism ended in the 1950s many Tunisian Jews left. But to suggest they were forced out by oppression is overstating the case to a very considerable degree.

Many stayed and the years I lived there (late 1960s) the Tunisia’s Jews did very well and did not live in fear. Many of the Peace Corps Volunteers in the my group were Jewish. I can’t remember the number, never did a count but of 250 of us or so I think 25-30 were Jewish. None of us – to my knowledge – were ever discriminated against either as Americans or Jews. Just the opposite.

It is true that at the outbreak of the June 1967 Middle East War there was much rioting and that the British Embassy was burnt down, the US Embassy attacked and some Jewish shops were vandalized. The Jewish shopkeepers were compensated for their losses after calm was restored.

Jewry in the broader Arab world was caught in a historic vice between rising Arab Nationalism – which was seen throughout the region as a vehicle to achieve the dream of modernism and Zionism, the creation of a Jewish State. Tunisian Jews found themselves in a similar position, but of all the Arab countries that tried to limit the negative impacts of that historical collision, I believe Tunisia did about as good a job as any.

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