Tunisia’s Jewish community eyes mass exodus amid security, tourism woes

by WorldTribune Staff, June 23, 2016

Tunisia’s sole Jewish community is one of the last remaining Jewish societies in the Arab world. But as the security situation worsens and the vital tourism industry struggles, the Jews of Djerba are considering moving en masse to Israel.

Three major terrorist attacks since the beginning of 2015 have rattled Tunisia and Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) jihadists have infiltrated an area that is just one hour’s drive south of Djerba.

A celebration at the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba. /RFE/RL
A celebration at the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba. /RFE/RL

Jewish businesses have suffered heavy losses as tourists abandon Tunisia after ISIL-aligned terrorists attacked a beach hotel in Sousse in the summer of 2015, killing 38 people, mostly British tourists.

“There is very little future for any Jewish community in any Arab country unless things change dramatically,” said Yigal Palmor, spokesman of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that promotes immigration to Israel. “Even if they are tolerated, I don’t believe they have a real future there.”

At one time, there were more than 100,000 Jews in Tunisia. The Jews of Djerba arrived after the sacking of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC.

Most Jews fled persecution in Tunisia in the 1940s and 60s and the number of Jews in the country now stands at 1,100. Most of the community has moved to Israel, where as Jews they are entitled to automatic citizenship.

Shiran Trabelsi, 23, a teacher in the Jewish enclave, said she felt like “I was in a different world” when she visited Israel. “Over there there’s trees and everything is blossoming and green and clean. When I got back here, I felt like there’s no color in the city.”

Trabelsi said the Jews of Djerba should move to Israel en masse – though she would not move without her parents.

Kindergarten teacher Yiska Mamou, 24, also wants to move to Israel, because after work “there’s nothing to do here but go home and clean.”