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January 22, 2013 11:37 am

Jews in Tunisia Fear Rising Tide of Islamism

avatar by Zach Pontz

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Anti-government demonstrations during the 2010-2011 Tunisian uprising.

It remains to be seen if the revolution in Tunisia, which was the first of many across the region in early 2010, will benefit the country, but one thing is for certain: Tunisian Jews haven’t reaped any benefits.

A recent article in the German publication Deutsche Welle details the struggles the community has faced in the wake of a revolution that has brought a rising tide of Islamism to the country. When Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956, there were more than 100,000 Jews in the country. Today there are hardly 1,500.

Jamel Bettaieb hails from Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Tunisian revolution. The young language teacher and activist took part in the protests that overthrew Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Bettaieb told Deutsche Welle he is concerned that freedom of speech is providing a platform for extremists to voice hate campaigns against Tunisia’s Jews.

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“In the last few months an imam went on television and spent an hour speaking negatively about the Jews. Where was the reaction of the government? There was nothing. I criticize society. Civil society should say this is unacceptable. People should care,” said Bettaieb.

In elections Tunisians chose the “moderate Islamist” party, Ennahda, to lead their first democratically elected government after the revolution.

Ennahda’s leadership has promised to protect Tunisia’s Jewish community but many of the party’s supporters are hostile to the Jews. Eyewitnesses say that protests and rallies in the capital Tunis often feature the chanting of anti-Jewish slogans.

Another reason for the increased hostility is that many ultra-conservative Salafists who had been imprisoned by Ben Ali were released after the revolution. Many in the Jewish community quietly admit that they felt safer under Ben Ali. “Now we live in fear of the Salafists,” one woman told DW.

In Tunis the central synagogue is surrounded by barbed wire and protected by armed soldiers.

Roland Sa’adon is the cantor at a synagogue in La Goulette, a seaside suburb of Tunis. Since the revolution, Sa’adon has come to believe that the future of the Jewish community is at risk. “The Islamists have taken over the revolution, a revolution that was led by young people,” he told DW. “If the Salafists win support then it will be difficult – not just for us, but for many Muslims as well. I don’t think most Tunisians are extremists, but if they are and that’s what they choose, then there will be no place for us in Tunisia.”

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