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June 23, 2016 6:56 pm

Tunisian Jews Fleeing Terror-Torn Country Digging Up Remains of Loved Ones for Reburial in Israel

avatar by Lea Speyer

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The Jewish community in Djerba is dwindling in number as more of its members flee to Israel in large numbers of safety concerns. Seen here, two Tunisian Jews study in the Ghriba synagogue. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Jewish community in Djerba is dwindling in number as more of its members flee to Israel in large numbers of safety concerns. Seen here, two Tunisian Jews study in the Ghriba synagogue. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

As Jews from the Tunisian island of Djerba flee to Israel over the country’s worsening security situation, many families are digging up the remains of their loved ones for reburial in their new home, The Guardian reported on Thursday.

Over the the course of the past five decades, the population of the Jewish community of Djebra — present on the North African island since the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC — has significantly dwindled in number, with only about 30 new births a year, the report said.

A once vibrant community, it now numbers a mere 1,100, following a mass exodus between the 1940s and 1960s, during a time of great persecution. The majority of those Jews who fled immigrated to Israel.

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Yossif Sabbagh, a 42-year-old local, told the Guardian that each year he helps exhume some one dozen bodies for transport to Israel. “There are  bones that are 80, 90 years old. When you lift them up, they can break,” he said. The Jewish cemetery — located behind Djerba’s Great Synagogue known as El Ghriba — is littered with cracked tombstones and slabs of strewn marble, the report said.

Many Jews are believed to be leaving Djerba over intensifying security threats and a sharp decline in tourism. Following a terrorist attack last summer by an ISIS-affiliated gunman at a Tunisian beach that left 38 people — mostly British tourists — dead, the country has suffered heavily. A mere hour drive south of Djerba, the report noted, is an ISIS-infiltrated area.

The Jewish community itself has been a terrorist target. In 2002, the famous Ghriba synagogue — Africa’s oldest house of worship — was attacked by al-Qaeda terrorists who carried out a suicide truck bombing, killing 21 people. Fear of further attacks has significantly diminished the number of Jewish pilgrims who visit Ghriba annually for the Lag B’Omer holiday, which commemorates the death of second-century mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.  

In 2011, due to the Tunisian revolution, the pilgrimage was cancelled. This past year, a few weeks before the annual event, the Israeli government issued an advisory to its citizens, warning them against travel to Tunisia. The event went ahead as planned under tight security. Pilgrims had to pass through metal detectors and checkpoints overseen by special forces. A military truck nearby, mounted with a heavy automatic weapon, patrolled the area on land, while a helicopter patrolled overhead.

Approximately 2,000 Jews remain in Tunisia today.

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