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January 14, 2019 4:34 pm

Tunisia’s New Jewish Tourism Minister: ‘I Think My Nomination Is a Message’

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

Jewish businessman and new Tunisian Tourism Minister Rene Trabelsi. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

Tunisia’s newly-appointed tourism minister, Jewish businessman Rene Trabelsi, believes his nomination sends a strong signal to the rest of the world.

“I think my nomination is a message,” he told i24 News in a recent interview. “I was told by people in government that it was time for someone from the Tunisian Jewish community, from the private sector to take over in the tourism industry.”

“We have a lot of talented people here in Tunisia, but Tunisian Jews, as you know, have more than 3,000 years of history behind them,” he added.

Trabelsi is well known for his leadership in the Jewish community, and has helped organize Jewish pilgrimages to the oldest synagogue in Africa, located in the country.

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“There should be no restrictions on tourism in Tunisia,” he said. “People from everywhere should be allowed to come here.”

Tunisia was once home to one of the largest Jewish communities in North Africa, peaking at around 100,000 people. After Israel’s establishment in 1948, persecution by the dominant Arab majority caused most Tunisian Jews to flee to the new Jewish state. Somewhere between 700 and 2,000 Jews remain in Tunisia today.

In recent years, however, Tunisia has come to be seen as something of a bastion of liberalism in the Arab world, one of the only real success stories to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring.

“Today we can see that in six or seven years only, Tunisia has already recovered,” said Trabelsi. “Tourism is working once more and tourists are flocking to Tunisia, this means Tunisia is different from other Arab countries, or even European countries.”

“We have to inspire hope and trust for Tunisia and Tunisians,” he continued. “We have to convince them that leaving the country is a mistake. Believe me, if I’m in Tunisia today, if I accept this position, it’s because there’s a future in Tunisia.”

Montclair State University Assistant Professor Arnaud Kurze told i24, “I think Tunisia has always been at the forefront of being open and also, for instance, giving women bigger and stronger roles as compared to other countries in the Arab world.”

Nonetheless, the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains intensely divisive. Daniel Zisenwine, a Truman Institute research fellow at Hebrew University, stated, “The one thing that many Tunisians remain united around is the opposition to any form of normalization with Israel right now.”

Addressing the issue, Trabelsi said, “Look, it’s a sensitive subject and a purely political matter.” As minister of tourism, he noted, “I have to follow the line of my government. I would add that Tunisia has been historically committed to peace in the Middle East.”

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