Invoking Palestinian Plight, Tunisian President Again Denies Antisemitic Nature of Attack on Synagogue
by Ben Cohen
On at least two occasions during the past week, Tunisia’s president has angrily denied the claim that the deadly attack gun attack last Tuesday against a historic synagogue on the island of Djerba was motivated by antisemitism, in comments that will likely amplify existing concerns about the attitude of the authorities to the country’s tiny Jewish community.
Speaking last Friday, President Kais Saied mocked those “who talk about antisemitism when we are in the 21st century” following a meeting with Prime Minister Najla Bouden and other members of his cabinet.
Saied then went on to accuse those who raised the issue of antisemitism of wanting “to sow division to benefit from this discourse,” in remarks reported by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency and several Middle Eastern outlets.
The following day, Saied doubled down on his comments during a visit to the Tunis suburb of Ariana, the location of the house of his grandfather, where, he said, “Tunisian Jews fleeing the Nazi forces…found refuge.”
“They speak of antisemitism, while the Jews were protected here,” he stated.
Nazi Germany briefly occupied Tunisia from Nov. 1942 to May 1943. According to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national memorial to the Holocaust, the arrival of German troops in Tunisia resulted in the rapid persecution of the Jewish community, with the arrest of its leaders and the enslavement of 3,000 Jews who were forced to work on fortifications in the north of the country. The capture of Tunisia by Allied forces marked the decisive shift, according to Yad Vashem: “Though the German army was accompanied by SS units who came prepared to implement the Final Solution, the Jews of Tunisia were saved because the fortunes of war favored the Jews; the Germans did not have time to subject the Jews to the fate of the Jews in Europe.”
Saied continued his speech by charging that western countries expressing disquiet over antisemitism in Tunisia were ignoring Israel’s repression of the Palestinians.
“These parties do not hesitate to make false accusations of antisemitism, while they turn a deaf ear when it comes to dealing with the fate of Palestinians who die every day,” he said, using what the Tunisian news outlet La Presse described as “defiant tone.”
“The Palestinian people will manage against all odds to triumph and recover their stolen land,” Saied asserted.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack on the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba as hundreds of worshipers celebrated the Jewish holiday of Lag B’ Omer, Saied made no reference to antisemitism or to the selection of a Jewish target by the gunman — an as yet unnamed naval officer who murdered two Jews and three police officers during his rampage.
Speaking to The Algemeiner last Thursday, a member of the Jewish community of 1,500 issued a forthright condemnation of Saied for passing over specifically Jewish concerns regarding the attack and its implications.
“I heard his entire speech, and I realized that it is probably very difficult for him to mention the word ‘Jews’,” said the Jewish community member, who spoke on condition of strict anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“Without a doubt, [Saied] is not only a hater of Israel but also antisemitic,” the person added emphatically.
Saied has caused consternation among Tunisian Jews in the recent past, having been taken to task by Jewish organizations in 2021 after he delivered a speech in which he accused Jews of being responsible “for the instability in the country” — an assertion the Tunisian leader later denied making.
His latest comments sparked ire among Jewish leaders. “Through such wanton remarks, the President continues to incite further hatred and even attacks against the country’s Jewish community, heaven forbid,” Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt — president of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) — said in a statement on Monday.
“Since the attack, the Jewish community of Djerba has not been visited or contacted by any members of the government,” Goldschmidt continued. “The Tunisian President together with the relevant authorities should instead be offering support to the Jewish community and working to ensure its safety.”