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May 18, 2023 1:16 am

Meeting With Chief Rabbi Following Synagogue Atrocity, Tunisian President Again Emphasizes ‘Palestinian Tragedy’

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Tunisian President Kais Saied greets the country’s Chief Rabbi, Haim Bittan. The Mufti of Tunisia, Hichem ben Mahmoud, is seen in the background. Photo: Tunisian Presidency Handout

Tunisia’s president has met with key religious leaders including the North African country’s chief rabbi in the wake of the May 9 deadly attack on the historic El Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba, in which two Jewish worshipers and three security guards were murdered by an as yet unnamed assailant.

President Kais Saeid had faced criticism in the wake of the attack for not immediately reaching out to the Jewish community, for angrily denying that the attack was motivated by antisemitism and for raising the issue of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians as a response to the charge. The presence of Tunisian Chief Rabbi Haim Bittan at Wednesday’s parley at the presidential palace in Carthage went some way towards acknowledging the Jewish community’s concerns, but nevertheless did not prevent Saeid from voicing his opposition to the State of Israel’s existence.

Saeid told his guests — Hichem ben Mahmoud, the Mufti of Tunisia, Ilario Antoniazzi, the Archbishop of Tunis, as well as Rabbi Bittan — that it was imperative to “distinguish between Judaism and Zionism.” Calling on the international community to “put an end to the tragedy of the Palestinian people,” the Tunisian leader reiterated his rejection of “normalization” with Israel, a move that would require formal recognition of the Jewish state’s right to a sovereign existence.

After again denying that antisemitism is an issue in Tunisia, according to a report of the meeting in the French news outlet Le Figaro, Saied told Bittan that the remaining 1,500 Jews in the country “can live in peace and we will guarantee your security.”

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Bittan later declared himself satisfied with the meeting. “The meeting with the president was excellent,” he commented. “He said everything he had in his heart. He gave us good explanations. I am convinced that the Jews of Tunisia live like all others Tunisians. He gave us the assurance that what happened (in Djerba) will not happen again.”

The question remains as to whether Bittan’s positive assessment will shake the conviction among Tunisian Jews that Saeid’s main aim is to rebuff the claim that the synagogue shooting was an antisemitic act, in keeping with his view that antisemitism is a problem confined to the past. Last Friday, the president 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.”

The following day, Saeid unfavorably compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with the response of Tunisians to the persecution of the Jewish community during the Nov. 1942-May 1943 Nazi occupation of the country. Speaking on a visit to his grandfather’s house in the Tunis suburb of Ariana where, he said, Tunisian Jews fleeing the Nazis had obtained refuge, he complained that “the locals protected them from the Nazi army. And then they say we’re antisemitic? Our Palestinian brethren are killed daily, elderly people, young people, women. Homes are demolished but no one is saying anything about that.”

Last week, a member of the Jewish community who spoke to The Algemeiner on condition of anonymity denounced Saeid as an antisemite following the president’s remarks to the National Security Council in which he failed to mention the selection of a Jewish target or offer condolences to the Jewish community specifically.

“I heard his entire speech, and I realized that it is probably very difficult for him to mention the word ‘Jews’,” the person said. “Without a doubt, [Saied] is not only a hater of Israel but also antisemitic.”

On Wednesday, Mosaique FM, a private radio station in Tunisia, reported that four alleged accomplices of the El Ghriba Synagogue gunman, a naval officer who was serving on Djerba, had been arrested by police. The station did not name the individuals or provide any further details.

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