Besides Jerusalem, Djerba may be the most prominent Jewish pilgrimage site in the world.
Every year, thousands of Jews, mostly from France and Israel, flock to this island off of the coast of Tunisia in the Gulf of Gabes on Lag b’Omer, during the period between Passover and Shavuot. The occasion, which takes place this year May 9-10, marks the temporary victory of the Jews over the Romans prior to the destruction of the Second Temple and the date on which the Talmudic-era sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai passed away.
This year, one notable pilgrim came early — the president of Tunisia.
Last week, on the 10th anniversary of a terrorist attack at the El Ghriba synagogue that took 21 lives, including those of 14 German tourists and two French citizens (al Qaeda claimed responsibility), President Moncef Marzouki visited to honor the victims and assure Tunis’ small Jewish community of its continued welcome and security in the majority-Muslim country.
“All forms of discrimination against Jews, assaults on their lives, possessions or religion are forbidden,” said Marzouki, who was greeted at the synagogue by Grand Rabbi Haim Bitan, and was welcomed, above, by a group of Jewish children. “Tunisian Jews are an integral part of our people and they share all the rights and duties. Whoever violates their rights, attacks all Tunisians.”
The ambassadors of France and Germany also attended the memorial ceremony.
The president’s visit “can signal a renewal of the pact between the new democratic government and the Jewish community,” said a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry of Israel.
The Jewish community of Tunis, which dates back two millennia, reached a peak of 110,000 before 1948, then quickly dropped after the establishment of the State of Israel. The current Jewish population is about 1,700, with 1,000 on Djerba and the rest in Tunis, the capital.
Last year, in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings that rocked much of the Arab world and overthrew Tunisia’s decades-old secular dictatorship, the pilgrimages to Djerba were cancelled, although Rashid al-Ghannushi, leader of Tunisia’s prominent Ennahda Islamist party, sent a delegation to Djerba to assure the Jews of their safety.
Tunisian Jews seem to feel safe in their homeland.
“The civil society in Tunisia sustained the Jewish community of this country,” Jacob Lellouche, owner of a kosher restaurant in Tunis, recently told JTA. “As long as there are Jews in the world there will be Jews in Tunisia.”