Buffeted by Tumult, Jewish Population in Tunisia Dwindles

Djerba, Tunisia — On a recent Sabbath morning, just five men sat reciting prayers in the sanctuary of the Ghriba synagogue, the oldest synagogue in North Africa and the holiest place for the Orthodox Jews who live here on the resort island of Djerba.

It was the weekend of the annual Ghriba pilgrimage, when hundreds of Jewish visitors from Israel, France and the United States visit the synagogue to celebrate the feast of Lag b’Omer. Yet on the Sabbath, when only those within walking distance attended, the true state of affairs was revealed: The village beside the synagogue had dwindled to just five Jewish families, barely 40 people.

Tunisia has been a center of Jewish life since at least Roman times, but only about 2,000 Jews remain in the country — down from more than 100,000 in 1948. More than 1,000 of them live on Djerba, in two settlements where they tend 14 synagogues and a Talmudic school for 100 students.

They trace their presence back more than 2,000 years. The Ghriba synagogue’s foundations were first laid in 586 B.C., with, it is said, a stone carried from Solomon’s temple. The men who founded the synagogue were Cohens — high priests — who had fled the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, and most of the families in the nearby village were Cohens, too.

But buffeted by political and economic shocks in the last 11 years, including a deadly suicide attack outside the synagogue by Islamist militants in 2002 and violence after Tunisia’s popular uprising in 2011, the Jewish community continues to decline.

Three or four families left after the revolution that overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. “They had large families and not enough work,” said Youssef Gamoun, who, like many of the Jews here, has a jewelry shop in Houmt Souk. “After the revolution, there was less work and a problem of crime. The tourists stopped coming, and there were burglaries. Things were really tough.”

The 2002 suicide attack signaled that the synagogue had become a target along with other Jewish sites in North Africa. The people of Djerba are reticent about what happened, but 21 people were killed, including 14 German tourists, when the bomber exploded a tanker filled with propane gas at the entrance to the synagogue.

The attack was hushed up by Mr. Ben Ali’s government — the charred walls were whitewashed within hours of the explosion — and Tunisia’s connections to Al Qaeda were never fully explained. That lack of openness has kept German tourists away to this day, said Rene Trabelsi, a Jewish tour operator and hotelier whose father is keeper of the Ghriba synagogue.

The Tunisian government has nevertheless provided a permanent police guard to protect the synagogue since the attack. Dozens of police and plainclothes intelligence agents locked down the entire area during the pilgrimage last month, and military helicopters patrolled overhead. “What happened in 2002 cannot happen again,” said Haim Bittan, Tunisia’s chief rabbi.

Many Tunisians like to emphasize their cosmopolitan history, yet the country is predominantly Muslim and Arab and has been affected by the shocks emanating from the Middle East. Rioters burned shops and synagogues in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli war, causing an exodus of Jewish families. The massacres at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982 prompted more to leave, Mr. Trabelsi said. Tunisia hosted the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat for 12 years, and Israel bombed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s headquarters near Tunis in 1985.

So when the newly appointed minister of tourism, Amel Karboul, decided to promote the Ghriba pilgrimage this year as a way to bolster tourism and champion the Jewish minority as an example of Tunisian tolerance and plurality, members of the National Constituent Assembly gave her a sharp rebuke.

Legislators threatened to censure Ms. Karboul and a senior Interior Ministry adviser over the issuing of travel documents to Israeli tourists. (Israeli visitors are not issued visas but a laissez-passer, which avoids recognition of their Israeli passports.)

“We wanted to make the point not to allow people with Israeli passports and not to establish diplomatic relations with Israel,” said Issam Chebbi, one of the assembly members who supported the motion of no confidence in the minister.

The political furor scared off some Jewish visitors, yet some welcomed democratic discussion of the issue. For the first time, a Jew, Mr. Trabelsi, was proposed for the post of minister of tourism in the new government in December. He did not get the job — “Maybe it is not the moment,” he said, shrugging — but added that for the first time, many Tunisians saw a Jew speaking fluent Arabic just like them on national television and reacted positively.

“Perhaps Jews before were hidden, and now today people find the Jewish question is important,” he said. “Tunisians want to show they are tolerant.”