Off the Tunisian Coast, an Island of Jewish-Arab Coexistence

Sept. 27 2017

Once home to over 100,000 Jews, Tunisia, unlike other North African countries, has retained a significant Jewish community, even if one much reduced in size; some 1,000 Jews live on the island of Djerba, and a few hundred more are on the mainland. Jews from Israel, France, and elsewhere still flock to the island in large numbers for the annual pilgrimage on the holiday of Lag ba’Omer. But the community remains intact thanks to a heavy military presence, and some of its historic synagogues can barely get ten men together for prayers. Cnaan Liphshiz writes:

[Djerba’s] Jewish community persists thanks to what locals—Jews and non-Jews alike—say is a special set of circumstances: the local Arabs’ relative immunity to waves of xenophobia and political agitation seen on the mainland. Pretty much all aspects of life in Djerba bear the effect of centuries of interaction among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, who have lived here since Roman times.

Whereas elsewhere in Tunisia the traditional bean stew known as tfina pkaila is considered a typically Jewish dish, here in Djerba everyone eats and makes it. The island’s best makers of the blousa—a traditional Djerban woolen robe that Muslims wear on religious holidays—are all Jewish. The Jewish tailor Makhiks Sabbag and his son Amos are widely considered the very best.

The symbol of the menorah, the Jewish traditional oil lamp, is a local icon adopted by the general population [and] featured in decorations of government buildings such as clinics and schools. And non-Jewish locals are surprisingly familiar with the Jewish calendar and customs. Muslim customs clearly have also rubbed off on Jews here: they take off their shoes before entering their synagogues the way Muslims do before entering a mosque. . . .

But in Tunisia, expressions of anti-Semitism, often featuring anti-Israel vitriol, continue to occur. . . . A recent example came when Tunisia joined several other countries in banning the film Wonder Woman, apparently because its lead character is portrayed by the Israeli film star Gal Gadot. . . . The invitation to a Tunisian festival in July of the Jewish comedian Michel Boujenah provoked protests in Tunisia. . . . Tunisia has several pending bills, introduced by Islamist and secular nationalists, proposing a blanket boycott on Israel and a ban on any Israelis entering the country.

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Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: Jewish World, Jews in Arab lands, Mizrahi Jewry, Tunisia

Jerusalem’s Economic Crisis, Its Arabs, and Its Future

Oct. 18 2018

The population of Israel’s capital city is 38-percent Arab, making Arab eastern Jerusalem the largest Arab community in the country. Connected to this fact is Jerusalem’s 46-percent poverty rate—the highest of any Israeli municipality. The city’s economic condition stems in part from its large ultra-Orthodox population, but there is also rampant poverty among its Arab residents, whose legal status is different from that of both Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Haviv Rettig Gur explains:

Jerusalem’s Arab inhabitants are not Israeli citizens—in part because Palestinian society views acceptance of Israeli citizenship, [available to any Arab Jerusalemite who desires it], as acceptance of Israeli claims of sovereignty over the city, and in part because Israel is not eager to accept them, even as it formally views itself as having annexed the area. Nevertheless, they have a form of permanent residency that, unlike West Bank Palestinians, allows them unimpeded access to the rest of Israel. . . .

There are good reasons for this poverty among eastern Jerusalem’s Arabs, rooted in the political trap that has ensnared the Arab half of the city and with it the rest of the city as well. Right-wing Israeli political leaders have avoided investing in Arab eastern Jerusalem, fearing that such investments would increase the flow of Palestinians into the city. Left-wing leaders have done the same on the grounds that the Arab half would be given away in a future peace deal.

Meanwhile, eastern Jerusalem’s complicated situation, suspended between the Israeli and Palestinian worlds, means residents cannot take full advantage of their access to the Israeli economy. For example, while most Arab women elsewhere in Israel learn usable Hebrew in school, most Arab schools in eastern Jerusalem teach from the Palestinian curriculum, which does not offer students the Hebrew they will need to find work in the western half of the city. . . .

It is not unreasonable to argue that Jerusalem cannot really be divided, not for political reasons but for economic ones. If Jerusalem remains a solely Israeli capital, it will have to integrate better its disparate parts and massively develop its weaker communities if it hopes ever to become solvent and prosperous. Arabs must be able to find more and better work in Jewish Jerusalem—and in Arab Jerusalem, too. Conversely, if the city is divided into two capitals, that of a Jewish state and that of a Palestinian one, that won’t change the underlying economic reality that its prosperity, its capacity to accommodate tourism and develop efficient infrastructure, and its ability to ensure access for all religions to their many holy sites, will still require a unified urban space.

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Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Arabs, Israeli economy, Jerusalem