Donate

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.

Read more at Jerusalem Post

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

Israel Agreed Not to Retaliate During the Persian Gulf War—and Paid a Price for It

Feb. 19 2018

During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, Saddam Hussein fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, killing one person and causing extensive property damage. Under intense pressure from the first Bush administration to sit still—ostensibly because Israeli involvement in the war could lead Arab states to abandon the White House’s anti-Iraq coalition—Jerusalem refrained from retaliating. Moshe Arens, who was the Israeli defense minister at the time, comments on the decision in light of information recently made public:

[W]hat was George H.W. Bush thinking [in urging Israel not to respond]? His secretary of state, James Baker, had accompanied the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles (Chas) Freeman, on a visit to King Fahd in Riyadh on November 2, 1990, two-and-a-half months before the beginning of the war, to obtain the king’s approval for additional deployment of U.S. troops in his kingdom in preparation for the attack on Iraq.

He was told by the king that although they would not welcome Israeli participation in the war, he understood that Israel could not stand idly by if it were attacked by Iraq. If Israel were to defend itself, the Saudi armed forces would still fight on America’s side, the king told Baker. So much for the danger to the coalition if Israel were to respond to the Scud attacks. Israel was not informed of this Saudi position.

So why was President Bush so intent on keeping Israel out of the war? It seems that he took the position, so dominant in the American foreign-policy establishment, that America’s primary interest in the Middle East was the maintenance of good relations with the Arab world, and that the Arab world attached great importance to the Palestinian problem, and that as long as that problem was not resolved Israel remained an encumbrance to the U.S.-Arab relationship. If Israel were to appear as an ally of the U.S. in the war against Iraq, that was likely to damage the image the U.S. was trying to project to the Arabs.

In fact, immediately upon the conclusion of the war against Saddam Hussein, Baker launched a diplomatic effort that culminated in the Madrid Conference in the hope that it would lead to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It didn’t. . . .

Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: George H. W. Bush, Israel & Zionism, Israeli history, Peace Process, Persian Gulf War, US-Israel relations