Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tunisia is not the best place to be Jewish right now

It's not hard to find Jews in Tunisia, even while there is a revolution on, writes Anshel Pfeffer in The Jewish Chronicle. But they are keeping their heads down:

Head down to the Avenue de Liberte in Tunis in time for shacharit and you can find worshippers leaving the main synagogue. And it's not hard to see that they have reason to be worried.

As one man leaving the shul, in his 60s and wearing a black beret, said: "It's a good time to be quiet and put your head down."

Curfew had been lifted an hour before, but most of the shops on the normally bustling street were not open and were to remain shut during the day. A couple of policemen stood languidly nearby the house of prayer, but it was not clear whether they were stationed there to guard the place or, like hundreds of other police and security force personnel stationed around the city centre, they were waiting for the daily demonstrations to start again.

"Some of my friends have flown to Paris until the trouble is over," said the man, walking briskly towards his home. "It certainly doesn't pay to speak out as a Jew in a country like this."

When asked about his feelings regarding the departure of former President Zein el-Abbadin Bin Ali, he smiles and remains silent.

Souhail Ftouh, a Muslim blogger who writes extensively on Jewish and Israeli ties with Tunisia, is more vocal on the situation of the Jews in the country. "They are afraid of their own shadows," he says, "they fear that if they support Israel, they will be attacked."

He agrees that there is no overt antisemitism in the country but says that it exists beneath the surface. "The government protects the Jews and many of them have business contacts with Bin Ali's circle. But Jews who have emigrated find that any property they still own is taken over and they are powerless to act. In the end, they are still considered as guests, not equal citizens."

Mr Ftouh is an admirer of Israel, which he calls "the best democracy in the world", and is critical of the Jewish community for not being more Zionist.

It is unclear how many Jews there are in Tunisia. Seven decades ago, there were over 100,000, but almost all have since emigrated to Israel or France. There are now estimated to be between 1,200 and 2,000.

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