Djerba’s school of tolerance
Djerba - Jewish students attend classes with their Muslim counterparts at a primary school near their Jewish neighbourhood on Tunisia’s Djerba island somehow undisturbed by the political tumult unravelling the religious and cultural fabric of countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
They are an example of how Djerba, a Mediterranean tourism hub, remains an oasis of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Muslims in Tunisia.
“Jews studying with Muslim pupils is part of our daily life. It is a normal diversity for our human society. It is part of our specificity as Tunisians,” said Zineb Aoun Jendeli, a primary school inspector.
“I do not see the pupils as Jews or Muslims. They are schoolboys and schoolgirls. I do not like to highlight the distinction between them on the basis of their faiths,” she added after visiting Souani primary school to enforce good teaching rules and performance.
The school is on the edge of Hara Kebira, the island district where most Jewish families live.
The majority of Tunisia’s estimated 1,500 Jews live on Djerba.
Coexistence between pupils of different faiths is nurtured by careful management of the school staff and teachers.
“We teach Islamic education for Muslim pupils on Saturdays when Jewish pupils are absent because they observe the Jewish Sabbath,” said headmistress Fatiha Abeddi.
“We have 21 classes where about 100 are Jews. Parents from both faiths help us. One mother of a Jewish pupil told me that when conflict between Israelis and Palestinians flares up, she banned her children from watching television to avoid the conflict influencing them,” she said.
Chadli Letaifa, a teacher at the school, said: “Foreign visitors of the school do not believe what they see here but for me it is normal. I grew up here hearing my great parents telling me that the home we live in was built by a Jew and the beds we sleep on are made by a Jew.
“As Muslims we shared work, social life and everything that matters with the Jews. They are our neighbours and our brothers.”
Hafa Cohen, an 8-year-old, proudly writes her name in Arabic. “After school I visit homes of my other friends from the school during Muslim holidays. We play together,” she said.
Hafa and the other children joined Jews from Djerba and other cities of Tunisia and abroad to celebrate the pilgrimage to Ghriba — the oldest synagogue in Africa. “There is no such thing like them and us. We try our best to keep differences and the conflicts from outside away from influencing our children,” said Youssef Wazzen, a jeweller and a Jewish community organiser.
Knox Thames, the US State Department’s special adviser for religious minorities and Ira Forman, special envoy for monitoring anti- Semitism at the State Department, were among participants at the May 25th-26th Djerba Jewish festival.
“The way Tunisia treats its Jewish citizens and all its religious minorities serves as a strong positive model for the rest of the world,” Thames said. “We appreciate the commitment of the Tunisian government to protect this community, which has resided in the country for more than 2,500 years.”
Forman added: “It is our hope that this community will continue to be a symbol of diversity and tolerance within a stable and robust democracy.”