Djerba’s school of tolerance

Sunday 29/05/2016
Muslim and Jewish students at a public school in Djerba.

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.”