Jewish minister sees appointment as confirmation of ‘Tunisian exception’

Rene Trabelsi is the first member of Tunisia’s Jewish community appointed to a ministerial position since Tunisia became a republic
in 1957.
Sunday 09/12/2018
Optimistic. Tunisian Tourism Minister Rene Trabelsi.  (AP)
Optimistic. Tunisian Tourism Minister Rene Trabelsi. (AP)

TUNIS - Rene Trabelsi, appointed Tunisian tourism minister in a cabinet shakeup in November, is savouring a “moment of Tunisian exceptionalism” as the only Jewish minister in any Arab government.

He is the first member of Tunisia’s Jewish community appointed to a ministerial position since Tunisia became a republic in 1957.

“Expatriate Tunisians of Jewish faith called me to offer congratulations. Leaders of Jewish associations in America, Europe and other parts of the world phoned or sent messages of support and encouragement,” Trabelsi said.

“Even leaders of Jewish organisations who are not so well inclined towards Tunisia, if I can say so, because they do not want Jews to return to this country, have called me to offer support and help.”

Trabelsi’s appointment drew a lot of international attention. The new tourism minister received requests for interviews from major media outlets from Europe, the United States and the Arab world but also from more remote regions, such as Latin America and the Far East.

“You know why there is such an interest? They are all drawn by this exceptional moment from Tunisia,” Trabelsi told The Arab Weekly.

“This shows again that Tunisia is a country of exception. Tunisia could have plunged into the abyss on January 15, like Syria and Libya, but the country has remained true to its spirit of peace and tolerance,” he added in reference to developments after the January 14, 2011 uprising that toppled President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia is struggling to shield its relatively successful democratic transition from the fallout of economic and social difficulties of the past eight years. Its tourism sector is making a comeback in terms of arrivals and of revenue.

Trabelsi’s appointment as tourism minister stirred controversy in parliament, social media and in the streets of Tunis where small but vocal demonstrations took place.

Critics of the appointment accused Trabelsi of being a “normaliser” with Israel through his professional activities as a travel operator. Others accused the government of seeing propaganda value in the West in naming a Jewish member in the cabinet of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

Trabelsi also had to reject allegations that he is an Israeli national.

“It has nothing to do with the fact that he is Jewish,” said Mohamed Abbou, who heads the Democratic Current party whose deputies at the parliament voiced some of the fiercest opposition to the naming of Trabelsi as a minister. “The problem is that he supports relations with Israel, that he visited Israel, that he thinks full relations are the right thing for economic reasons. It has no connection to politics.

“He does not himself conceal it but it does not matter at the moment. He has been approved and there is nothing that can be done about that now,” added Abbou.

Trabelsi said he was somewhat surprised by the strident controversy that his appointment provoked. “I had never come across such a controversy in all my life and I’m 55,” he said.

However, when parliament voted on the new cabinet members, Trabelsi received 127 votes of approval, more than other newly appointed Muslim ministers.

Asked about his feelings after being confirmed to his new position, he said: “I’m living all that like a comeback to the normal Tunisia of my youth and childhood, the Tunisia that accepts all its sons. It is the Tunisia of my love and of my dreams.

“I accepted the offer to be a minister because I think Tunisia is a country apart. We can do things of exception here.”

He said he is optimistic about his country’s economic future. “As far as I am concerned, Tunisia can be a great tourism country. Tunisia can have a prosperous economy like Singapore. Really, Tunisia has the potential for that,” he said.

It was not initially an easy choice for Trabelsi to leave his family and business in Paris, where he lived, in order to take the government position.

“Accepting this offer required a lot of reflection,” he said. He had “to leave family and business to take the job. It involved financial sacrifice because I had to cede my business, as a family enterprise employing 20 people, to one of my relatives.”

“I will not see my children and grandchildren and that is an enormous sacrifice,” he said.

He said he also sees the opportunities that come with the new job. “There are things that as a tourism professional I always wanted to see done in Tunisia’s tourism sector but I did not have the decision-making power. Now, I will try my best to implement these things,” he said.

Trabelsi said having the reflexes of a businessman, from his experience as a travel operator, will help him push the limits of bureaucracy to get things done.

“Red tape is heavy in Tunisia. I have good teams here at the ministry. I told them to take the initiative to get things done quickly,” he said.

Asked whether he feels the burden of responsibility being the only Jewish minister in a Muslim or Arab country and being the first Jewish member of the Tunisian cabinet in 62 years, Trabelsi, a practising Jew, said: “The Torah teaches us that God rewards a Jew who serves non-Jews more than the Jew who does good work for fellow Jews.”

I have the feeling that Tunisians in the street want a Jew to take this job. I see that and feel that sympathy when I meet ordinary people in the street,” he said.

“To sum up it, Tunisians are proud of their Jews. They are asking why Tunisian Jews abroad do not help their country as Jews do for the United States, France or Russia. That spontaneous sense of sympathy encourages me and gives me the strength to do my best.”

“I am saying to myself: I have to do my best to succeed in my job because I should not disappoint the Tunisian people who expressed broad support for me,” said Trabelsi.

Tunisians protected their Jewish countrymen from the Germans who occupied Tunisia from November 1942-April 1943, hiding them in olive oil crushing plants or disguising them as peasants on farms.

The number of Jews in Tunisia has dwindled from about 100,000 in the 1940s to about 2,000 today. Following independence and the aftershocks of Middle East wars and upheaval, they left Tunisia in several waves to Israel and France.

“Tunisian Jews have left because of the repercussions of the conflicts in the Middle East,” said Trabelsi. “Tunisians are proud of their Jews and the Jews of this country are proud to be Tunisian.”

“Even abroad, Jews from Tunisia assert their ties to the country. Jews from Tunisia in France present themselves as Tunisian Jews while those from Morocco would say they are Jews from Morocco,” he said.

Trabelsi said the target number of tourists visiting Tunisia in 2019 is 9 million with 11 million expected in 2020. Tourist arrivals totalled 7.5 million in the first 11 months of this year, a record for Tunisia tourism.

Trabelsi said he is gratified the security issue is no longer a major concern in Tunisia since the 2015 incidents that targeted foreign tourists. “Today, the security problem is resolved and is behind Tunisia. The other day, the number two at the US Embassy told me that Tunisia has the same security level as European countries,” he said.

He set improving the quality of the seaside tourism and broadening and diversifying the type of activities the country can offer, including religious tourism for visitors of all faiths, as priorities for his ministry.

Trabelsi said there is new potential for Tunisia in particular markets. “The Chinese market is a priority to develop, as well as the Arab Gulf,” he said.

However, he said there is also a need “to attract investors to build new luxury hotels.” He said special effort needs to be devoted to improving the quality of service.

“We have to pay attention to the needs and tastes of the tourists we welcome. What a Russian tourist expects is different from other tourists,” he said.

“One of the priorities is the environment. We must pay all the attention to the cleanliness of our cities. We cannot take the risks of bringing tourists and offer them a polluted or littered environment.”