The Maghreb needs its Jewish community
The essential respect for the rights of minorities is a fundamental prerequisite for the development of enlightened and prosperous societies. In today’s changing world, the elements of religious diversity and cultural plurality are known to function as generators of dynamic scenes for the achievement of social opulence.
It is widely recognised that the Maghreb is an incredibly diverse region that boasts vibrant traditions of different backgrounds. For this reality to be sustained, efforts to ensure equality, inclusion and cohesion should continue unabated.
Tunisia recently hosted the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue on the Mediterranean island of Djerba. The Jewish festival, which was closely followed by Tunisians from all regions, took place under heavy security but without incident.
It is no secret that Tunisia has witnessed an unprecedented energising of radical groups, particularly after the 2011 uprisings. In view of this situation, tightening security measures has become an essential requirement for major events.
Along with many other countries, Tunisia has borne the brunt of terrorist violence, which presented a threat to all Tunisians without exception.
In 2015, a shooting in the coastal city of Sousse constituted a turning point that led to intensified security efforts. Today, after more than five years of turbulence, the Tunisian military and police forces have gained the essential expertise to confront the terrorist threat.
And so we can say that the tasteless warning from Israel about the Djerba pilgrimage confirmed only two facts: Israel’s ongoing attempt to belittle the Tunisian security services’ commendable efforts and its decision to uphold a fearmongering policy aimed at sowing seeds of division.
Israel, however, is missing the point on Maghrebi Jews, who are as Maghrebi as the rest of Maghreb nationals.
When El Ghriba festivities started May 12, pilgrims waved Tunisian flags and sang the national anthem, confirming once again their love and loyalty to the land and its people. They celebrated their festival with Tunisian songs and shared moments of joy with the visiting Muslims.
The undisputed success of El Ghriba pilgrimage has allowed Tunisian Jews to effectively grant the country and the world a unique scene of unity and tolerance at a time when others are pushing for division and furthering resentment.
Jews have lived in Tunisia and other parts of the Maghreb for centuries and the presence of the oldest communities can be traced to Roman times and possibly to the period of ancient Carthage.
When the Sephardi Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1496, they found a refuge in North Africa and were even welcomed by the Ottoman Empire.
Today, out of a population of 34.1 million, Morocco has a Jewish minority of 2,300 — less than 0.01% of the total population. In Tunisia, slightly more than 1,000 Jews remain in what was once a flourishing community.
History tells us of a period of great economic prosperity for Jews under the reign of the Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa. History also tells us that the city of Kairouan in Tunisia was a world centre of Jewish culture and scholarship for at least three generations.
In Morocco, we know that the Jewish community thrived spiritually and intellectually under the rule of the Idrisids. We also know that Jews formed a stable community in Fez, witnessing a golden age that lasted for about 300 years.
As history has its ups and downs, there were also unfortunate incidents and regrettable events that involved discriminatory legislations, sporadic violence and religious intolerance. Yet the gloomiest period for both Jews and Muslims in North Africa was recorded under the French occupation that exploited existing differences to divide and conquer.
The right to citizenship was granted to Jews in Algeria along with preferential treatment to other Jewish communities in the Maghreb. At that time, the French occupation knew these poisonous gifts would serve as instigators of distrust and suspicion in the North African colonies.
History can be a good guide. As a region that aspires to preserve its unity, the Maghreb should learn from history and embrace all of its sons and daughters, regardless of race, language or religion.