Pilgrims flock to Tunisia’s Djerba Jewish festival
Djerba - More than 2,000 pilgrims gathered at Africa’s oldest synagogue on the southern Tunisian island of Djerba despite a warning by the Israeli government that the Jewish festival could be targeted by terrorists.
In an event unique in the Arab world, pilgrims, especially Jews of Tunisian descent from around the world, take part every year in the Lag Ba’omar festival at Djerba’s Ghriba synagogue. Pilgrims pay respect at tombs of famous rabbis, make vows, light candles and engage in celebrations.
Braving searing heat and security concerns, pilgrims danced and chanted amid heavy security measures aimed at warding off potential jihadist assaults.
Approximately 1,500 Jews live in Tunisia, down sharply from an estimated 100,000 before the country won independence from France in 1956.
“The way Tunisia treats its Jewish citizens and all its minorities serves as a strong positive model for the rest of the world,” said Knox Thames, US State Department special adviser for religious minorities. Thames participated in some parts of the pilgrimage ritual.
The Jewish community of Djerba is said to date back around 2,600 years ago. The Ghriba synagogue was built in 587BC.
The synagogue became the site of an annual pilgrimage of Jews from Tunisia and abroad. Known as the Hiloula, which translates as “celebration”, the event takes place on the holiday of Lag Ba’omer in commemoration of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, a legal scholar reputed to have performed miracles.
According to tradition, on the day of his death, daylight was miraculously extended until he had completed his final teaching and died.
Pilgrims light candles, march in processions and make donations. Women appeared to outnumber men in the pilgrimage.
The daunting blanket of security was designed to display the Tunisian government’s commitment to defending the right of Tunisian Jews to continue living in peace despite jihadist threats. It was also meant to signal to tourism operators around the world that Tunisia is a safe destination that is open for business.
“Pilgrims from outside the country were escorted from their hotels to the synagogue like heads of state. That shows the determination of the authorities to make Tunisia safe for everyone living or visiting here,” said René Trabelsi, an organiser of the festival.
The pilgrims proudly waved Tunisian flags and sang the national anthem. Three ministers and parliament’s deputy speaker were also in attendance.
Israel had warned of a “concrete threat” of anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli attacks in Tunisia, according to a statement from the counterterrorism office of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
“With that context, we hesitated before going ahead with the event this year. But we have received guarantees from President Beji Caid Essebsi when he received Perez Trabelsi, the head of the community in Djerba, and he reassured him about the security of the festival,” added Trabelsi.
“Some 600 pilgrims came from foreign countries, including Israel, this year. That compares to fewer than 150 last year. The Israeli warning halved the expected arrivals from abroad,” he added.
Tunisian Tourism Minister Salma Elloumi Rekik said: “You came here for this festive occasion and you confirm that Tunisia will remain a land of friendship and joy despite the challenges of violence and hatred.”
Parliament Deputy Speaker Abdelfattah Mourou drew applause when he told the pilgrims: “Jews in Tunisia are part of ourselves. The people love them and their Tunisian state protects them.”
Faced with bigotry in the region, it is “our duty to tell everyone that we have to pass on a message of love, peace and respect for others,” Religious Affairs Minister Mohamed Khalil said.
Culture Minister Sonia M’barek said: “It is important to be here to share this moment of joy, togetherness and tolerance.”
“Things are getting better year after year because security is improving. We are happy to see the festival thriving again. When the pilgrimage succeeds, it gives an indication about the forthcoming tourism season in Tunisia,” said Khoudir Haniya, a manager of the synagogue, speaking as an army helicopter hovered over the gathering.
Traditionally participants in the festival are from Europe, the United States and Israel but the number of foreigners attending diminished considerably after the overthrow of then-president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.
Tunisia’s tourism industry is reeling from attacks in 2015 claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and a beach resort in Sousse that killed a total of 60 people, all but one of them foreigners.
“I discovered that the Jewish community in Djerba is unique in many ways from other diaspora communities,” said Ira Forman, US State Department envoy monitoring anti-Semitism.
Asked about the continuation of the festival despite the upheaval in Tunisia’s regional environment, Forman said: “Those of us of some leadership in the world recognise the achievements of Tunisia’s democracy.”
“It is something very important that we recognise back in the State Department,” added Forman, who attended the Ghriba rituals.