Regional tensions do not preclude Jewish festival in Tunisia’s Djerba

More than 3,000 Jews, including about 400 Israelis, made their way to the Tunisian island of Djerba this year.
Sunday 06/05/2018
A Jewish woman prays at the Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba, on May 2.  (Reuters)
A call for peace. A Jewish woman prays at the Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba, on May 2. (Reuters)

DJERBA, Tunisia - More than 3,000 Jews, including about 400 Israelis, made their way to the Tunisian island of Djerba this year to celebrate the Jewish festival of Lag BaOmer.

The two days of festivities at El Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest in Africa, passed without incident, though security was heavy.

Lag BaOmer has been celebrated in Tunisia since Roman times. Pilgrims travel to the island from Israel, the United States and Europe to pray, sing in Hebrew, light candles and place votive eggs in a cave below the synagogue.

As in previous years, the support of the Tunisian government was apparent throughout the festival. Leaders, including Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, visited during Lag BaOmer.

“The Jewish religion is the oldest religion in our country and the Ghriba is very important,” Tunisian Minister of Tourism Salma Elloumi Rekik said. “Tunisian Muslims and Jews (have been) living together for more than 2,000 years, so I think the Ghriba is an occasion to be together.

“Statistically, it’s not important how many people come for the Ghriba, it’s a positive signal for the starting of the tourist season.”

In 1948, about 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia, with extensive settlements on Djerba and along the Tunisian coastline. However, those numbers have dwindled to approximately 1,500, the bulk of whom reside on Djerba.

The Conference of European Rabbis met on the sidelines of the festival, the first such gathering in a Muslim country that attendants said they could recall. Approximately 30 delegates from as far as Moscow and Luxembourg added weight to Tunisia’s efforts to ensure security was maintained.

“I think it’s very good the conference has come here,” Tunisian Chief Rabbi Haim Bitan said. “There are a lot of merits to receiving so many rabbis from all over the world.”

However, with the Muslim world marking 70 years since the Nakba and tensions between Israel and Iran increasing, security across Djerba was tight. “It is very important the government supports the Ghriba,” Bitan said. “It’s important for me that the government provides security the whole year round.”

The festival takes place on the 33rd day of the Omer, the 49 days that separate the Jewish festivals of Passover and Shavuot and one that is celebrated across the Jewish world.

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