Roger Bismuth, iconic leader of Tunisia's Jewish community, passes away

Bismuth found much pride in showing off Tunisia's climate of religious tolerance to foreign visitors, especially dignitaries from the United States.
Saturday 05/10/2019
A man who believed in coexistence. Late leader of Tunisia's Jewish community Roger Bismuth. (Al Arab)
A man who believed in coexistence. Late leader of Tunisia's Jewish community Roger Bismuth. (Al Arab)

A very special and loyal reader of The Arab Weekly died October 2. Roger Bismuth, who for decades was the iconic leader of Tunisia's small Jewish community, passed away at the age of 92.

Bismuth was a witness to the eras in Tunisia before and after independence. He was a defender of the welfare of Jews, especially the elderly among them, in his North African country and worked tirelessly so the Tunisian Jewish community gained legal status as an organisation.

There were an estimated 170,000 Jews in Tunisia when the country gained independence from France in 1956 before that population dropped to about 1,500 currently, mostly in Tunis and the southern island of Djerba.

Bismuth saw the community as a full-fledged component of Tunisia's makeup. To a foreign Jewish delegation that asked him if he would ever leave Tunisia, Bismuth was categorical: “This is the country where I was born. This is the place where my ancestors and I were born. This is my home. Why should I leave?”

Bismuth rose from being a construction worker to managing 12 Tunisian industrial companies. He started as a labourer in the construction industry when he was 14, walking as much as 10km to arrive to work. “I was just a labourer among labourers,” he recalled during an interview three years ago.

He was a successful business executive who perceived his companies as "families."  For decades, he was an active leading member of the country’s business federation, the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicraft, known by its French acronym UTICA.

Since independence, he maintained close contacts with all Tunisian governments. He repeated that his philosophy about politics and politicians was derived from his faith. “Our religion teaches us to cooperate with the authorities of our country, for the common good,” he said.

Bismuth was a personal friend of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and before him of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, both of whom died in recent weeks. For six years after 2004, Bismuth was the "only Jewish senator" in the Arab world.

As president of the Tunisian Jewish community, Bismuth maintained good relations with political leaders since the 2011 uprising.

When consulted, he opposed suggestions that a quota be set for Jews or Christians in the new parliament. “We should have the same rights and obligations as other citizens," Bismuth said. "Why should there be a quota set for people based on religion?

“Besides, religion is a private matter. Once you make of it a political consideration, you destroy both politics and religion.”

He found much pride in showing off Tunisia's climate of religious tolerance to foreign visitors, especially dignitaries from the United States who attend the annual Jewish pilgrimage to Djerba. 

“Maybe US officials can see with their own eyes, when they come to Tunisia, that there is still some hope for religious coexistence in the Arab world,” he told our newspaper once.

Despite sporadic terrorist incidents in the country, Bismuth said he was convinced the spirit of religious tolerance was much more resilient than expressions of extremism and bigotry. He saw it as defining the character of his fellow citizens and driving him to be always optimistic. 

"What has always struck me is that, despite all the attention-grabbing manifestations of jihadist violence, tolerance has come more naturally to this country than bigotry," he wrote in an op-ed published by The Arab Weekly.

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