Tunisia secures Jewish festival, sends message to tourists
DJERBA (Tunisia) - Elite police personnel, backed by soldiers, were deployed to protect Jewish tourists taking part in a festival at Africa’s oldest synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba.
The large security presence was also meant to reassure countries from where millions of tourists used to visit the North African country that Tunisian security forces have retaken the initiative following terrorists’ attacks that have kept many visitors away over the past year.
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 Sousse beach resort, which killed a total 60 people, all but one of them foreigners.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned on May 21st that his government had information about threatened attacks against pilgrims to Djerba.
“We thank our police and army for the efforts they are making to make Tunisia safe and secure for its people and tourists. Tunisia is now safe after having made huge progress,” said René Trabelsi, an organiser of the pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue, as a helicopter hovered overhead. Dozens of police and plain-clothes intelligence agents watched the area around the synagogue during the pilgrimage.
The island’s Jewish district, Hara Kebira, was cordoned off and visitors were subjected to systematic searches. Security around and at the gates of the many hotels on the island was also beefed up.
“Pilgrims are escorted by the police like heads of state. This shows Tunisia’s determination to protect its guests,” said Trabelsi, who is also a Paris-based travel operator.
Authorities sent three ministers and the deputy parliament speaker to hammer home the message that Tunisia values tolerance, diversity and coexistence of religions and cultures.
Tourism Minister Salma Elloumi Rekik told visitors: “By your presence in this festive occasion, you confirm that Tunisia will remain a land of friendship and joy despite the challenges of violence and hatred.”
Knox Thames, the US State Department’s special adviser for religious minorities, who attended the pilgrimage said: “We appreciate the commitment of the Tunisian government to protect this community, which has resided in the country for more than 2.500 years.”
His colleague at the State Department Ira Forman, special envoy for anti-Semitism, said: “I discovered that the Jewish community in Djerba is unique in many ways.”