Tunisian Jewish cabinet member assumes office, holds on to favourite cafe

“My Jewishness is neither a burden nor a folkloric item. It is just there.” - New Tunisian minister of tourism, René Trabelsi
Sunday 09/12/2018
Comeback kid. Tunisian Minister of Tourism Rene Trabelsi in his favourite cafe in Tunis. (The Arab Weekly)
Comeback kid. Tunisian Minister of Tourism Rene Trabelsi in his favourite cafe in Tunis. (The Arab Weekly)

TUNIS - Businessman Rene Trabelsi, who was recently confirmed as Tunisia’s first Jewish governmental minister since Tunisia became an independent republic in 1957, has had no shortage of challenges since taking office.

Trabelsi’s first challenge was his Jewish identity. For, in an environment not accustomed to seeing members of Tunisia’s small Jewish minority in senior government positions, turbulence was inevitable.

Almost immediately, the 55-year-old minister faced accusations of being an Israeli citizen and advocating normalisation with Israel, both of which he denied.

He held firm, however, to his Jewish roots, refusing to allow his religious identity to be stigmatised or used as a token. “To support my appointment only because I am a Jew would be to be unfair to my country and to myself,” Trabelsi wrote in an emotional op-ed for a Tunisian news site. “My Jewishness is neither a burden nor a folkloric item. It is just there.”

Trabelsi also refused to allow praise he received in Israeli and Jewish media to be held against him. For those news outlets, “it is important that Rene Trabelsi, who hails from a traditional Jewish family, who eats kosher food and observes Shabbat, is made minister,” he told The Arab Weekly.

Trabelsi assumed the post while Tunisia’s tourism sector has been making a strong recovery following years of sluggishness. The change is largely due to the success of Tunisia’s security services in restoring confidence following deadly terror attacks in 2015.

Attacks in Tunis and Sousse killed scores of foreign tourists, nearly wrecking the country’s tourism industry, which provides more than 7% of Tunisia’s GDP.

“Today, the security problem is resolved and it is behind Tunisia,” Trabelsi said.

Trabelsi’s family history is closely linked with Tunisia’s Jewish community on the island of Djerba, which is home to about 1,500 of the country’s 2,000 Jews. His father has long overseen the annual Jewish pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue on the island.

Tunisia’s Jewish community has had to cope with numerous terrorist incidents and aftershocks from the Middle East’s upheaval. In 2002, an al-Qaeda suicide bomber detonated a fuel truck in front of El Ghriba synagogue, killing 19 people. In 1985, a policeman fired at Jewish worshippers after Israel’s bombing of the Tunis suburb of Hammam Chott.

Following that episode, Trabelsi left for France, where he founded two travel companies conducting business with many countries including Tunisia.

Trabelsi is confident Tunisia is safe enough to play host to a thriving tourism industry but takes issue with how authorities have sometimes managed the country’s image following terror-related crises.

Regarding the media reaction to a female suicide bomber who detonated an explosive vest in Tunis last October, Trabelsi said: “No country in the world would have tolerated the display of the body of a terrorist like it was done with the body of that female suicide bomber on Habib Bourguiba Avenue. That’s a no-no.”

Trabelsi regularly drinks coffee at his favourite cafe on downtown Tunis’s Habib Bourguiba Avenue. During his morning strolls to the coffee shop, he said he enjoys shaking hands and interacting with other Tunisians who express support as they welcome him aboard the government ship.

“That spontaneous sense of sympathy,” said Trabelsi, “encourages me and gives me the strength to do my best.”