Tunisian Jewish community leader sees equal rights and obligations

Friday 15/05/2015
The egg ritual

Tunis = To the foreign Jewish del­egation that asked him if he ever would leave Tunisia, Roger Bismuth, the president of Tunisian Jewish community, 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 would I leave?”

Bismuth is a liberal Jew and a self-made man. He started working as a construction worker when he was 14, walking ten miles to work every day. “I was just a labourer among labourers,” he remembers.

Now Bismuth, 89, is impres­sively active for his age. He runs 12 Tunisian companies that cover the gamut of industries. “We continue to make a profit, even in this slug­gish climate,” he said. “In the worst of the turbulence of the last four years, we did not experience any work stoppage.”

“The reason,” he explains, “is that in my companies we feel and act like one big family.”

Another family that Bismuth watches over is the ageing Jew­ish community of which he is the president. He provides for its nurs­ing home in La Goulette and other humanitarian needs.

There were an estimated 170,000 Jews in Tunisia when the country gained independence from France in 1956 but the number has since dwindled to around 1,500, mostly residing in Tunis and the southern island of Djerba.

Bismuth is not only a successful businessman but also a respected public figure. He has maintained close contacts with all govern­ments since independence. For decades, he has been an active leading member of the country’s business federation, known by its French acronym UTICA. He has a philosophy about politics and politicians which he said is de­rived from faith. “Our religion teaches us to cooperate with the authorities of our coun­try, for the common good,” he said.

Bismuth seemed in pur­suit of that purpose when he was received by President Béji Caid Essebsi on May 5th. “I expressed the determination of the Jewish community to make sure the forth­coming pilgrimage to the Ghriba is a success,” Bismuth said. He was referring to the annual pilgrimage by Jews from Tunisia and the Mediterranean to the oldest synagogue in Africa, situated on Djerba. On the next day, Bismuth flew to Djerba where he met Ira Forman, the US State Depart­ment’s special en­voy for combating anti-Semitism.

Bismuth says it is useful for for­eign officials, including Ameri­cans, to see the Ghriba experience firsthand.

“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 said.

Bismuth has served as a member of the Tunisian Chamber of Ad­visers for six years after 2004. “At that time, I was often de­scribed as the Arab world’s only Jewish senator.

“I was a Jewish senator but not a senator for the Jews alone. My remarks were always aimed at improving things for the whole popula­tion,” he said.

The president of the Tunisian Jewish community has, since the 2011 uprising, 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? Religious quotas are not compatible with democracy.

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

Based on the same principle, Bis­muth wanted the new constitution to allow all Tunisians, whatever their religion, to run for public of­fice, including the office of presi­dent. But the new constitution stipulated that to be eligible to the office of president, a Tunisian citi­zen must be Muslim.

Bismuth leads a peaceful and modest life in the same neighbour­hood where has lived for the last 70 years. He refuses to accept special security protection. He said, “The day I start walking with a security detail, I would not be at home any­more. Besides, our security people have better things to do.”