Tunisian Jewish community leader sees equal rights and obligations
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.”