What makes Tunisia unique

Sunday 29/05/2016
A Tunisian Jewish woman lights a candle at the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage, on May 25th.

Watching the news these days, one is easily tempted to dismiss any hope for the Middle East and North Africa but since I will be, very soon, cel­ebrating my 90th birthday, I can be excused if I am not easily impressed by what is on televi­sion or in most newspapers.
There are, of course, instant pictures today of almost every­thing, especially of the violence and mayhem inflicted by fanat­ics on the rest of us. Having gone through the second world war and many other sad episodes of human history, nothing really shocks me anymore.
What still gets my attention, however, are the less common but more gratifying moments of communal peace and harmony. At times, it takes a small country, such as Tunisia, to keep such mo­ments coming.
Recently, there was again in this land that is my home the recur­rence of an event that has always kept me wondering whether we have all given up a bit prematurely on this region’s ability to tran­scend bigotry and hate.
Despite dire warnings about possible terror scenarios (reinforced by memories of the 2002 al-Qaeda attack on the Ghriba synagogue), hundreds of Jews, Christians and Muslims recently assembled on the Tunisian island of Djerba as they have done for years.
They were not foolhardy or even unaware of the risks involved. They were common people unwill­ing to give up on a tradition that has exemplified the best of what Tunisia has had to offer for ages: a marvellous example of Arab- Jewish coexistence.
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.
I still remember how, more than 70 years ago, I would mingle with Tunisian labourers and break bread with them during our lunch break without anyone wondering what that young Jewish workingman was doing in their midst. When we walked for miles and miles from remote parts of Tunis to my home suburb of La Goulette, nobody had a second thought about sharing jokes. We did not have money to spend on a train ticket but we had a sense of camaraderie that allowed us to break the ice almost instantly.
Today, I run my companies in Tunisia but I still live in the same place, at my old home in La Gou­lette, a city with a multicultural history where next to the main mosque stands a Catholic church, not far from where the muezzin calls the predominantly Muslim community to prayer five times a day. The nursing home of our ageing community is staffed by Tunisian Muslims who do not see religion separating them from Jew­ish senior citizens of whom they are taking care.
I also still remember how in January 2015, Tunisians — Jews and Muslims — paid tribute to Yoav Hattab, the son of a local rabbi and a victim of a terrorist attack on a kosher market in Paris.
He was hailed as a hero on social media. On Facebook, there were photos of him draped with the Tu­nisian flag and others showing his blue-ink-stained index finger after voting in Tunisia’s 2011 elections.
It was a reminder that Tunisian Jews feel Tunisian and are enti­tled to being treated as Tunisians before anything else.
I have been personally reluctant to accept that Jews in Tunisia be treated as anything but full-fledged citizens. I have not ceased to reject any notion of parliamentary quotas or special treatment, even if it is in the form of positive discrimination in favour of Jews. In the same vein, I have objected to our constitution stipulating that only Muslims can run for the office of president.
What is even more interesting is that nobody in Tunisia disputed my right to say so. Nobody has held my religious affiliation against me. This is what still makes Tunisia unique.