TUNIS (JTA) -- To the east is Libya,
a vast desert nation ruled by strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi,
where not a single Jew remains from the forced exodus that
followed Israel’s founding in 1948.
Bearded rabbi prays in Hebrew at the Ghriba synagogue on the
island of Djerba.
Photo by Larry Luxner, with permission
To the west is
Algeria, a bloodstained country that once boasted 140,000
Jews and today is home to barely 100.
between these two oil-rich giants is Tunisia,a
Wisconsin-sized oasis of tranquility that safeguards its 1,500
Jews, foots the bill to restore old synagogues and even welcomes
Israeli tourists -- despite the lack of diplomatic relations
between Tunis and Jerusalem and Tunisia's history as PLO leader
Yasser Arafat's home during the 1980s.
In many ways,
Tunisia is distinct in the Arab world.
The country is
home to the Arab world’s only Jewish legislator, an 81-year-old
senator who also is president of Tunisia’s Jewish community. In
November, World ORT returned to the country after a 35-year
absence, inaugurating a computer laboratory and IT center at the
Chabad School of Tunis at a ceremony attended by Education
And despite the
absence of diplomatic ties with Israel, in 2005 an Israeli
delegation that came to a U.N.-sponsored telecommunications
conference in Tunis was headed by Tunisian-born Silvan Shalom,
at the time Israel's foreign minister.
in Tunisia -- for its Jews and for the country as a whole -- has
come at a price, analysts say: democratic rights.
Tunisia is a long way from democracy,” said Nejib Ayachi,
founder and president of the Maghreb Center, a Washington-based
think tank that focuses on North Africa. “They keep saying
they’re working on it, but I personally believe that
institutions and the rule of law should come first, before
establishing a democratic system that works effectively.”
al-Abidine Ben Ali, after Ben Ali has been in power since
ousting the ailing Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987.
has held several presidential elections, few take them
seriously. In 1999, Ben Ali's party won 99.66 percent of the
vote. In 2004 he officially won 94.48 percent of the vote after
a constitutional change two years earlier enabled him to seek
point out that under Ben Ali's rule, Tunisia has been able to
develop one of the highest levels of literacy in the Arab world,
as well as one of its lowest rates of infant mortality and
the Jewish member of Tunisia's Chamber of Deputies, credits the
71-year-old president for keeping Tunisia on a moderate course,
promoting education and protecting Tunisian Jews from the chaos
and religious extremism enveloping much of North Africa.
is good to us,” Bismuth said, adding, “We are very careful. Our
security is very tight, even if you don’t see it.”
"There is a
national consensus around Ben Ali," Mohamed Nejib Hachana,
Tunisia's ambassador to the United States, told JTA. "He is the
savior of Tunisia, and he's putting our country on the right
track in this very risky and difficult moment. He is deadly
serious about democracy and pluralism."
The threat of
Islamic terrorists groups like al-Qaida has given Arab
dictatorships a handy excuse to crack down on civil liberties,
even in monarchies where there’s been some nominal movement
toward democracy, such as Jordan and Morocco, says Abdeslam
Maghraoui, a North Africa expert and visiting associate
professor at Duke University.
are dealing with this threat in a very efficient way,” said
Maghraoui, who is also the former director of the Muslim World
Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “However, they’re
clamping down on civil liberties, freedom of the press and
freedom of expression. Democracy may actually be suffering
because of this.”
terrorist activity is on the rise throughout North Africa's
Maghreb, a region that encompasses Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia,
Libya and Mauritania.
twin car bombs in Algeria devastated a government building and
the U.N. headquarters in the capital city, Algiers, killing more
than 50. Also last month, a French family of four vacationing in
Mauritania was gunned down.
are believed to be the work of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb,
a terrorist group increasingly active in North Africa.
serious attack in Tunisia took place in 2002, when al-Qaida
agents attempted to bomb North Africa’s oldest shul, Djerba’s
Ghriba synagogue. The truck bombing didn't damage the synagogue,
but it killed 21, most of them German tourists, and scared away
visitors for several years.
“They wanted to
shut down the tourist industry, and in fact they did,” Bismuth
said. “And in December 2006 we had some more incidents, which
were definitely traced to al-Qaida.”
Washington in November to meet with Jewish members of Congress
and to lobby for U.S. help in Tunisia’s battle against
Although it is
far removed from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Tunisia
commands respect in the region both for having hosted both the
Arab League -- after the organization pulled out of Cairo
following Egypt's peace treaty with Israel -- and the PLO, which
operated out of Tunis from 1982 to 1993.
Tunisia was instrumental in bringing Israelis and Palestinians
together, despite an Israeli attack on the PLO's Tunis
headquarters in 1985.
a very constructive and positive role in the Middle East peace
process," the ambassador said. "The first dialogue between the
Palestinians and Americans was in Tunis. This was followed by
the first official dialogue between the PLO and Israel."
dialogues, he said, gave birth to the Oslo peace agreement and
the historic 1993 summit between Arafat and Israeli Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Egypt and Jordan, Tunisia has not formally recognized the State
"It all depends
on the peace process," Hachana said. "Tunisia has said very
clearly that when there's progress on this issue, Tunisia will
react favorably on the normalization of relations with Israel.
"But we must
see tangible progress on the Palestinian-Israeli track: a
sovereign state of Palestine living side by side with Israel.
The main issue is still not solved."