KOSHER DELIGHT - YOUR JEWISH ONLINE MAGAZINE!
Historic pilgrimage in Tunisia revives after 2002 terror attack
DJERBA, Tunisia (JTA) -- With
hundreds of policemen lining the roads, X-ray machines blocking
the entrance to an ancient synagogue and a police helicopter
circling overhead, some 5,000 Jews joyously celebrated the
annual Ghriba pilgrimage on this Tunisian island.
Jews – many of them visiting from France and Israel – take part
in the annual Ghriba pilgrimage on the island of Djerba,
Tunisia, on May 6, 2007.
Photo by Larry Luxner, with permission
The heavy security at the
May 6 event was intended to prevent a repeat of a 2002
terrorist attack against the historic synagogue, which
killed 21 German tourists and was believed to be
perpetrated by al-Qaida.
Even so, terrorism didn't appear to be a major concern
for the Jews -- or the curious Arab onlookers -- who
paraded through the streets of Hara Sghira, a small
village that is home to the ancient Ghriba synagogue,
the oldest in North Africa.
"We come every year to celebrate the anniversary of the
death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai," explained Dr. Ouzifa
Trabelsi, a UCLA-trained endocrinologist who was born in
Djerba and now lives in Paris. "It's just a tradition.
It has nothing to do with religion."
Trabelsi, 52, has been coming to Djerba annually for the
past 34 years. Another regular is Haim Cohen, an
Italian-born Jew of Libyan origin.
"Muslims and Jews live so close to each other, speak the
same language and have the same traditions," he said.
"The Tunisians are tolerant and they welcome all the
Israelis coming here."
"When I tell people I'm from Israel, they welcome me
with open arms," added Jacqueline Saban, who left
Tunisia in 1978 and lives in Beersheba, where she runs a
jewelry store with her husband, Avraham.
As there are no direct air links between the two
countries, Israelis must fly to Tunis via Frankfurt,
Paris or Rome, then drive six hours through the desert
Perez Trabelsi, president of the local Jewish community
and a distant relation of Ouzifa Trabelsi, said that
roughly 9,000 pilgrims came to Djerba in 2000, but that
dwindled to virtually zero after the 2002 attack. He
speculated that if there were direct flights from Tel
Aviv to Tunis, 15,000 to 20,000 Jewish pilgrims might
make the trip each year.
"We have received no specific threats" from al-Qaida
"and we're confident nothing will happen again," he
said. "We've already been hit once. After the events of
2002, we decided to start the pilgrimage again."
The colorful procession recalls the memory of a
legendary woman named La Ghriba -- Arabic for "the
foreigner" -- who lived on the island centuries ago and
is hailed as a saint.
Every year, thousands of pilgrims visit Djerba on Lag
B'Omer to ask for her intercession. They parade a huge
candelabrum called the Grande Menara down the street as
women reach out to touch the multicolored silk scarves
This year the festival featured a chorus of young boys
singing everything from "California Dreamin' " to "Yerushalayim
Shel Zahav" -- as well as men hawking embroidered caps,
a master of ceremonies auctioning off the right to ride
next to the Menara, and a venerated old rabbi offering
benedictions in Hebrew, Arabic and French.
Of Tunisia's 10.8 million inhabitants, fewer than 2,000
are Jewish. Half still live in Djerba, with the other
half spread among the capital and a handful of other
David Tal, a member of Israel's Knesset, attended the
Ghriba festival and told JTA he felt completely welcome
"I think there's a basis for a relationship between
Tunisia and Israel," said Tal, 57, who was born in
Rishon Lezion to Tunisian parents. "Israel can assist
Tunisia a lot in water, agriculture, high-tech and
information. There is absolutely no hatred between our
countries, and Tunisia always protected its Jews. The
time has arrived for a bilateral relationship."
The highest-ranking Tunisian official at the festivities
was Tourism Minister Tijani Haddad, who welcomed 75
local and foreign journalists the day before at a press
conference at the nearby Hotel Yadis.
Haddad said Tunisia "was one of the first Arab countries
to fight extremism" after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks, but declined to say what security measures
Tunisia was taking amid worries about the growing al-Qaida
threat throughout North Africa.
Haddad also didn't answer a question about the
possibility of establishing direct air service between
Israel and Tunisia, and would not say how much revenue
the Ghriba festival generates for Tunisia.
"It's not a question of money," he said. "Compared to
Tunisia's overall tourism industry, what we get from a
gathering like this is nothing.
"It's not that we follow a policy like this because we
want to make money. On the contrary, we respect our
principles even if we don't make any money at all."
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