Disquiet Among Tunisian Jews Over President’s Response to Deadly Synagogue Attack
Despite an outward show of unity with the Tunisian authorities, there is significant disquiet within the North African country’s Jewish community over the government’s response to Tuesday’s deadly gun attack upon worshipers at a historic synagogue on the island of Djerba, The Algemeiner has learned.
A member of the Tunisian Jewish community expressed serious concern regarding the remarks delivered by President Kais Saied to Tunisia’s National Security Council on Wednesday, pointing to the absence of any condemnation of antisemitism or condolences specifically directed to the Jewish community.
“I heard his entire speech, and I realized that it is probably very difficult for him to mention the word ‘Jews’,” the Jewish community member — who spoke on condition of strict anonymity for fear of reprisals — told The Algemeiner during a telephone interview on Thursday.
“Without a doubt, [Saied] is not only a hater of Israel but also antisemitic,” the person added emphatically.
Two worshipers — Benjamin Haddad, a French citizen, and his cousin Aviel Haddad, a joint French-Israeli citizen — were murdered alongside two police officers during the attack on the El Ghriba synagogue carried out by a naval officer who was serving on the island. Thousands of pilgrims visit the synagogue annually to celebrate the Jewish festival of Lag B’Omer. The authorities announced on Wednesday that a “preliminary criminal investigation” had been opened.
In his comments to the National Security Council, Saeid stressed that Tunisia remained safe as a destination, “no matter how much these criminals try to destabilize it.”
Adding that “Tunisia will always remain a land of tolerance and coexistence,” he claimed that the purpose of the attack was to “sow the seeds of discord, damage the tourist season and damage the state.”
However, Saeid’s silence on the as yet unnamed assailant’s selection of a Jewish target, as well as the reluctance of the authorities to identify the attack as an act of terrorism, has not passed unnoticed among Tunisia’s tiny Jewish community of approximately 1,500 people.
Jason Guberman — the executive director of the American Sephardi Federation (ASF), which works extensively with Jewish communities in North Africa — told The Algemeiner that Saied’s speech to the National Security Council amounted to a strategic error for the president.
“While the investigation is ongoing, one would expect, especially given Al Qaeda’s prior terrorist attack on the El Ghriba Synagogue, that the Tunisian government would do everything in its power to reassure the community and the world by condemning antisemitism, expressing condolences and committing additional security forces,” Guberman said.
Saied had “signaled to Islamist extremists that Tunisia is not only a good source for recruits, but increasingly a target for conquest,” Guberman said.
Saied has caused consternation among Tunisian Jews in the recent past, having been taken to task by Jewish organizations in 2021 after he delivered a speech in which he accused Jews of being responsible “for the instability in the country” — an assertion the Tunisian leader later denied making.
The community member noted that Saied had described the victims of the attack on the El Ghriba Synagogue as “martyrs,” and that “he didn’t mention either Jews or the police officers [who were killed].” The president’s decision to avoid calling the attack a terrorist incident was “a problem, because if you don’t give an accurate description [of what happened], you don’t know what you are fighting against. But if you say that it’s a terrorist, antisemitic attack, then you have to take action.”
Saied’s comments were echoed by other Tunisian political leaders. A statement from the heads of the Tunisian Labor Union (UGGT) condemned the “vile terrorist operation” in Djerba before denouncing “the instrumentalization by the media and foreign circles, by wrongly identifying this heinous terrorist crime with what is called ‘antisemitism,’ with a view to smearing Tunisia. ”
The attack has bolstered fears that the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage to Djerba may not survive. The synagogue was the target of a terrorist attack on the same occasion in 2002, when an Al Qaeda terrorist drove a truck packed with explosives into the front of the synagogue, killing 14 German tourists along with three Tunisians and two French nationals.
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