Once home to over 100,000 Jews, Tunisia, unlike other North African countries, has retained a significant Jewish community, even if one much reduced in size; some 1,000 Jews live on the island of Djerba, and a few hundred more are on the mainland. Jews from Israel, France, and elsewhere still flock to the island in large numbers for the annual pilgrimage on the holiday of Lag ba’Omer. But the community remains intact thanks to a heavy military presence, and some of its historic synagogues can barely get ten men together for prayers. Cnaan Liphshiz writes:
[Djerba’s] Jewish community persists thanks to what locals—Jews and non-Jews alike—say is a special set of circumstances: the local Arabs’ relative immunity to waves of xenophobia and political agitation seen on the mainland. Pretty much all aspects of life in Djerba bear the effect of centuries of interaction among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, who have lived here since Roman times.
Whereas elsewhere in Tunisia the traditional bean stew known as tfina pkaila is considered a typically Jewish dish, here in Djerba everyone eats and makes it. The island’s best makers of the blousa—a traditional Djerban woolen robe that Muslims wear on religious holidays—are all Jewish. The Jewish tailor Makhiks Sabbag and his son Amos are widely considered the very best.
The symbol of the menorah, the Jewish traditional oil lamp, is a local icon adopted by the general population [and] featured in decorations of government buildings such as clinics and schools. And non-Jewish locals are surprisingly familiar with the Jewish calendar and customs. Muslim customs clearly have also rubbed off on Jews here: they take off their shoes before entering their synagogues the way Muslims do before entering a mosque. . . .
But in Tunisia, expressions of anti-Semitism, often featuring anti-Israel vitriol, continue to occur. . . . A recent example came when Tunisia joined several other countries in banning the film Wonder Woman, apparently because its lead character is portrayed by the Israeli film star Gal Gadot. . . . The invitation to a Tunisian festival in July of the Jewish comedian Michel Boujenah provoked protests in Tunisia. . . . Tunisia has several pending bills, introduced by Islamist and secular nationalists, proposing a blanket boycott on Israel and a ban on any Israelis entering the country.
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