Tunisia is one of the success stories of the Arab spring. But can its Jews—who have lived in relative peace with their Muslim neighbors for more than one thousand years—survive democracy—and changing demographics?
A lone television drones on in the corner, cartoons in Arabic, no one watching. Across the sprawling, dimly lit lobby, 11 old folks sit apart, solitary sentinels against the passing of a cloudy afternoon. A slender, elegant woman—dressed as if a suitor is scheduled to arrive any moment to whisk her off to a splendid seaside lunch—perches at the edge of her easy chair. Ten feet away, a bent gent rocks slowly forward and back; he greets a stranger with a sudden burst of life and a warm smile. A small woman with eyes that dance like a child’s invites me to see her collection of shoes, impressive stacks of boxes revealing gleaming patent leather, ever so slightly worn pumps and heels, her last reminder of a life that ranged from Tunis to Paris to this once-fashionable suburb on the Mediterranean Sea, a faded resort village called La Goulette.
Between this dark lobby and the front door, in an office crammed with books, bills to pay and early photos of Tunisian Jews, Albert Chiche presides over what may be the final chapter of this North African country’s 3,000-year history of Jewish life. The frail men and women in his day room, and another dozen or so in their bedrooms, are the last residents of the lone remaining Jewish retirement community in Tunisia. “There won’t be any more checking in,” says Chiche, the 62-year-old manager of the home, a one-story, cream-colored stucco building with metal bars over the windows and armed police guarding the entrance. The facility opened in 1998, supported by major donations from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in Baltimore and the Jewish Federation of Dallas.
Chiche can seem brusque at first. His voice is clipped, his manner impatient. A compact man with the olive skin of his Spanish heritage, he chain-smokes, answers questions before they’re halfway posed, waves away personal inquiries with a dismissive swipe of his hand. Ever since the revolution in January 2011, he’s been through a slew of these interviews. He knows the drill: People have been writing the obituary for Tunisian Jewry for half a century now, after every wave of Jewish emigration—after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, after Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956, after the Six-Day War in 1967, after Tunisia’s brief dalliance with nationalizing its industries in the late 1960s. Each trauma drove thousands of Jews to France, to Israel, to the United States. In a country whose constitution defines it as a Muslim land, there were once 100,000 Jews, but there are only so many times you can have an exodus and still end up with anything close to a community. There are maybe 150 Jews—and one functioning synagogue—remaining in Tunis, the capital, and its suburbs (another 1,000 or so Jews live on the resort island of Djerba in Tunisia’s south), but Chiche doesn’t dwell on the dwindling numbers.
“I’m Tunisian, my life is here, I’m not attracted by exile,” he says. “These are my friends, my neighbors, Jewish or Muslim. Maybe if there’s a pogrom, we might think about packing our suitcases. But every morning, I walk in here and the first picture I see is that”—he points to a large photo facing his desk, a 1912 portrait of his grandparents in traditional Tunisian dress, part of seven generations of Chiche’s family to live in relative peace in the country their distant ancestors fled to during the Spanish Inquisition. “They were Tunisian, I am Tunisian, that’s what I am.”
But ask Chiche about his children, his three daughters who live in France now—ask what he will do if they bear him grandchildren, and his whole demeanor changes. The tension lifts from his body, he leans forward, allows himself a smile, puts down his cigarette.
“Every day, they call and say, ‘Why are you still there? Come live with me in France, I can provide for you.’ And I tell them I have responsibilities here. I want to be buried here, like my father. But maybe, when I retire, if I have grandchildren, I might want to be with them. If anything should happen, we have a way out.”
At the dawn of the Arab Spring, after a Tunisian fruit vendor—who suffered one too many humiliations from a power-drunk police officer—burned himself to death in desperate protest, Tunisia’s dictator, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia. Tunisia’s mostly peaceful uprising spread from one rural town throughout the country of 11 million people, largely via YouTube videos of far-flung demonstrations, Facebook messages urging support, and intensive coverage on Al Jazeera’s satellite TV network—a social virus that swiftly jumped beyond national borders, sparking a wave of revolution across the Arab world.
Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia since a 1987 coup, fell because of a growing and palpable air of corruption in his government and his family. Their control of business and industry had become nearly absolute, leading many in Tunisia’s massive population of young people—and especially the best-educated youth—to see no future, no careers, no hope. The single avenue to success, many young people believed, was to find some connection to the regime, to mortgage their financial future to the ruling family.
Roger Bismuth, 85, fared well under Ben Ali. As president of Tunisia’s Jewish community and a major industrialist in the country, Bismuth thrived under arrangements that he now describes as mutually cynical and mutually beneficial. Officially, Bismuth and other prominent Jews hailed Ben Ali as their “protector”—and in comparison with other Arab countries, Jews in Tunisia suffered notably less discrimination. There were occasional bursts of anti-Semitic violence—most tragically, a 2002 al-Qaeda-related bombing of a synagogue on Djerba (the oldest shul in Africa) that killed 14 German tourists, five Tunisians and two French citizens. But Ben Ali savored the ability to show off his tolerance of Jews to Europeans and others in the West, even as he joined his fellow Arab leaders in railing against Israel and promoting the Palestinian cause. Ben Ali allowed only token opposition parties, and many dissidents led their movements from France. Bismuth, who never seriously considered emigrating, served under Ben Ali as a senator, the only Jew in the rubber-stamp parliament.
Once Tunisia was freed of Ben Ali’s stifling rule, Bismuth’s tone changed overnight. Ben Ali, he frankly says, was “a crook.” But the change was not necessarily good for the Jews, Bismuth says, with a sigh and a smile.
“Revolution is never a good thing,” says Bismuth, a lean, tall man with deep-set eyes, a soft voice and a ready supply of stories in French, English and Arabic. “I thought it was going to be a mess, and it’s even worse than I thought.”
For decades, Bismuth—at once elegant and casual in a black turtleneck sweater, black slacks and black loafers—has watched from his sleek, minimalist industrial-park office on Tunis’s fringe as friends, relatives and business associates have abandoned their homeland, driven out by economic concerns, political instability or security worries. “Our story is a perpetual repetition,” he says, “but I decided a long time ago, I am not moving.” Throughout the Ben Ali era, many Tunisians—Muslims and Jews alike—sent their children to college in France, knowing that many of them would settle there permanently. (About six percent of all Tunisians, or 600,000 people, live in France.) Bismuth’s children were educated in France and the States, but three of his five living children have come home.
Bismuth’s stance may seem stubborn, even irrational, but with a shrug, he explains: “Why would I leave? I’m like a king here,” and it doesn’t come off as a boast, but as a simple statement of fact. Bismuth is not only the Tunisian distributor for L’Oréal, Gillette, Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson products, but is also a major manufacturer of electrical equipment, batteries and food products.
He tells an old Arab tale of a family that kept having to move from house to house. Each time the family members moved, they used a camel to carry their belongings. This time, with the camel fully loaded, the woman of the house hurriedly emerged one last time and said, “I still have a night table; where can I put it?”
The camel replied, “Lady, you can put it wherever you want, ’cause I’m not moving.”
Bismuth’s family has been in Tunisia since 1492 on his father’s side and not long after on his mother’s side (her family escaped from Spain to Greece, moving to North Africa only after running into pogroms in Salonika). “You know, the Jews like to travel, even if not always by choice,” he quips.
Bismuth is a survivor, a canny politician who has gone from being protected and used by the dictator to being protected and used by the new Islamist government. Just as Bismuth strategically allowed himself to be photographed with Ben Ali to let the dictator present himself to the outside world as a tolerant leader, so too has he posed with the new ruling party’s spiritual leader, Rachid Ghannouchi—but only after last fall’s first post-revolutionary election.
Ghannouchi’s Ennahda party, the moderate Islamists who won a plurality of the vote, is trying to weave a path between Tunisia’s secular elite and a small but loud and sometimes violent minority of extremist fundamentalists, the Salafis, who are roused to demonstrations by preachers who have come into Tunisia from Qatar and Saudi Arabia since the revolution. Many secular Tunisians remain highly suspicious of Ennahda, in part because the group’s rhetoric was more radical back in the days when Ben Ali banned it and had its members arrested by his security police. So Bismuth was wary when the party sought him out.
“Before the election, Ghannouchi’s people invited me to come see him, and I said no,” Bismuth says. “You can’t take a picture and use me to sell your party as moderate. If you really want to see me, come to my home—and they did, and they asked to take a picture, and I refused. After the election, they called again, and this time I went, and I said you can take my picture. And Ghannouchi has been very careful to make supportive statements for us.”
There have been a disturbing number of occasions for the Islamist leader to announce his embrace of Tunisia’s Jews. First, a Hamas leader visited Tunis and upon arrival at the airport shouted “Kill the Jews!” which led Ghannouchi to call Bismuth.
“Roger, I’m so sorry,” Ghannouchi told Bismuth. “But they’re just a handful.”
Bismuth interrupted: “No, no—I was there and I saw them, and some of them were your party’s supporters.”
A couple of months later, a small crowd of Salafists gathered in front of Tunis’s Grand Synagogue shouting anti-Jewish slogans, led by a cleric who urged Muslims to “rise up and wage a war against the Jews.”
Again, Bismuth says, the Islamist party leader “handled it very smartly. He called me so maybe I wouldn’t speak out against what happened. That’s the pattern: After these demonstrations, he calls to say nice things. Everybody uses me—I don’t care. Because I use them, too.”
Legend has it that the first Jews to settle in what is now Tunisia arrived before the destruction of the First Temple. But the historical record is clear that Jews lived in Tunis during its period of Roman rule. The tiny Jewish population increased markedly through waves of immigration by Spanish Jews, first fleeing from the Visigoth kings in the seventh century and 800 years later from the Spanish Inquisition—though most Jewish refugees of that period preferred to move to Morocco and Algeria because their treatment there was considerably milder.
Under both Arab and Ottoman rule, Jews in Tunisia alternately flourished and were persecuted, depending on the vicissitudes of various kings and governors. The situation for Jews improved from about 1700 on, as the great powers of Europe played a larger role in North Africa and sought better conditions for Christians. Jews lucked into somewhat easier treatment because Islamic law bunched followers of the two older faiths together. Jews still had to pay a special tax and were subject to Islamic authority, but by the mid-1800s, Jews made up about one-sixth of Tunis’s population, with 27 synagogues and an array of financiers, rabbis, merchants and craftsmen.
Those skills became a notable strategic advantage in 1881, when France took control of Tunisia. The colonial power’s legal and military officials in Tunis relied on Jews who spoke European languages and were conversant in European law and trade practices, strengthening the Jewish community both economically and politically. Some Jews were offered French citizenship, and many families made French their first language and adopted French surnames.
In 1942, Tunisia became the only Arab country to suffer a full-on Nazi occupation; for seven months, the Germans ruled, rounding up Jews, executing some and sending others to concentration camps. In his many years of studying the Arab world’s experience during the Holocaust, historian Robert Satloff concluded that Tunisia was the site of more Muslim kindness toward Jews than any other country in the region. He tells of a Tunis bathhouse owner who squirreled away a Jewish man at his baths and an affluent farmer who hid two dozen Jews.
That relatively friendly relationship led many Tunisian Jews to remain loyal to their country; most supported the 1950s independence movement headed by Habib Bourguiba, who became free Tunisia’s first president. He appointed Jews to prominent positions and guaranteed their religious and civil freedom, but sporadic bursts of anti-Semitic rage, usually led by Muslim extremists and including demonstrations and Torah burnings, continued through the second half of the century.
The European influence in Tunisia helped shape an Islam that both religious and political leaders call “moderate” or “mild”—the country has long had a liberal attitude toward alcohol, its beaches have welcomed bikini-clad European tourists, and its experience with radical fundamentalist Islam is limited. But since the revolution, the Gulf State preachers who arrived to hold rallies and speak at mosques have revved up small but vocal crowds of young men, many of them jobless.
The result is a palpable surge in interest in Salafism, a hardline strain of Islam whose members often call for the imposition of religious law and Saudi-style restrictions on women, dress, alcohol and popular culture. Salafism began as a fundamentalist movement that called for a return to Islam’s original rituals and way of life, but starting in the 1920s it developed a more political strain with increasingly violent demands for jihad against the non-Muslim world.
In my visits with several leaders of Salafi and other fundamentalist Muslim groups, they of course denied any effort to push Jews out of the country or to do them harm.
“Why are people exaggerating this problem?” demands Ridha Belhadj, chairman of Hizb Tahrir, the Party of Liberation, which calls for a Muslim caliphate to rule the entire Arab world. “No one has a problem with Jews who live here. They’ve been here for centuries. They are our neighbors. When they were preaching against the Jews, they meant Israel—not individual Jews here in Tunisia.
“Islam explicitly calls for an Islamic state,” says Belhadj, 48, who spent more than three years in prison under Ben Ali’s regime for belonging to a banned political group. “The revolution made Tunisians realize we were living a big lie and that secular views represent a small minority. This revolution will not succeed unless it frees us from the West and from foreigners.”
An Arabic literature and language teacher at a Tunis high school, Belhadj runs his party from bare offices in a rundown part of Tunis, just above a chicken coop. His group opposes democracy and elections, saying that religious rule is the only system that assures justice. Although his party has not been approved to participate in elections, he says his group will “keep fighting through popular uprisings to assure that Sharia law is the foundation of our constitution.” The Tunisia he hopes to see in the years to come would ban alcohol and bikinis as part of a return to what the fundamentalists call “pure Islam,” a program of faith and politics that Balhadj says “would impose a certain way of life. Each country has its own system. It’s normal for people to go back to their roots.”
Rafik Ghaki, a friendly but wary lawyer for a coalition of Salafist organizations, informs me that those who took the preacher’s call for the death of the Jews literally are “confused.” The Jews in Tunisia are Tunisians and no one will touch them,” he says. “The fact is that when you talk about ‘Jews’ in Tunisia, you’re talking about Zionists. Even the Jews understand that when you talk of Jews, you are speaking only of Zionists.”
The president of the newly elected parliament, Mustafa Ben Jaffar, who represents a centrist secular party, offers a more diplomatic formulation: “Tunisia is special among the other Arab societies because of our moderation. That’s why we so easily came together in a coalition of secular and Islamic parties. This is also why parties with an Islamist background opposed including Sharia law in our new constitution. The Jewish history in Tunisia is as long as that of Muslims or Christians. On the status of Jews, there is no difference between the Islamist and secular parties, and this is because of the type of Islam we have here—a different, enlightened kind of Islam.”
Ben Jaffar argues that the emergence of extremist groups and the occasional outbursts of violence from those groups are actually a sign of growth, of a country taking advantage of its new freedom to give air to those on the fringes, rather than suppressing their voices as the dictatorship did. The result, he says, will include some tough moments and a need to act against those who break the peace, but also a realization by voters that they now have the power to push aside extremists and grant authority to moderate parties.
Ghannouchi remains eager to trumpet his good relationship with Bismuth and the Jewish community. When I visit his sprawling office atop the Tunis building that houses Ennahda party headquarters, he launches into a defense of the Jews before I’d asked a question remotely related to the community.
“When you want people to come together, you have to be in the center,” he said. “That’s why we opposed very severely some of the slogans that were anti-Semitic and against the Jews.” Ghannouchi argues that democracy naturally “tames its beasts” by exposing extreme views to the light of public inspection.
“When a small minority of extremists used anti-Semitic slogans, we issued a statement against this,” he says. “I called Mr. Bismuth to say that this was against Islam, against our beliefs, and that we would fight for your rights before we fight for ours.”
Nice words, but Bismuth still doesn’t trust the new ruling party. “Ghannouchi is intelligent, but he’s a snake,” he says. “Years don’t matter to these people. They have all the time in the world, and their goal is to build a country that follows the philosophy of the other Arab countries.” “They use a double- or triple-language in which they are supporting us and not criticizing the Salafis, and nobody can say which is the truth. In the end, they are extremists.”
The Jewish community is not alone in this view. “These Salafi protesters mean what they say in their slogans,” says Rawdha Saibi, secretary general of the Association for the Protection of Tunisian Minorities, a grassroots group formed after the revolution to push for the rights of Jews, Christians, blacks, tribal groups and gays. “They make excuses and say they are talking only about Zionists, but their signs speak of Jews, not Zionists. Their message is clear: Kill the Jews.”
Saibi says the Ennahda-led government understands just how extreme the Salafis are, yet limits its criticism to denunciations in news releases rather than cracking down on groups that support violence. A Muslim and a union activist, Saibi says her group is trying to counter the Salafis’ propaganda by telling less educated Tunisians that “the people who call for the death of the Jews will little by little move to other targets and slowly take away our freedoms.”
Saibi knows the new extremists fight hard. After her 16-year-old daughter posted a note on Facebook opposing rising Islamization in Tunisia, extremist Muslims hacked into her account and posted her photo on many other pages with an accusation that she drinks whiskey. And when the same daughter posted a Star of David on her Facebook page as a sign of solidarity with her Jewish friends after an incident at the synagogue, Salafis threatened the teen with physical harm.
Her mother was frightened but says she declined to file a police complaint because her daughter received 89 messages of support on Facebook from Tunisians willing to stand up against the Salafis.
“Those positive comments,” her mother says, “are far greater encouragement about who we are as a people than anything the police can do.”
Youssef Seddik grew up in the Medina, the walled ancient center of Tunis where Muslims and Jews played together as children while their parents exchanged recipes, worked in the same shops and “shared an easy existence.” To this day, he says, “you can see where mosques and Jewish stores stood right next to each other. The Jews are totally Tunisian in every way.” Seddik is a respected elder in Tunisian academia, a philosopher and scholar of Islam who has taken it upon himself to confront Muslim extremists with what he sees as the theological error of their ways.
After two decades in exile in France, Seddik, now 69 and rail-thin, frail and nearly blind, has come home, becoming a frequent presence on Tunisian TV, an insistent voice for modernism who never shies away from taking on the Salafis and their intolerance. “We hear these slogans and this shocks the middle class of Muslims,” he says, “because such language is so very, very dangerous. It is a verbal violence against Jews.”
Seddik says ignorance about Tunisia’s Jewish heritage has become much more evident since the revolution, in good part because the views of less-educated and less-affluent Tunisians are being heard as never before. “And it’s not just the poorly educated,” he says. “For example, I had a professor of Arabic, a director of a major cultural institution, come to me and say that he thought Jews actually worship idols. I told him the Jews are even more strict in faith than Muslims, but he couldn’t understand.
“How can this moderate Islamist government deal with people who are so anti-intellectual, so ignorant? We have a huge job of education ahead of us, teaching people who read the Koran but do not understand it. They know a mechanical Islam but have no deep understanding… The first step is to teach that the Koran is not about judging people by their faith.”
After the threats against the Jews, Israel’s deputy prime minister, a Tunisian Jew named Silvan Shalom, appealed to Jews to leave Tunisia and “come and live in Israel as soon as possible.” This did not go over well in Tunisia.
“He’s a stupid jackass,” Bismuth says. “People are free to leave Tunisia, but this is their home. What would they do in Israel? They want the people to come there and do nothing but sit in yeshiva and make children.”
Attitudes toward Israel among Tunisian Jews are ambiguous; thousands of Jews moved from Tunisia to Israel in the first decades after 1948, either out of Zionist idealism or because they had concluded that life in an Arab country held little promise. But many of the Jews who stayed put, like Bismuth, came to resent the Israeli government’s various calls for them to leave. Still, throughout the postwar period, travel between Tunisia and Israel was easier and more common than what other Arab states allowed.
Bismuth says the proper response to threats is not to flee, but to stand tall: “I didn’t learn Hebrew until I was 72, but I know enough to see a threat. I went to the police and swore out a complaint against the people who chanted these slogans.”
Bismuth doesn’t expect a few court cases to silence the Salafis. But he does believe that the moderate Muslims he has lived and worked with for all his years will defend their way of life. “We Tunisians like to have a good time,” he says. “My friends are mostly Muslims. They like to have a drink, they like to go out. Now along come these people who want to make the hotels halal and put veils on the girls, stop bathing suits on the beach. That life is not our tradition.”
But even if Tunisia remains a moderate anomaly in an increasingly conservative Arab world, three millennia of Jewish life in the country appear to be inexorably drawing to a close. Of course, Jewish communities throughout the world have been declared dead time and again, only to survive long beyond the purported last generation. But Bismuth believes his fellow Tunisian Jews are ready to accept the truth of what the country’s first post-colonial president, Habib Bourguiba, told other Arab leaders when they chastised him for maintaining a working relationship with his country’s Jews. “Bourguiba always said about the Jews, ‘It’s no problem. The old people will die and the young ones will leave.’ And he was right.”
A few blocks from the retirement home in La Goulette, Jacob Lellouche has put his 71-year-old mother to work. She’s the cook and namesake of his restaurant, Mamie Lily, Tunis’s only kosher eatery.
Lellouche, like most of the Jewish kids he grew up with, went to France for college and stayed—not because he was Jewish, but because that was what many kids from educated families, Muslim or Jewish, did. In Paris, he married, had children, launched a career in marketing and opened a Spanish restaurant after learning that his family’s forebears came from Spain. “It was an American kind of feeling, that I had to study my roots and be proud of them,” he says. But in 1996, when his marriage broke up, he felt a tug—toward Tunis.
“I came back because I have a Jewish mom,” he says with a throaty smoker’s laugh. His son is a banker in London and his daughter, a singer in Paris, but Lellouche felt he belonged in North Africa. So home he went—literally to the house he grew up in, which he has since converted to a restaurant. He and Lily live upstairs; their kitchen serves the six tables in their living room, and other diners wait in Jacob’s office in the entryway.
Lellouche is as much of a draw as Lily’s kofte and bkaila, the greenish-black stew of spinach, beans, brisket and tripe sausage that is a Tunisian-Jewish specialty. With a shock of white hair, a soul patch and moustache, big silver rings, and big hugs for many of his customers, he’s a raconteur, artist (his handicrafts, mezuzahs, a Jewish wedding wrap and Jewish-themed paintings fill the walls), historian (he’s collecting photos and tales of Tunisia’s Jewish past), host and waiter—and a real, live Jew, itself not a small part of Mamie Lily’s appeal.
The crowd is mostly French tourists and snowbirds, women of a certain age who winter on the Tunisian coast and men who approach Lellouche with the travel guides and magazine stories that clued them to his tiny place. Lellouche plays to the curiosity about Jews, serving salads in ceramic dishes in the shape of five-pointed stars, schmoozing with guests, telling stories of the Jewish dishes his mother makes—even when those food histories are served up with more than a little schmaltz. “My mother’s cooking is the food of the Mediterranean melting pot,” he says. “It’s hers, but it’s a little of everything: Spanish, Italian, Greek, French, Arab, North African. And when I can’t find the history of a dish, I make it up.”
Lellouche has a theory about Islam and Tunisia. Each religion, he believes, follows an arc of history: Judaism’s adolescent crisis brought on Christianity, and Christianity’s teen troubles resulted in Protestantism. Now comes Islam’s adolescence, unfolding in the Arab world. “The hope of Islam’s adolescent crisis lies in Tunisia,” crossroads of the West and the Arab world, he says. “There is much fear that Tunisia will be dragged back to the Middle Ages, but Tunisian people lived through the Vandals, the Romans, the Turks, the French, the Arabs, our own dictators. Now we are learning democracy. We are learning life.”
Lellouche believes his countrymen can find a constructive path forward if they know their own history. So Lellouche created the House of Memory: The Association to Preserve and Promote Jewish-Tunisian Heritage, which is hosting conferences and staging exhibits to remind Tunisians that for hundreds of years, they lived in relative peace with their Jewish neighbors. Such a group, he says, was impossible under Ben Ali because “the regime just kept the Jews around to give them a good image in America and Europe. But then they’d turn around and give the Arab world a completely different message, saying ‘we have our Jews under control.’ The Jews were told to stay here but shut up. I tried six or seven times to start this association and every time, the ministry of culture said, you know, this is not the moment to start such a group.
“So Jews became invisible. Today, when I say my name is Jacob and Tunisians hear me speaking Arabic, the younger people say, ‘How is it possible you are not Muslim? Are you really Tunisian?’”
Lellouche is under no illusion that Tunisia’s Jewish community will grow. He does not sugarcoat the country’s history with Jews. He knows some Muslims will use Jews as a political target no matter how few their numbers. But he feels compelled to save something, to pass on some memory. “Sometimes I feel like the last Mohican, but I also feel a duty to the Tunisian people,” he says. “Our constitution says we are all Muslims, but we really are a mosaic—for centuries, there were Jews, Christians and Muslims here.”
After the revolution, Lellouche decided his moment had finally arrived. He launched his organization and filed to run for the new parliament, representing the Republican People’s Union (UPR), a small, leftist secular party. He won support from some voters who thought putting a Jew in parliament would signal Tunisia’s tolerance for “the other,” but he also received a slew of nasty messages. “Go run in your own country,” one angry Muslim wrote.
Lellouche wrote back, asking “What is my country?”
The response: “Israel—you are a Zionist.”
Lellouche, no great fan of Israel, wrote again: “No, you are the Zionist,” he told the Muslim, “because you want me to go to a country where I don’t have any roots.”
The exchange ended in a friendly standoff, which Lellouche says is good enough for him. Lellouche’s party didn’t win any seats in parliament, but he says victory was never his aim.
“I don’t give a damn about politics,” he says. “I just want people to see that there is no connection between religion and politics and that if we accept that, we can all go on being just Tunisians.
“We Jews are here,” Lellouche adds. “The problem is not our quantity. When we were 100,000, we were silent. Now we are only a few and we can still step forward to show the Tunisians and the Jews and Muslims who left the country that we are here. Hey, you have a black president. Perhaps someday…” He laughs.