In separate meetings on December 12 with the Minister of Religious Affairs, the MFA, and members of Parliament, including Jewish community leader Roger Bismuth, the GOT presented a united front on Tunisia's record of religious tolerance. All interlocutors described the Tunisian model as a shining example of how a minority religious community was supported and protected by government policies. The Minister of Religious Affairs, El Akhzouri, stating a talking point heard throughout the day, said "Tunisian Jews are Tunisians first, Jewish second." Another oft-repeated soundbite heard from GOT officials was: "We shouldn't speak of tolerance, we should speak of acceptance." While recognizing some isolated incidents (Ref B), Tunisian officials denied that anti-Semitism was a significant problem in Tunisia.The former regime was clearly protecting the Jewish community for political purposes and used them as a showcase for their tolerance. The question is, in the new Tunisia, whether the Muslims continue to treat Jews with respect or if things will go downhill for Jews without government protection.
...In Djerba, members of the community, including the community president and the Grand Rabbi of Tunisia, picked up where the GOT interlocutors left off the previous day, extolling the virtuous religious policies of President Ben Ali, and repeating throughout the day that "there are no problems." The President of the Djerba Jewish community, Youssef Uzan, nervously intimated to PolFSN that things were not as perfect as everyone said, but would say nothing more. "You may come and go, but we have to stay here and deal with (the GOT) when you are gone," he said, explaining why he did not want to complain about community problems to a foreign visitor. Throughout the day, Uzan had to constantly report on the delegation's whereabouts to GOT authorities (who were tailing the group everywhere in any case), and had to set an extra place when a local GOT official entered uninvited to a lunch prepared by the Jewish community for the visiting delegation.
One community member, a jeweler named XXXXXX, however, quietly told poloff "of course we have problems." While emphasizing that the GOT should be commended for its protection of the community, he said it was "ridiculous to claim that everything was perfect." He spoke at length, and with as much caution as if he were disclosing a state secret, of a long-standing dispute, dating back ten years, with the former community president. The president had received, in the name of the community, a significant donation from the widow of a Tunisian Jew. This former president had misappropriated the funds, and when the community tried to install a new president, the matter went to court. According to the Haddad, the court only recognized the former president since only his name was listed on papers establishing the Jewish association. Haddad told poloff that to officially replace him and gain control of the widow's donation, the community would have to create a new association, but that Tunisia's restrictive law on associations prevented this. Haddad said the former president left Djerba, and was currently living in "a million-dollar" apartment in Tunis, where he enjoyed high-level connections in the GOT.
XXXX also mentioned several periods of tension between the Djerban Jews and their Muslim counterparts. He said that in the early eighties, during a time of increased tension in the Levant, members of the Jewish community were the targets of physical and verbal assault, causing many members of the community to emigrate. He said that this had stopped with Ben Ali's accession to power in 1987, and the protective policies the GOT employed towards the Jewish community. XXXXXX said that the Muslim community now knew that the GOT had made it clear that any assault on the Jewish community would meet severe retribution, as the GOT benefited greatly from "showing the world" Tunisia's Jewish community. XXXXXX quickly noted that, absent this tacit threat, as well as the tangible measures of protection, he feared he and his fellow Jews would "again be stoned in the street."
HOWARD EPSTEIN: A TALE OF TWO COUNTRIES
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