Despite extremism, Djerba is model of integration | Africa | DW | 24.05.2016
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Despite extremism, Djerba is model of integration

The Tunisian island of Djerba is a role model in terms of a peaceful co-existance between Jews, Christians and Muslims - in a region torn by religious extremism. Kristen McTighe reports from Djerba.

Mezuzahs are hung on doorways and young boys wearing kippahs linger on the corners of dusty neighborhood streets. Women in long skirts and scarves covering their hair walk past kosher butcher shops strewn with Hebrew signs.

Here in this isolated enclave in the middle of the Muslim world, is the Hara Kabira, the largest of two Jewish neighborhoods on the southern Tunisian island of Djerba, where Jews, Christians and Muslims peacefully live and work side by side.

The community has weathered the tumult that shook the region following the creation of Israel in 1948 and the changes that altered the region after the 2011 revolutions. Now, as attention has focused on a rising tide of extremism that has engulfed the region, the community says it is intent on staying.

"By the grace of God, the Jews can live here and we can grow," says Youssef Oezen, the president of the Jewish community in Djerba.

Numbering around 5,000 in 1948, the Jewish population of Djerba - which traces its origins back to the Babylonian exile of 586 BC - dropped to less than 700 by the middle of the 1990s.

But over the past two decades, the population once again began to slowly grow. Today, around 1,100 Jews live on the island, according to Oezen, and with nearly half under 20 years old, in a deeply conservative community where having large families is the norm, he is firm in his belief that they will continue to grow.

An image of tolerance

Under the rule of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a secular autocrat who sought close ties with the west, the government was keen to protect the community and preserve a image of tolerance. With its turquoise waters and pristine sandy beaches, that image has been a tourism magnet.

"We mix, we respect each other, it's just what's normal," said Madji Barouni, a Muslim from Djerba, as he stands in a jewellry shop in the old market of Houmt Souk, Djerba's largest town. Avi Bittan, the shop's Jewish owner, examines a watch Barouni brought in for repair.

During the day, Jewish men work alongside Muslim and Christian neighbors as merchants in Houmt Souk, selling gold and silver jewellery, textiles and souvenirs.

"There are no problems," Barouni told DW, as the Muslim call to prayer sounds from a nearby mosque.

a painted door copyright: Kristen McTighe

Jews are happy to integrate but enjoy the privacy of their community

While they enjoy friendly and cordial relations with other residents of the island, when work is over, most Jews return home, keeping an insular life in their community. For Jewish leaders, it is a way to protect traditions and resist assimilation.

While the small community has endured, it has not evaded all the tumult that has hit the region over the past six decades.

In 2002, a truck filled with propane gas drove past security barriers at the El Ghriba synagogue and detonated in front of the holy site whose foundation is storied to have been laid using a stone carried by Cohens from Solomon's temple. Nearly two dozen people, mainly German tourists, were killed in the attack claimed by al Qaeda.

Fear of persecution

When Tunisians rose up in 2011 to oust Ben Ali and Islamists ascended to power in the first free and fair elections, fears once again arose that Tunisian Jews risked persecution.

In the aftermath of the uprising, multiple Jewish cemeteries were reportedly defiled and several anti-Jewish incidents were reported.

But in one of his first moves after rising to power, Rashid Al-Ghannoushi, the head of Nahda, Tunisia's leading Islamist party, sent a delegation to the Jews in Djerba in an effort to reassure the community they would be protected.

Today, the government's efforts to protect the Jews of Djerba are in plain sight. Police are stationed at entrances of the Hara Kabira to monitor who comes in and out and security checkpoints are scattered throughout the neighborhood.

These efforts could prove more important than ever. Labeled the only success of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has been rattled by a dangerous rise in extremism over the past few years.

Last year, militants carried out two deadly attacks on Western tourists, one in March at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another in June at the beach resort of Sousse where 38 people were killed, mostly British tourists.

And in March, mostly Tunisian militants entering from Libya stormed the nearby border town of Ben Gardane and launched a bloody raid on police and army.

The assault, which left more than 50 dead, validated fears that a spillover from Libya, where Islamic State militants have gained a foothold, had begun. When the attacks broke out, access to the island was immediately cut off.

Economic pain

"We were a little scared, that's normal, but everyone was scared, not just the Jews," Nissan Bittan, a Jewish goldsmith, told DW. "But I think things are better now."

Like many residents of the island, the greatest concern for Bittan is now the economy, which has been ravaged by last years attacks. And with the annual pilgrimage to the El Ghriba Synagogue taking place this week - a time of year that sees a surge in tourism with Jewish pilgrims from Israel, France and beyond making the journey - those security fears could deal business another big blow.

shops copyright: Kristen McTighe

Security concerns have put off many tourists but locals say they're not afraid

The pilgrimage, was canceled in 2011 following the revolution amid security fears. Celebrations resumed the next year and the government beefed up security, but visitor numbers have remained low. Ahead of this year's pilgrimage, Israel's National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau issued a travel warning for Tunisia but for most of the island's residents, it has not changed their sense of security.

Back in his jewelry shop, Avi Bittan is asked if the extremism that has rattled the region has made him feel unsafe.

"No, no, no, never. Look on the streets, we know everyone here," said Bittan, adamantly, perplexed that anyone would think otherwise. Barouni, meanwhile, says he and other Muslims here would not hesitate to protect their Jewish neighbors. "We are all Tunisians."

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