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Disappearing denizens

Andreas Gorzewski / slkNovember 27, 2012

The once-large Jewish communities in Tunisia and Egypt have almost disappeared. Those who remain are treated with mistrust and suspicion by society. The Arab Spring has made their situation even more difficult.

Israeli Rabbi Maimoun, 67, from Tel Aviv and born in Tunis, reads the Torah in the Ghriba Synagogue on April 29, 2010 on the eve of the Jewish annual pilgrimage in Djerba. This week marks the eight anniversary of the suicide bombing that racked this sleepy island resort, desecrating an ancient synagogue and killing 21 people. More than 6,000 Jewish pilgrims are expected including 1,500 Israelis on May 22/23, in a rare pilgrimage to an Arab land. AFP PHOTO/ FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: AFP/Getty Images

The Great Synagogue of Tunis is clearly recognizable as a Jewish house of worship from a distance, with a Star of David ornamenting its façade. But congregants are few and far between these days. Most of Tunisia's Jews have emigrated, with just 2,000 remaining out of a population that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

In Egypt, the situation is even worse, with the country's ancient Jewish community on the verge of extinction. And with Islamist parties now controlling the governments in Cairo and Tunis, there is concern that the Jewish communities in both countries could disappear once and for all.

There were once vibrant Jewish communities spread all over the Middle East and North Africa. But after the founding of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent Arab-Israeli wars, Jews came to be viewed as the enemy in many Arab nations. In turn, hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated to Israel, Europe and the United States.

(FILES) Picture dated 11 May 2001 of Jewish pilgrims in Djerba synagogue. Five people were killed and 20 were injured when a truck transporting gas exploded 11 April 2002 outside the ancient Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba in what an official said was an accident. dpa
The Ghriba Synagoge was attacked by al Qaeda in 2002Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Egyptian Jewish community faces extinction

Jews have lived in Egypt since the age of the Pharaohs. Before WW II, the community was about 80,000 strong. Today, around 100 Jews remain in Alexandria and Cairo. Most of them are old women, according to David Harari. The 73-year-old grew up in Egypt and is currently the treasurer of the Society for Jews of Egyptian Heritage in France.

The old synagogues in Egypt have become museums. Although the government financed the restoration of Cairo's Maimonides Synagogue in 2010, religious services are rarely held there anymore. The head of the Jewish community organizes services a few times a year.

"A Rabbi comes from abroad for the important Jewish holidays, such as the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur," Harari told DW. Since 10 Jewish men are necessary for the service to be held, employees from the Israeli embassy have to participate.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict casts long shadow

The re-opening of the Maimonides Synagogue was overshadowed by political and religious conflicts. Representatives of the Egyptian government did not attend the ceremony, citing Israeli aggression against Palestinians. Tensions caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impact the Jewish community in Egypt, even though Cairo signed a peace treaty with the Jewish State in 1979. Hopes that the so-called Arab Spring would help ease tensions have been largely disappointed.

"The situation hasn't improved in any way," Harari said. The head of the Jewish community in Cairo is surveilled by the Egyptian state and cannot speak freely, he added. In Alexandria, the authorities closed the city's synagogue this year during Jewish holidays, according to reports in the Israeli media. Egyptian officials later rejected this accusation.

There is concern among Cairo's Jews about what will become of their once vibrant community's property. Their buildings in Cairo and Alexandria are on valuable plots of land, which are being eyed by businesspeople and politicians.

Maimonides Synagoge im ehemaligen jüdischen Viertel Haret al-Yahoud von Kairo. Hier: Das Innere der frisch restaurierten Synagoge mit Bimah und Thoraschrein. Kairo, Ägypten, 21.03.2010 +++picture alliance / JOKER
The Egyptian government finance the Maimonides Synagogue restoration, but did not attent the opening ceremonyImage: picture-alliance/Joker

"When the last Jew in Cairo dies, the valuables will be confiscated by the state," Harari said.

Insecurity in Tunisia

In Tunisia, there is still a functioning Jewish community. In the capital and on the island of Djerba, a few synagogues are open on the Sabbath. But compared to the past, fewer and fewer people attend services on the high holy days, according to Roger Bismuth.

"The situation began to change in 1967 with the Six Day War and the dangerous and unfair equation of Jews with Israelis," Bismuth, president of the World Center for North African Jews in Marseille, told DW. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a conflict between Jews and Muslims, precipitating the emigration of most Jewish families in Tunisia, he said.

The revolutionary upheaval of the Arab Spring had brought hope for greater religious equality in Tunisia. In early 2011, former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was deposed. Jewish establishments were attacked twice during the ensuing chaos. In one of the attacks, Islamists attempted to force their way into Tunis' main synagogue, yelling anti-Semitic epithets. 

Interim President Moncef Marzouki promised the Jewish community protection. In the future parliament, Jews may be allotted two seats. But concerns remain. Perez Trabelsi, the head of the Jewish community in Djerba, recently called for more protection after a failed attempt to kidnap a Jewish person in the city of Zarzis. And the Israeli government has discouraged its citizens from participating in the traditional pilgrimage in Djerba this year, fearing terrorist attacks. In 2002, the Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba was devastated in an al Qaeda attack, killing 21 people including 14 German vacationers.

Bismuth believes the Tunisian government hasn't taken a clear position on Jews and minorities, because "the ruling Ennahda party has Salafist allies," who are very anti-Semitic. He worries that if the situation deteriorates, then the last Tunisian Jews will emigrate.