Saturday February 23, 2019

Torn between Dignity and Despair: The Last Jews of Tunisia

Hundreds of Jews who moved away over the past five decades have taken their relatives' remains with them, leaving only these slabs of Hebrew-inscribed marble behind

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Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Djerba, Tunisia, August 22, 2016: Behind the Great Synagogue that anchors this tiny Tunisian Jewish community, cracked tombstones litter the perimeter of the cemetery but it was not vandals who broke them.

Hundreds of Jews who moved away over the past five decades have taken their relatives’ remains with them, leaving only these slabs of Hebrew-inscribed marble behind.

“There are bones that are 80, 90 years old. When you lift them up, they can break,” said Yossif Sabbagh. The 42-year-old local help exhume about a dozen bodies each year for transport to Israel, where the majority of Tunisian-born Jews have moved, and where they want their ancestors to move, too.

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The flight of the dead seems to portend a bleak future for the Jews of Djerba, who trace arrival on this island to more than two millennia ago, after the sacking of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C. More Jews arrived after the Spanish Inquisition and from Morocco, Algeria, and Libya.

They were once the traditional, observant branch of a vibrant Jewish community that numbered 100,000 across Tunisia. But the 1,100 Jews in Djerba are nearly all that are left after most others fled persecution between the 1940s and ’60s.

Jewish Money changer in Tunisia. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Jewish Money changer in Tunisia. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Those who remained have been rewarded with new growth thanks in part to an emphasis on large families and patriarchal values. But the community now faces another challenge: Jewish women chafe at their restrictions and men suffer from the battered Tunisian economy. Moving to Israel, whereas Jews they are entitled to automatic citizenship, could resolve both issues but could also bring an end to one of the last Jewish societies in the Arab world.

Point Of Pride

In late May, crowds filled the ornate white-and-blue tiled Ghriba synagogue in Hara Sghira, the smaller of two Jewish enclaves in Djerba, as part of the annual pilgrimage that has long attracted outsiders to the island.

Pilgrims lit candles in the sanctuary and placed eggs covered with handwritten wishes in a cave dug into the synagogue’s floor. Across a cobbled street, revellers sang songs, ate couscous with fish, and drank fig brandy and beer in a sunny courtyard strung with red Tunisian flags.

The event marking the Lag BaOmer feast, which honours the second-century Jewish mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, was clearly a point of Tunisian pride.

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The event had been cancelled in 2011 amid the tumult of the Tunisian revolution that ousted dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, a protector of the country’s Jewish population.

It was restored under the country’s current government, which prizes the community as a symbol of stability. But three major terrorist attacks since the beginning of 2015, along with an infiltration by the extremist group Islamic State just an hour’s drive south of Djerba, raised security concerns and harmed tourism.

Participants and observers at this year’s event appeared unfazed, however.

On the first day of the pilgrimage, Abdelfattah Mourou, deputy speaker of parliament and vice president of the moderate Islamic Ennahda party, embraced Tunisia’s chief rabbi and Djerba resident, Haim Bittan, outside the Ghriba synagogue.

“Tunisia protects its Jews,” Mourou said. “What leads to radicalism is having only one culture. Having many cultures allows us to accept one another.” (BBG DIRECT)

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India Praised For Giving Safety To Jew Refugees This International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Two Maharajas, Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja of Nawanagar and Rajaram III of Kolhapur, established camps for Polish child refugees.

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A conservator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's conservation and research center points out a hidden pocket on a piece of clothing worn by a prisoner at a Nazi concentration camp. VOA

By Arul Louis

India has been hailed for giving refuge to Jews fleeing the Nazi genocide, keeping with its tradition of being a haven for those escaping religious persecution around the world as the UN observed the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The president of B’nai B’rith International, Charles Kaufman, said here on Monday that India lived up to the tradition of a nation of righteousness when thousands of Jews found safety and were welcomed when they fled the Holocaust carried out by Nazis in Europe.

This was a uniquely overlooked episode that needs to be recognised, he said while speaking at a meeting here on “India: A Distant Haven During the Holocaust” that was organised by India’s UN Mission and the B’nai B’rith, a global Jewish service organisation.

India’s Permanent Representative Syed Akbaruddin said that India receiving refugees fleeing the Holocaust was in tradition of welcoming Jews that goes back thousands of years.

Anti-Semitism was a rare phenomenon in India and it occurred in 2008 in Mumbai when the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists attacked the Chabad centre, he said.

pittsburgh shooting, Hate
A sign during a protest gathering on the block of the Jewish Community Center in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where the funeral for Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz. VOA

While Jews received refuge, they in turn have contributed to India in the arts, culture and economy, he said.

Some served in the armed forces and are treasured as national heroes, he added.

As the Nazis began their genocidal persecution of Jewish people in Europe, India was engaged in its freedom struggle, yet managed to welcome the refugees, he said.

While anti-Semitism and intolerance again show signs of re-emerging, the examples of compassion in the midst of tragedy must be beacons of tolerance, he said.

An author and expert on Jews and minorities in India, Kenneth Robbins, said that not only for the Jews, but for many others India was a place where minorities were able to flourish.

He gave the example of the Sidis, who came to India as slaves and rose to be rulers – the only instance of Africans ruling non-Africans, he said.

The several thousand Jews who fled Nazi persecution to India in the 1930s, came in several waves starting with the German Jews. They were followed by others from Italy; Austria, East and Central Europe; North Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Poland, Robbins said.

Left to right: Ukraine’s Parliament speaker Andriy Parubiy, German President Joachim Gauck, Hungarian President Janos Ader, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and his wife Marina, President of the European Council Donald Tusk and Ukrainian Prime Minister, Volodymyr Groysman light candles at a monument in Babi Yar ravine where Nazi troops machine-gunned tens of thousands of Jews during WWII, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sept. 29, 2016. VOA

There were also those who married Indians studying in Germany and elsewhere who came with their spouses to India.

Yusuf Khwaja Hamied, the chairman of Cipla, brought down the price of AIDS medications to $6 making to affordable to millions in Africa, saving their lives, he said.

His mother was Luba Derczanska, a Lithuanian Jew who married his father Khwaja Abdul Hamied when he was a student in Berlin, he said.

Among the thousands of Jewish children who came India was Tom Stoppard, the award-winning British playwright and screenwriter. Born Tomas Straussler, he went to school in India in India after his family fled Czechoslavakia.

Stephen Tauber came to India as a child in 1937 when his physician father was offered a job by Ganga Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner, and received a visa to leave Austria escaping the Nazis.

During his time in Bikaner, he witnessed religious harmony among Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews, who respected each other’s religions.

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Remains of Victims in the Nazi Camp, Wikimedia

Two Maharajas, Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja of Nawanagar and Rajaram III of Kolhapur, established camps for Polish child refugees.

Speaking at a Holocaust memorial ceremony earlier on Monday, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that not only was anti-Semitism still strong, it was getting worse and we must “reaffirm our resolve to fight the hatred that still plagues our world today”.

“Inevitably, where there is anti-Semitism, no one else is safe,” he warned.

“Across the world, we are seeing a disturbing rise in other forms of bigotry.

Also Read: Online Hate Thriving Even After The Recent Hate Crime In The U.S.

“Intolerance today spreads at lightning speed across the Internet and social media and most disturbingly, hate is moving into the mainstream – in liberal democracies and authoritarian systems alike,” Guterres added. (IANS)

(Arul Louis can be reached at arul.l@ians.in and followed on Twitter @arulouis)