Four days after two Jewish cousins were murdered by a terrorist outside a historic Tunisian synagogue on the island of Djerba, the country’s president compared Israel with Nazi Germany.
“While Tunisians protected Jews during the Holocaust, today elderly, women and children are being bombed in Gaza,” President Kais Saied said, asserting that antisemitism was not at play in the attack on the El Ghriba synagogue during a Lag B’Omer celebration. He accused those who raised the issue of antisemitism of wanting “to sow division to benefit from this discourse,” according to media reports.
The following day, Saied doubled down on his comments during a visit to the Tunis suburb of Ariana, site of the house of his grandfather where, he said, “Tunisian Jews fleeing the Nazi forces … found refuge.”
“They speak of antisemitism, while the Jews were protected here,” Saied said.
Nazi Germany briefly occupied Tunisia from November 1942 to May 1943. When German troops arrived, Jews were persecuted, Algemeiner reported, quoting Yad Vashem:
“Though the German army was accompanied by SS units who came prepared to implement the Final Solution, the Jews of Tunisia were saved because the fortunes of war favored the Jews; the Germans did not have time to subject the Jews to the fate of the Jews in Europe.”
Saied said “some distort history, twist the facts, conspire against the state, wish to destabilize our national home, and then accuse us of anti-Semitism. … These parties do not hesitate to make false accusations of antisemitism, while they turn a deaf ear when it comes to dealing with the fate of Palestinians who die every day.” He used what the Tunisian news outlet La Presse described as “defiant tone.”
“Our Palestinian brethren are killed daily, elderly people, young people, women. Homes are demolished but no one is saying anything about that,” Saied said. “The Palestinian people will manage against all odds to triumph and recover their stolen land.”
“Through such wanton remarks, the president continues to incite further hatred and even attacks against the country’s Jewish community, heaven forbid,” responded Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis. He called on European governments to condemn “condemn the inflammatory statements” by, which he said implies “that the Jews of Tunisia are responsible for the bombing of Gaza.”
“Since the attack, the Jewish community of Djerba has not been visited or contacted by any members of the government,” Rabbi Goldschmidt said. “The Tunisian president together with the relevant authorities should instead be offering support to the Jewish community and working to ensure its safety.”
Aviel Haddad, 30, a dual Israeli-Tunisian, was killed on May 9 alongside his cousin Benjamin Haddad, a 42-year-old French citizen. Three security personnel were also killed when a Tunisian National Guard member opened fire on people near Ghriba Synagogue on May 9 as Lag B’Omer celebrations were underway with as many as 1,000 participants inside. A dozen others were injured.
While the Lag B’Omer festivities in Djerba typically attract mostly people with Tunisian ties, this year’s drew US ambassador to Tunisia Joey Hood and Deborah Lipstadt, US envoy monitoring antisemitism, who attended one day before the terrorist attack.
The event has grown substantially in recent years, as memories faded of a 2002 truck-bomb attack on El Ghriba by Al-Qaeda that killed 21. It was also the site of a firebombing in 2018.
Between 1,000 and 1,500 Jews are believed to live in Tunisia, one of the only continuous Jewish communities in the Arab world. Most of Tunisia Jews — estimated at over 100,000 prior to 1948 — left for Israel or France by 1970.
Rav Baniel Hadad, a cousin of the victims who lived in Djerba until three years ago, said: “Relations with our Arab neighbors are excellent, and there are even friendships. But beneath the surface there is enmity. The Lag B’Omer event is the main event in Djerba and hundreds of people come from throughout North Africa, Europe and Israel. The Arabs also participate.
“This attack has caused great fear in the Jewish community.”
The El Ghriba synagogue is in the former Jewish village of Harah Sghira. Some believe the synagogue — or at least, its antecedent — dates back to the exile after the destruction of either the First Temple (586 BCE) or the Second Temple (70 CE). The current building is late 19th century, apparently on the site of a former sixth-century synagogue.
According to one tradition, the community was established by a group of Kohanim who settled on the island immediately after the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash. The tradition holds that the refugees brought a door and a stone from the destroyed Bais Hamikdash with them.
“In Tunisia, where Muslims, Jews and Christians have lived side by side for centuries, pilgrims from around the world gathered on the island of Djerba last night for the annual Lag Ba’omer celebration,” the US embassy posted on Tuesday, before the attack.
Afterwards, Lipstadt said on Twitter, “I am sickened and heartbroken by the lethal, antisemitic attack targeting the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba during the Lag B’Omer celebrations, with thousands of Jewish pilgrims in attendance.”
US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller condemned the killings, writing on Twitter that Washington “deplores the attack in Tunisia coinciding with the annual Jewish pilgrimage that draws faithful to the El Ghriba Synagogue from around the world. We express condolences to the Tunisian people and commend the rapid action of Tunisian security forces.”