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A Jewish pilgrimage returns to Tunisia

A Jewish pilgrimage returns to Tunisia

Though the powerful and prominent Islamist Ennahda party has sent mixed messages about its attitude toward Tunisia’s 1,500-strong Jewish population,  President Moncef Marzouki’s government has made an extraordinary effort this year to promote the Hiloula, an annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba that commemorates the death of second-century rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, the father of the Kabbalah tradition. The two-day event was canceled last year for security reasons due to the popular uprisings that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but it remains "the barometer of expectations for the coming tourist season," according to the Guardian.

Before the revolution, the Hiloula typically brought "almost 10,000 foreign visitors" every year, but the website Tunisia Live reported yesterday that the numbers are significantly smaller this year:

"So far, no more than two hundred Jewish pilgrims have joined the Hiloula…. According to our reporter in El Ghriba, police and journalists outnumbered the pilgrims, mainly Jewish Tunisians, who attended the event."

The Tunisian government has deployed a large security force to the area surrounding the synagogue, the oldest in Africa.  Ten years ago, al Qaeda militants bombed the synagogue, killing 21 and wounding 30. Marzouki visited El Ghriba in April for a memorial ceremony, during which he declared that violence against Tunisian Jews was "unacceptable." Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali also voiced his commitment to a tolerant Tunisia:

"Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past."

The government of Israel, on the other hand, apparently sees things differently. The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office issued a travel warning earlier this month advising Israelis to avoid Djerba, citing a "specific-high rating" terror threat to Jews and Israelis. Hiloula may end today, but whether Marzouki can convince the rest of the country to practice what he preaches remains uncertain.