Moncef Marzouki, the new president of Tunisia, called on Tunisia’s Jewish population to return to the country. (h/t Miami Herald and iDNES) He stressed that Tunisian Jews who had left the country are full citizens and are welcome to return. Two weeks earlier, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom encouraged Tunisian Jews to emigrate to the safety of Israel, and Marzouki’s call may have been a response to Shalom. The Islamist Ennahda Party, which formed a government together with two left-wing parties, echoed Marzouki’s insistence that Tunisia’s Jews are full citizens, with full rights.
There are about 1,500 Jews in Tunisia today, most living on the island of Djerba. Tradition has it that the first Jews came to that part of Africa in the 6th century BCE. As late as the 1960s, there were more than 100,000 Jews in the country. Most left after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, others were driven out by Tunisia’s socialist policies that made it difficult for Jewish entrepreneurs to do business in the country.
Marzouki is a veteran Tunisian human rights activist who fought for years on behalf of the oppressed under dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. His words ought to be taken seriously. But words are only words, and Jews have been forced to be the canaries in too many mines for much too long. No matter how things stand now, the “Arab Spring” is by no means over.
And so it seems to me that it’s too early to say whether Tunisia will become an environment where Jews can live in peace and prosperity and – dare one say? – freedom.