Hours before deadly attack, coexistence on display at Tunisian Jewish festival
The State Department’s antisemitism envoy saw coexistence at work at Djerba’s Lag B’Omer Festival. Hours later, a gunman killed four.
One of the largest modern Jewish gatherings in the Arab world was disrupted by gunfire on Tuesday, when an armed Tunisian naval guard killed four people and wounded nine others on the island of Djerba as the Jewish community celebrated an annual Lag B’Omer festival.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that two Jewish cousins were among those killed, one with Israeli citizenship and the other with foreign citizenship; authorities in Tunisia, which does not have formal ties with Israel, identified a French national and a Tunisian citizen among the dead. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Tuesday that the U.S. “deplores the attack in Tunisia coinciding with the annual Jewish pilgrimage that draws faithful to the El Ghriba Synagogue from around the world.”
The festival, which includes three days of religious and cultural events, attracts more than 6,000 Jewish pilgrims — many of whom have Tunisian ancestry — from around the world, including Israel. Djerba, an island in the Mediterranean located closer to Libya’s Tripoli than Tunis, is home to what is today Tunisia’s largest Jewish community of 1,100 people.
Prior to the attack, Tunisian and American officials had praised the Lag B’Omer festival, which marks the 33th day after Passover, for the way it brought Tunisian Muslims and Jews together. Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, planned a trip to the North African nation to be part of the festivities, which she attended on Tuesday with U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia Joey Hood hours before the attack.
“To be able to take part in, dare I say it, a good news story, a positive kind of thing, was very invigorating,” Lipstadt told Jewish Insider on Tuesday from Djerba, speaking before the attack. The Ghriba Synagogue, which according to local legend traces its roots back more than 2,000 years, has faced violence before. In 2002, 20 people, most of whom were German tourists, were killed in a suicide bombing outside the Ghriba Synagogue.
Lipstadt traveled to Djerba as part of an effort to understand how Muslim-majority countries are reckoning with their checkered pasts vis-a-vis their Jewish communities — and how they are dealing with the small Jewish communities that remain. Tunisia was home to 105,000 Jews in 1948, but most left the country after 1956 when the country gained independence from France and put anti-Jewish policies into place.
The trip fit into what Lipstadt described as her larger effort to “reach out to countries that may be willing to rethink their recent past decades, comments about Jews, attitude towards Jews, or their erasure or diminution of Jewish history in their country,” she said. “Erasing the fact that Jews were indigenous to your country is, if not a form of antisemitism, it’s certainly not a helpful kind of action.”
She has also traveled to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco to hold similar conversations with local Jewish community members and government officials.
The Ghriba festival has featured visits from high-level Tunisian officials, and last year the country’s prime minister attended the pilgrimage. This year the Tunisian minister of religious affairs was present.
The festival in Djerba is “a symbol of what was here in the past, and what is possible in the future,” said Lipstadt, speaking before Tuesday’s attack. It is, she said, “an example of potential coexistence, or a sign of the coexistence that once was in these countries and could possibly be again, a sign of the end of or stopping of demonization of Jews.”
The fact that Lipstadt chose to attend the festival “is a strong message to the Jews of Tunisia that they are not alone and that the American authorities ensure respect for human rights and respect for freedom of worship in Tunisia,” said Elie Trabelsi, whose father oversees the Ghriba festival.
Security at the festival is heavy. The island of Djerba “relies heavily on this pilgrimage,” Trabelsi explained, and as a result “puts all the security and financial means to ensure the smooth running of the pilgrimage. The presence of high-ranking political figures contributes to this success.”
Lag B’Omer marks the first time since Passover that traditionally observant Jews will listen to music, so the festival is heavy on dancing and music.
“People come from everywhere to attend the pilgrimage,” said Moszché Uzan, the assistant to Tunisia’s chief rabbi. “It’s a religious pilgrimage, but it’s also — people come here to be happy, to hear songs, to dance, to eat. Everyone finds every kind of thing here.”
Women at the festival will take hard-boiled eggs and write on them the name of a person to whom they would like to give a blessing, usually related to marriage or fertility.
“It’s pure chaos. It’s mayhem, people dancing, people singing, people auctioning off things. Reunions of Tunisian Jews who haven’t seen each other in ages. People tripping over each other,” said Lipstadt. “Expect also to be moved.”
Amid the revelry, pilgrims and guests did not expect to run for their lives amid a violent attack. Earlier in the day, people had danced to live music and milled about marketplaces, while others prayed in solitude in the ornate synagogue, adorned with blue arches and crystal chandeliers.
Tunisian authorities did not yet describe a motive for the attacker, who was killed by officers who responded to the shooting.
“Investigations are continuing in order to shed light on the motives for this cowardly aggression,” the Interior Ministry said.