'Can you believe someone would steal the word of God'

Amid pillaging and looting, Tunisia struggles to preserve its Jewish heritage

Tunis seeing increased trafficking of artifacts, also from war-torn neighboring Libya, including rare 500-year-old Torah scrolls; officials call to set up Jewish history museum

A Jewish Tunisian rests inside the Ghriba synagogue, one the oldest Jewish monuments built in Africa more than 2,500 years ago, on the resort island of Djerba, south of Tunis, Tunisia, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)
A Jewish Tunisian rests inside the Ghriba synagogue, one the oldest Jewish monuments built in Africa more than 2,500 years ago, on the resort island of Djerba, south of Tunis, Tunisia, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)

TUNIS, Tunisia (AFP) –Tunisia is struggling to protect North Africa’s Jewish heritage, threatened by vandalism, looting and the smuggling of valuable artifacts bearing witness to the long history of the region’s Jews.

While many of Tunisia’s own synagogues and Jewish graveyards lie neglected, the country has also become a conduit for antiques pillaged in lawless neighboring Libya.

“A huge number of antiques have been looted in Libya, and people are trying to smuggle them to Europe,” said Habib Kazdaghli, a historian at Tunisia’s Manouba University.

Kazdaghli is campaigning for the creation of a museum of the country’s Jewish heritage — a sensitive subject given public opposition to Israel.

Jews have lived in North Africa for over 2,000 years, a community strengthened by multiple waves of immigration, notably an influx of refugees expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century and the arrival of Italian Jews in the 17th.

Boys walk past closed shops on the beginning of Shabbath, after sunset, at Hara Kbira, the main Jewish neighborhood in the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Several hundred thousand Jews lived across North Africa in the 1940s. But the vast majority left after the creation of Israel in 1948, many of them fleeing local hostilities directed at them over the establishment of the Jewish state and leaving homes, synagogues and graveyards abandoned and vulnerable to looters.

And in the decade since uprisings brought political unrest to Tunisia and plunged Libya into war, smuggling gangs have taken advantage of the chaos to plunder valuable Jewish antiques and sell them to European collectors.

Tunisian authorities regularly announce seizures of such goods, some dating back as far as the 15th century.

Unique in the world

In October, the Interior Ministry said it had confiscated two 10-meter (33-foot) scrolls in the coastal city of Nabeul, along with five small books in Hebrew.

In 2017, police seized a 15th-century handwritten copy of all five books of the Torah, on 37 meters of bull skin.

The ministry described the item as “unique in the world” and said unnamed foreign buyers had attempted to obtain it.

In another raid in January, the police said they had seized six Hebrew documents that smugglers admitted they were hoping to sell for 1.5 million dinars ($556,000).

Tunisian authorities said a specialist network of antique smugglers had stolen the items from Libyan museums.

Allied soldiers survey the destruction at a Jewish cemetery on the coast of Libya, just west of Tripoli, on March 23, 1943. Many of the gravestones were used by Nazis to build defenses along the coast as the 8th Army advanced toward the city. (AP Photo)

“Can you believe someone would steal the word of God and sell it?” asked Perez Traboulsi, a prominent elder of Tunisia’s Jewish community.

Souad Toumi, an expert on Jewish heritage at Tunisia’s national Bardo museum, said she had recorded “dozens of stolen Hebrew artifacts that turned out to be important and rare.”

Many of them are old manuscripts, often meticulously written, sometimes in gold ink and stitched together with thread made from sheep or ox intestines.

The subjects include religious songs and prayers, rulings, geometric decoration, plant and animal decoration, diagrams of human bodies and constellations, Toumi said.

Illustrative: In this photo taken on June 16, 2009, Museum Director Simon Levy shows an ancient Torah scroll and religious artifacts made by Moroccan Jews during a visit at the Jewish Museum in Casablanca, Morocco. (AP Photo/Alfred de Montesquiou)

The artifacts bear witness to a well-integrated Jewish community in Tunisia, with some members serving in parliament and even as ministers.

Jewish exodus

By the time Tunisia gained independence in 1956, it had over 100,000 Jewish residents.

Economic woes and tensions sparked by the Arab-Israeli conflict pushed most to leave. Tunisia has no diplomatic relations with Israel and many Tunisians are against normalization.

But some 1,500 Jews remain, mostly on the island of Djerba, site of the oldest synagogue in Africa.

Jews gather at the Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia’s Mediterranean resort island of Djerba on the first day of the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the synagogue on May 2, 2018. (AFP Photo/Fethi Belaid)

It is claimed the building includes stones from the original Temple of Solomon and one of the oldest Torah scrolls in the world.

Jews have been visiting the island on pilgrimage for more than 200 years, according to Traboulsi, who organizes the annual event usually attended by thousands from across the world.

Numbers have dwindled since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution and a string of deadly jihadist attacks.

Under the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, antique smuggling was a taboo subject — but some close to the toppled dictator were later found guilty of such crimes.

Today, the taboo has been swept away, but the smuggling continues, despite bolstered laws that mean those found guilty of “trading in moveable cultural property proven to have historical value” can be punished by up to 10 years in prison.

According to official figures, more than 70 of Tunisia’s 119 synagogues have been vandalized or looted.

Neighboring Libya has been rocked by nearly a decade of violence that has seen many archeological sites damaged and looted.

And according to NGO Athar, which monitors social media to detect illegal sales of rare objects, Tunisian intermediaries have continued to pounce on adverts by Libyans offering manuscripts for sale on Facebook.

A Tunisian Jewish woman prays in La Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia, October 29, 2015. (Photo by AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)

Tunisian researcher Lutfi Abdul Jawad said it was “heartbreaking” to see “attempts to sell a chapter of Tunisia’s history.”

“It’s a crime against Tunisia and against humanity,” he said.

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