Diplomats pay respects in Djerba year after deadly attack on Jewish worshipers

Only handful attend annual pilgrimage at Tunisia’s Ghriba synagogue under heavy guard as Gaza fighting, memories of last year’s shooting dampen enthusiasm for event

French Ambassador to Tunisia Anne Gueguen (Centre-L) and US Deputy Chief of Mission Natasha Franceschi (C) carry flowers in memory of those killed in a mass shooting last year at the Ghriba synagogue in the resort island of Djerba on May 26, 2024. (Fethi Belaid / AFP)
French Ambassador to Tunisia Anne Gueguen (Centre-L) and US Deputy Chief of Mission Natasha Franceschi (C) carry flowers in memory of those killed in a mass shooting last year at the Ghriba synagogue in the resort island of Djerba on May 26, 2024. (Fethi Belaid / AFP)

DJERBA, Tunisia — Diplomats from the United States and France visited the Ghriba synagogue on Tunisia’s Djerba island on Sunday to commemorate the victims of a deadly attack there last year, as security fears kept many Jews away from an annual pilgrimage there.

French Ambassador Anne Gueguen and Natasha Franceschi, the US deputy chief of mission in Tunisia, lit candles and placed flowers inside the synagogue, Africa’s oldest.

They both declined to be interviewed by AFP, and members of their teams said the event was too emotional for them to speak.

On May 9, 2023, a Tunisian policeman opened fire on Jewish worshipers gathered for an annual pilgrimage on the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, killing two and injuring four. Three Tunisian officers were also slain before guards managed to shoot the assailant dead.

Organizers had said the three-day event this year “would be limited,” following rumors that the event would be canceled altogether due to security concerns and tensions over the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

As the diplomats visited Djerba, only about a dozen Jewish pilgrims attended the festival, which started on Friday.

Tunisian security forces stand guard during a visit by the US deputy chief of mission for Tunisia and French ambassador at the Ghriba synagogue in the resort island of Djerba on May 26, 2024. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)

“When I see it empty like this, it hurts,” pilgrim Hayim Haddad told AFP in tears on the first day of the pilgrimage, as about a dozen worshipers gathered to a heavy police and National Guard presence.

“This year, we noticed a lack in demand,” organizer Rene Trabelsi told AFP last week. “And given the war in the Middle East, the management took a wise and intelligent decision to cancel the festivities.”

“We only kept the religious and spiritual aspect, an obligation of the pilgrimage,” he added.

A Jewish pilgrim visits the historic Ghriba synagogue in the resort island of Djerba, during the second day of the annual Jewish pilgrimage on May 26, 2024. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)

The religious event is at the heart of Jewish tradition in Tunisia, where only about 1,500 members of the faith still live — mainly on Djerba.

Organizers said that more than 5,000 people, mostly from abroad, attended last year’s pilgrimage. In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, the pilgrimage saw as many as 8,000 attendees.

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)

Last year’s attack began when the assailant shot dead a colleague and stole his ammunition before heading to the synagogue, where he killed two worshipers and two more guards.

The two worshipers were identified as Aviel Haddad, a 30-year-old dual citizen of Tunisia and Israel living in Netivot, Israel, and his 42-year-old cousin, Benjamin Haddad, a French-Jewish businessman living in France, the chairwoman of the World Federation of Tunisian Jewry in Israel, Dr. Miryam Gez-Avigal, told The Times of Israel.

Security at the synagogue had already been tightened last year, after previous attacks on Ghriba.

Benjamin Haddad, left, and his cousin, Aviel Haddad, who were killed in a shooting in Djerba, Tunisia on May 9, 2023. (Courtesy of the family)

A suicide truck bombing in 2002, claimed by Al-Qaeda, killed 21 at the synagogue.

Another attack in 1985, also by a Tunisian guard, killed four worshipers and a police officer.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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