'A celebration of fraternity turned into a nightmare'

French imam asks Israelis to continue Tunisia pilgrimage despite terror attack

Hassen Chalghoumi, who was in Djerba when two Jews were killed there, says the annual event must continue for sake of 1,000-member local Jewish community

The Imam Hassen Chalghoumi (L), writer Marek Halter (R) and others prepare to take part in The Muslim March Against Terrorism in Paris on July 8, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS GUILLOT)
The Imam Hassen Chalghoumi (L), writer Marek Halter (R) and others prepare to take part in The Muslim March Against Terrorism in Paris on July 8, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS GUILLOT)

This year’s pilgrimage to Tunisia’s El Ghriba synagogue was supposed to be a celebration not only for about 8,000 Jewish pilgrims, but also for one at least one Muslim man: Hassen Chalghoumi, a Tunisia-born interfaith activist known to many French Jews as “the peace imam.”

Chalghoumi, whose activism has inspired countless French Jews fearing a perceived increase in expressions of antisemitism by French Muslims, has participated before in the pilgrimage, in which thousands of Jews from France, Israel and beyond join about 1,000 local Jews in Djerba, an island in southern Tunisia that’s home to the oldest still-running synagogue in Africa.

This year’s event on the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer was supposed to be special because it was the first time after the COVID-19 lockdowns that the pilgrimage returned to its impressive scale, he told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

“But instead of a celebration of fraternity, we experienced a nightmare of violence and grief,” Chalghoumi, 51, said in reference to the slaying of two Jews and two security officers in a shooting on Tuesday night that authorities attributed to a gunman with ties to the naval guard.

The news of the attack in Djerba, the bloodiest since the 2002 bombing of the synagogue that killed 19 people, sent a wave of grief and disbelief through the community of Tunisian Jews living abroad, and in the smaller circle of pilgrimage participants.

One Tunisia-born Israeli who has participated in the pilgrimage in previous years, Avi Chana, told The Times of Israel that the attack threatened to deal a “mortal blow” to the pilgrimage, which constitutes a rare point of contact between Israelis and other Jews and an Arab country.

In this picture taken on May 9, 2023, police secure an area near the Ghriba synagogue following a shooting on the resort island of Djerba (YASSINE MAHJOUB / AFP)

But Chalghoumi, who is a celebrity and a hero to many French-speaking Jews for his vocal opposition to antisemitism and recognition of their attachment to Israel and that country’s right to defend itself, urged anyone horrified by the attack to make sure it does not impact attendance at the pilgrimage.

“I will come here next year, and I hope everyone who cherishes this beautiful tradition will do the same: We must not cede an inch to fear and terrorism,” said Chalghoumi, who extended his stay in Tunisia by a day to help the local chief rabbi, Haim Bitan, and his community deal with the logistics around the slaying of Benjamin and Aviel Haddad, Jewish cousins from France and Israel, respectively.

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)

Chalghoumi, Bitan and other Jewish community representatives were planning a joint prayer in the synagogue in memory of the victims of the attack, which also wounded at least six people.

In addition to the shooter, who was shot dead by police, four people were killed in the attack: the pilgrims, a security officer who was killed near the synagogue and another officer who died later of his injuries, Reuters reported on Wednesday.

Chalghoumi noted a common reaction to terrorist attacks in Israel – namely ignoring them. “Just like Israelis don’t let terrorism dictate their lives in Israel, so, too, it should be treated in Tunisia, where authorities have done a tremendous effort and sacrifice to maintain the peace and provide security,” Chalghoumi added.

Police secure an area near the Ghriba synagogue following a shooting on the resort island of Djerba, May 9, 2023. (YASSINE MAHJOUB / AFP)

At stake is not only the annual pilgrimage, but the future of about 1,000 Jews living in Djerba today, one of a handful Jewish communities in the Arab world, Chalghoumi said.

“This attack is part of a movement designed to drive out the Jews who live here, whose ancestors were born here like their ancestors before them,” said the imam, who has experienced multiple assaults on his person by radical Muslims in France, where he lives, and in Tunisia, which he visits frequently. “Resisting this attempt is a way of standing with the Jews of Djerba,” he added.

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