Rene Trabelsi, co-organizer of an annual pilgrimage to the oldest synagogue in Africa, was named Tunisia’s first Jewish minister in decades this week.
Trabelsi was appointed tourism minister on Monday evening. He splits his time between France and Tunisia.
He is the country’s third-ever Jewish minister. The previous two were Albert Bessis who served in the 1955 government that led Tunisia to independence, and Andre Barouch, who worked in president Habib Bourguiba’s administration in 1956.
Trabelsi grew up on the island of Djerba, the heartland of Tunisia’s Jewish community and the site of the pilgrimage which attracts thousands of people each year.
His father, Perez, has been the leader of the Jewish community there since 1985 and is president of the island’s famous Ghriba synagogue.
For two days, pilgrims pray and sing in Hebrew as they light candles and place votive eggs in a cave below the house of worship on the island just off southern Tunisia.
About 3,000 people took part in the first day of this year’s festivities in May, authorities said.
Trabelsi’s role co-organizing the pilgrimage, along with his enthusiastic banter and passion for Jewish-Muslim coexistence, have made him a prominent figure in the media.
After studying management in France, in the 1990s he set up his first travel agency, Royal First Travel, which now caters to some 300,000 travelers a year, mostly visitors from France to Tunisia.
While he is active in the national hotels federation, the ministry is the 56-year-old father of three’s first job in politics.
Tunisia’s Jewish population has fallen from around 100,000 before independence from France in 1956 to an estimated 1,500 today.
It is still recovering from a 2002 Al-Qaeda suicide bombing on the Djerba synagogue that killed 21 people, mostly Germans.
That was far from the only jihadist attack to hit Tunisia’s vital tourism sector.
Jihadist attacks in 2015 included one at the National Bardo museum in Tunis and another targeting a beach resort in Sousse, which together killed 59 foreign tourists and a Tunisian guard.
The sector has since rebounded, and government data showed that more than six million foreign travelers visited Tunisia in the first nine months of 2018.