Tunisian Jewish pilgrimage draws low turnout as event scaled back amid security fears

Annual 3-day prayer gathering at Africa’s oldest synagogue on island of Djerba is muted amid soaring tensions due to Gaza war, last year’s deadly terror attack

A Tunisian Jewish man walks in Hara Kebira, the main Jewish quarter in the resort island of Djerba, during the annual Jewish pilgrimage, on May 24, 2024. (Fethi Belaid / AFP)
A Tunisian Jewish man walks in Hara Kebira, the main Jewish quarter in the resort island of Djerba, during the annual Jewish pilgrimage, on May 24, 2024. (Fethi Belaid / AFP)

The annual Jewish pilgrimage on Tunisia’s island of Djerba began Friday with low turnout amid heightened security concerns after a deadly attack last year and as the Israel-Hamas war rages in Gaza.

The three-day pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue, Africa’s oldest, usually draws thousands of pilgrims from Europe, Israel and beyond. It also attracts a significant number of international and local tourists and non-observant visitors.

But this year’s festivities have seen fewer visitors and almost no foreigners, while security measures have been bolstered with an increased police presence.

Plainclothes police officers and National Guardsmen barred AFP reporters and other visitors from entering the ancient synagogue.

“No one enters, except Jewish people,” a National Guard officer told an AFP correspondent.

Authorities did not say how many pilgrims had arrived, but officers on Djerba said turnout by Friday morning was lower than usual.

Tunisian Jewish men pray at a synagogue in Djerba during the annual Jewish pilgrimage, on May 24, 2024. (Fethi Belaid / AFP)

Last month, organizers of the pilgrimage said this year’s event, which is set to last until Sunday, “will be limited” due to safety concerns over the ongoing war in Gaza which has sent tensions soaring across the region.

They also cited an attack during last year’s pilgrimage which killed five people.

On May 9, 2023, a Tunisian policeman opened fire, shooting dead three police officers and two pilgrims, during the festival that had resumed a year earlier after a halt forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

An organizer, speaking on condition of anonymity, had told AFP that “everything will take place inside the synagogue” for safety. The usual outdoor celebrations, drawing thousands of people including non-Jews, will not take place this year, the organizer had said, but pilgrims would still pray and light candles inside the temple.

Tunisian soldiers secure an area near the Ghriba synagogue following a shootout on the resort island of Djerba on May 10, 2023. (Fethi Belaid / AFP)

The Ghriba pilgrimage also saw a suicide bombing in 2002 that killed 21 people and was claimed by Al-Qaeda.

Since the Gaza war began on October 7 — when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israel to kill nearly 1,200 people and take over 250 hostages — mobs have also set fire to at least two other synagogues in Tunisia, both defunct.

Participation in the Ghriba pilgrimage had already been dwindling before the war. Organizers say more than 5,000 people, mostly from abroad, joined last year’s pilgrimage, whereas up to 8,000 pilgrims attended in previous years.

File – Jewish worshipers attend the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia’s southern resort island of Djerba, on May 8, 2023. (Yassine Mahjoub / AFP)

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

According to the Djerba community, Jews have lived there since at least the dawn of the first millennium CE, making it one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world.

The history of Jews in Tunisia dates back to Roman times, before the Muslim conquest of North Africa. By the Middle Ages, the Jewish community of what was then called Ifriqya had become one of global Jewry’s foremost intellectual powerhouses, to which refugees from modern-day Iraq flocked, as the storied Talmudic academies there crumbled under the onus of an increasingly intolerant Abbasid Caliphate.

Illustrative: A Jewish mother and her children are photographed outside a synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, January 1, 1950. (Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images via JTA)

For centuries, the Tunisian Jewish community prospered under various rulers, with occasional episodes of persecution – including by France’s fascist Vichy rule during World War II, and then for a period under direct Nazi occupation. In 1948, when the State of Israel was founded, the community numbered 110,000.

It dwindled rapidly in the 1950s, as Jews emigrated en masse to France or Israel, leaving only 20,000 behind. Thousands more left the country in 1967 after anti-Jewish riots erupted during the Six Day War.

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