Hit by terror in 2023, Tunisian Jewish pilgrimage scaled back amid Gaza security fears

Organizers say Lag B’Omer celebration will be moved entirely indoors at Ghriba synagogue, a cornerstone of millennia-old Djerba Jewry

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)
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)

TUNIS, Tunisia — The annual Jewish pilgrimage on Tunisia’s island of Djerba will be limited amid security concerns sparked by the war in Gaza and a deadly attack last year, organizers said Friday.

The pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue, Africa’s oldest, usually involves days-long festivities in the presence of thousands of pilgrims. It marks the Lag B’Omer festival, which begins 33 days after the start of Passover.

But this year’s pilgrimage on the resort island, set for May 24 to 26, is expected to draw fewer visitors amid the backdrop of the war between Israel and Hamas, and last year’s terror attack in which five people were killed.

“The pilgrimage is not canceled,” an organizer told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. But “everything will take place inside the synagogue.”

The organizer said the pilgrimage will be limited to prayers inside the synagogue, and the lighting of candles.

“Given the current international context, security will also be tightened after what happened last year,” the organizer added.

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)

Last May 9, a policeman shot dead three police officers and two pilgrims during the festival that resumed in 2022 after a two-year suspension because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There have been at least two attacks on synagogues in Tunisia since October 7, when thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded southern Israel from Gaza, murdering some 1,200 people and taking 253 hostage. In addition, Tunisian President Kais Saied has a history of making antisemitic statements.

This year’s pilgrimage will not include activities such as the open-air parade carrying the synagogue’s menorah.

Organizers say more than 5,000 people, mostly from abroad, joined last year’s pilgrimage. Up to 8,000 pilgrims attended in previous years.

A Tunisian Jewish caretaker sits on the entrance of the Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument in Africa, on the first day of the annual pilgrimage in the Mediterranean Tunisian resort island of Djerba on April 26, 2021. (Fathi Nasri/AFP)

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

The pilgrimage is at the heart of Jewish tradition in Tunisia, where only about 1,500 members of the faith 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.

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)

The history of Jews in Tunisia dates back to Roman times, before the Muslim conquest of North Africa.

For centuries, the 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.

Most Popular
read more: