Tunisian leader touts ‘coexistence’ after fatal synagogue attack, but not with Israel
President Kais Saied notes ‘distinction between Judaism and Zionism,’ rejects ‘normalization’ with Israel, calls on world to ‘put an end to tragedy of the Palestinian people’
Tunisian President Kais Saied hosted Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders on Wednesday following a deadly mass shooting outside a local synagogue, telling them Tunisia was a country of “tolerance and coexistence.”
The comments came days after Saied claimed that whereas Tunisians, including his grandfather, saved Jews during the Holocaust, Israel is killing Palestinians unopposed.
The interfaith meeting “attests to the tolerance and coexistence that have characterized Tunisia for centuries,” Saied said, according to a video released by the presidency.
The group included Tunisia’s Chief Rabbi Haim Bittan, Mufti Hichem ben Mahmoud and Archbishop Ilario Antoniazzi.
The May 9 attack on the resort island of Djerba killed five people during an annual Jewish pilgrimage at the historic Ghriba synagogue, Africa’s oldest.
The gunman, a police officer, killed three other officers and two worshipers — French-Tunisian Benjamin Haddad and his cousin Israeli-Tunisian Aviel Haddad — before being shot dead himself by police.
During the meeting, Saied said a probe was underway to determine whether the shooter had any accomplices.
Four people linked to the gunman and suspected of involvement in the attack have so far been arrested, the private Mosaique FM radio reported late Wednesday.
Tunisian officials have denounced the attack as “criminal” but refrained from referring to it as a “terrorist” operation which would imply antisemitic motives.
Saied told the religious leaders that the attack sought to “undermine Tunisia and its stability, and sow discord and division.”
“You can live in peace, and we will guarantee your safety,” he said, addressing the Jewish community.
رئيس الجمهورية #قيس_سعيّد، يستقبل كلّ من سماحة الشيخ هشام بن محمود، مفتي الجمهورية التونسية، والسيّد حاييم بيتان، كبير أحبار اليهود بتونس، والسيّد إيلاريو أنطونيازي، كبير أساقفة الكنيسة الكاثوليكية بتونس. #TnPR pic.twitter.com/2u6scmDhT1
— Tunisian Presidency – الرئاسة التونسية (@TnPresidency) May 17, 2023
Saied noted a “distinction between Judaism and Zionism,” rejected any “normalization” with Israel and called on the international community to “put an end to the tragedy of the Palestinian people.”
Bittan called the meeting “excellent” and said he had received “guarantees that what happened (in Djerba) would not repeat.”
Critics, including multiple Jewish groups, have said the attack showed that antisemitism had infiltrated some in the army, and that the government’s handling of the affair was flawed.
Saied responded to the criticism with his controversial comments during a visit to Ariana, a city near the capital Tunis.
“There were Nazi army tents here. The Jews hid in this apartment of my father, and the locals protected them from the Nazi army. And then they say we’re antisemitic? Our Palestinian brethren are killed daily, elderly people, young people, women. Homes are demolished but no one is saying anything about that.”
Later in the visit, Saied said: “Some distort history, twist the facts, conspire against the state, wish to destabilize our national home, and then accuse us of antisemitism. What era do they think they’re in?”
Saied’s remarks angered Jews of Tunisian origins, some of whom posted critical statements online, calling the president a “disgrace.”
Saied had said before that his grandfather’s home was open to Jews, including the late feminist activist Gisèle Halimi, following Nazi forces’ arrival in Tunisia in 1942, according to Middle East Monitor.
Pro-Nazi Axis forces and Allied Forces fought in Tunisia until 1943. Several dozen Tunisian Jews, rounded up by pro-Nazi forces, were killed in the Holocaust. At least one Tunisian, Khaled Abdul-Wahab, is widely credited with risking his life to save Jews.
Tunisia used to have more than 100,000 Jews, but most left in the decades following the war amid growing hostility by the government and riots by locals.
A Jewish community of about 1,000 members remains on the island of Djerba, where thousands of Sephardic Jews gather annually for a pilgrimage on Lag B’Omer centered around the island’s El Ghriba synagogue.
Canaan Lidor contributed to this report.