Leader invites country's chief rabbi for meeting

Tunisian president says locals rescued Jews, whereas Israel kills Palestinians

Jewish groups and Tunisian Jews condemn remarks, which Kais Saied made in countering criticism around May 9 slaying of 2 Jews in Djerba

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Tunisia's President Kais Saied casts his ballot as he participates in the legislative elections in Tunis, December 17, 2022. (AP/Slim Abid)
Tunisia's President Kais Saied casts his ballot as he participates in the legislative elections in Tunis, December 17, 2022. (AP/Slim Abid)

Tunisian President Kais Saied has countered allegations of antisemitism in his country by complaining that whereas Tunisians, including his grandfather, saved Jews during the Holocaust, Israel is killing Palestinians unopposed.

Saied made the comments earlier this week during a visit to Ariana, a city near the capital Tunis, less than a week after the slaying in a suspected terrorist attack of two Jews and two security officers by a fellow security officer, who was killed in an ensuing shootout.

Critics, including multiple Jewish groups, said the attack showed that antisemitism had infiltrated some in the army, and that the government’s handling of the affair was flawed.

“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?”

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis in a statement called on European governments to “condemn the inflammatory statements of President Kaies Saied of Tunisia.” With such “wanton remarks, the president continues to incite further hatred and even attacks against the country’s Jewish community, heaven forbid,” Goldschmidt added.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt attends the 2017 Breakthrough Prize at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, December 4, 2016. (Kimberly White/Getty Images North America/AFP)

Goldschmidt noted that “since the attack, the Chief Rabbi of Tunisia Haim Bitan has neither been visited nor contacted by any members of the government. The Tunisian President together with the relevant authorities should instead be offering support to the Jewish community and working to ensure its safety.”

On Tuesday, Saied invited Bitan to meet him the next day at the presidential palace, the rabbi told Kan news.

Saied’s remarks have angered Jews of Tunisian origins, some of whom posted critical statements online, calling the president a “disgrace.”

One Tunisia-born Jew, Ilan Cohen, disputed the president’s claims about the ostensibly benevolent response of Tunisians during the Holocaust. Regardless, added Cohen, a medical student living in Portugal, “the president has abused the memory of the Holocaust to make a political statement on issues completely unrelated, and that is just inappropriate and unacceptable.”

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 non-Jewish person, 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.

Ghriba synagogue is seen in Djerba, Tunisia, April 12, 2002. The Tunisian Interior Ministry says a naval guard shot and killed a colleague and two civilians Tuesday, May 9, 2023, near the synagogue during an annual Jewish pilgrimage. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi, File)

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.

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