Aimen Zine/AP
Jewish pilgrims light candles in the Ghriba synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa more than 2,500 years ago, as they attend the annual Jewish pilgrimage in the resort of Djerba, Tunisia, Friday April 26, 2013. Jews coming from Tunisia, Europe or Israel make their annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue, commemorating the death of Shimon Bar Yohai, a second-century kabbalistic rabbi who authored a famous religious text known as The Zohar.

In Tunisia an ancient Jewish pilgrimage, controversy – and hope

Every year hundreds if not thousands of Jewish pilgrims travel to Djerba island in Tunisia, where an ancient Synagogue is believed to contain a stone from the destroyed First Temple in Jerusalem. This year, controversy has come with them.

Pilgrims were crowding into the sanctuary, votive candles were glowing under the arches, and a singer from Jerusalem named Moshe Giat was atop a low bench, leading the men in an old and rousing song in Hebrew that ended, “Hear, O Israel!”

Jerusalem? No. This scene took place in Tunisia, where about a thousand Jews are gathered this weekend for an annual Jewish pilgrimage and festival on the island of Djerba. The presence of Israeli visitors like Mr. Giat has become the focus of a sharp controversy among Tunisia’s political leaders.

On May 9, legislators at a raucous parliamentary hearing cited support for the Palestinian cause, opposition to Israel, and Israeli attacks on PLO figures in Tunisia in the 1980’s as grounds for removing two government ministers and reversing a recent decision to formalize procedures for Israelis visiting Tunisia, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. The government says the move will boost Tunisia’s struggling tourism industry by projecting a message of openness.

The polemic is quintessentially Tunisian, combining fears for an economy battered by the country’s 2011 revolution, evocations of the Arab world’s most enduring cause célèbre, and the tumultuous politics of an emerging democracy. For Tunisians, it’s also an occasion to weigh their country’s priorities.

Ancient roots

According to tradition, Jews fled from ancient Israel to Djerba bearing a stone from the temple following its destruction in 586 B.C. by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Today the stone rests in the foundation of the La Ghriba synagogue.

Tunisia’s Jewish community has dwindled to about 1,000 since the mid-20th century as regional tensions over Israel and the prospect of jobs abroad led many to emigrate. But the La Ghriba pilgrimage for the Jewish festival of Lag Ba’omer has remained a big draw for Jews of diverse origins.

One is Mr. Giat, who is attending for the sixth time since 1992. After singing, he is seated at a courtyard table in a building beside the synagogue where food is being served and a band is in full swing, eating almonds with fellow Israeli Alan Debasc.

Mr. Debasc, a who owns a pizzeria in Rome and traveled on his Italian passport, recalls bigger crowds in years past. “Then came the intifada and Bin Laden, and everything changed,” he says.

In April 2002, a terrorist truck-bombing struck the La Ghriba synagogue, killing 21 people. Most were German tourists. Meanwhile, tensions over the 2000 Second Palestinian Intifada uprising had led Tunisia to close an overseas affairs office in Israel that that had provided entry permits for Israelis since opening in 1996. Yet then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali still wanted to reassure Western allies that Tunisia was friendly to Jews.

Israelis continued to visit Tunisia under an ad-hoc arrangement whereby they surrendered their passports to border police in exchange for temporary entry permits. That practice continued after Ben Ali’s 2011 overthrow.

Cruise revolt

Controversy erupted in March after police at La Goulette, near Tunis, barred 14 Israeli cruise ship passengers from going ashore on the grounds that they lacked proper travel documents. The cruise operator, Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Lines, then canceled stops in Tunisia, with other cruise lines reportedly following suit.

Amid fears that a reputation for discrimination might damage Tunisia’s tourist season, the government scrambled to establish official entry procedures for Israeli passport-holders. New rules formalize the existing practice of exchanging passports for temporary entry permits

About 150 Israelis are attending this year’s pilgrimage, says René Trabelsi, a tour operator who is Jewish and handles most foreign visitors. “But we could have had more,” he says. “Some aren’t coming because they were afraid of being blocked. We could have 20,000 pilgrims, but it will require openness to Israel.”

Some politicians, however, condemn the steps to ease Israelis’ entry as a form of normalizing relations with Israel.

A communiqué adopted at the May 9 parliamentary hearing stopped short of calling for a no-confidence vote against tourism minister Amel Karboul and Minister Delegate for National Security Ridha Sfar, as about 80 of Tunisia’s 217 MP’s had wanted. But it committed Tunisia to rejecting normal ties with Israel.

It’s impossible to gauge Tunisians’ views on Israeli tourists, but many hold negative views of Israel’s government. Seventy-seven percent of Tunisians think that Israel opposes democracy in the Middle East, according to a July 2012 study by the Pew Research Center.

“Yes, Tunisia is in a difficult situation economically,” says Issam Chebbi, spokesman for the left-leaning Joumhouri party. “But how can we accept that our tourism should benefit at the cost of the Palestinians?”

He argues that Tunisia has a moral obligation to oppose Israel, citing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and past Israeli attacks in Tunisia itself.

IDF attack

Monji Ben Khedija, a retired administrator for a wine-making cooperative, remembers vividly the morning in 1985 that Israeli fighter jets swooped down the Mediterranean and bombarded PLO headquarters near his house in Hammam Chott, a beachside suburb of Tunis where the group was based from 1982 to 1991, killing dozens of Palestinians and Tunisians in what Israel said was retaliation for PLO attacks on Israelis.

Mr. Ben Khedija rushed home to find that PLO men had taken his bed sheets for burial shrouds. His daughter later married a PLO member, and he supports the Palestinian cause. Yet he also wants Israeli tourists to help Tunisia’s economy.

“I don’t like to make enemies,” he says. “I prefer to make friends.”

A spirit of friendship was palpable in the La Ghriba synagogue on Friday, perhaps most strikingly across religious lines.

Shortly after Giat finished singing, Mourad and Olfa Boumaiza and their young daughter Baya, who are Muslims, entered the sanctuary with Monique Hayoum, a childhood friend of Mr. Boumaiza, who is Jewish. Together they left votive offerings by the temple stone in the form of eggs signed with their names, a La Ghriba tradition.

“Let officials from Palestine and Israel come here,”  says Yacoub Cohen, seated at a table nearby collecting cash offerings for the synagogue and dispensing receipts. “Let them see how Jews and Arabs can live together.”

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