There are many crucial details regarding the May 9 gun attack on the historic El Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba in Tunisia, during which two Jewish worshippers and three security guards were murdered, on which we still await clarification.
Nearly two weeks later, we still don’t know the name or the rank of the assailant beyond the fact that he was a Tunisian naval officer serving on Djerba, and the Tunisian authorities have thus far refused to identify the atrocity as an act of terrorism. They have been describing it as “criminality,” a word so imprecise in this case that it means next to nothing. We don’t know whether other individuals were involved in the planning or execution of the attack, save for a vague report from a local radio station that claimed four people had been detained, though didn’t name them or provide any other details. And we still don’t know what, if any, additional security measures the Tunisians will put in place to protect the tiny Jewish community of 1,500 souls.
What we do know unmistakably is that the Tunisian government, and, most of all, the North African country’s President Kais Saeid, doesn’t believe that there is a problem and deeply resents anyone who suggests otherwise.
In the wake of the attack—itself a bitter reminder of the 2002 Al-Qaeda attack on the El Ghriba Synagogue that snuffed out the lives of 19 people and wounded more than 30—Saeid was far more concerned with dismissing the contention that antisemitism exists in Tunisia than with reassuring the Jewish community. His argument centered on three points. Firstly, that those “who talk about antisemitism when we are in the 21st century,” as he put it following a meeting last Friday with his cabinet, are laughably wide of the mark. Secondly, that the concerns raised about antisemitism are a sleazy attempt to divert attention from the real issue: the continuing plight of the Palestinian people. Thirdly, that Tunisians can be proud of their record in protecting the Jewish community during the brief Nazi occupation from November 1942 to May 1943, in distinct contrast to the shame Israelis and their supporters should feel when they examine their record towards the Palestinians.
These are all tropes that are familiar in Western contexts, but perhaps the most important observation about their manifestation in an Arab country is that they come on top of the historic refusal, in all parts of the region, to recognize that there is a specific form of bigotry and discrimination targeting Jews that is called antisemitism. Among the favorite clichés that you will encounter when you raise the subject of Arab or Muslim antisemitism with people from the region is the line that “we are Semites, so we can’t be antisemitic”—a dunderheaded viewpoint that fails to grasp that the term emerged in Germany in the late 19th century in an attempt by professional Jew-haters to give their hatred a scientific gloss by presenting it as a necessary evolution in the long tradition of Christian religious antisemitism. Less frequently, you might be told that antisemitism is an irrelevant consideration when you recall that the Palestinians are—as one Palestinian diplomat memorably told me many years ago—“the victims of the victims.” Or that Islam is a religion of tolerance and that Jews, like Christians, are a “people of the book” whose basic rights are therefore guaranteed.
Saied’s utterances in the aftermath of the shooting demonstrate that this discourse, which fuses crudely antisemitic ideology with antisemitism denial, is willfully promoted by those in power. One might legitimately wonder why Tunisia—whose capital, Tunis, is situated 2,000 miles from Jerusalem—elevates the Palestinian issue to such existential dimensions, but then one can ask the same question of nearly every member state of the Arab League.
Historically, Arab leaders would invoke the Palestinians for one major reason; they were a useful distraction, a convenient instrument with which to redirect the anger and resentment that Arab citizens felt towards their governments in the direction of the State of Israel. But when that anger manifested on the streets, it was defenseless Jewish communities and not the Israel Defense Forces that confronted violence and rioting. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the collective Arab failure to strangle Israel at birth during its War of Independence found compensation through the persecution and then expulsion of more than 800,000 Jews across the Middle East—from Morocco to Iraq.
Against such a background, it hardly comes as a shock that an attack on a synagogue in which Jews and non-Jews lost their lives is interpreted through these filters. To deny that the El Ghriba attack was motivated by antisemitism is as absurd as denying that the October 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was antisemitic in nature. Yet when expressed by an autocrat like Saied, who has spent much of the past three years reversing the democratic gains achieved in Tunisia during the “Arab Spring,” such arguments become unarguable.
Last week, Saied paid a visit to the Tunis suburb of Ariana, the location of the house of his grandfather, whom he said had sheltered Jews during the Nazi occupation (a skillful way of pushing the myth that it was ordinary Tunisians who saved Jews from the Holocaust when the reality is that it was the conquest of the country by Allied forces that made the decisive difference). “The locals protected them from the Nazi army, and then they say we’re antisemitic,” he complained. “Our Palestinian brethren are killed daily … but no one is saying anything about that.”
Sad as it is to say, the next time there is an attack on a Jewish target in an Arab country—and there probably will be—that same speech will be regurgitated.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.