Ram’s horn will be blown in Tunis on Rosh Hashanah

TUNIS – Tables in the city of Tunis will groan under the weight of roast pumpkin, stewed lamb head, spinach leaves, olives, dates, and honey. The coastal North African city’s tiny Jewish population – some 300 strong – is preparing to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.

“During Rosh Hashanah, we always remember what happened last year, and we take those lessons and only wish the best for the coming year,” Daniel Cohen told Quartz – a digitally native news outlet. Cohen lives in an apartment he shares with his wife and 10 children in downtown Tunis soon after moving from the island of Djerba in 2002.

Cohen is the head teacher at the city’s only Jewish school, where he teaches Hebrew and religious scriptures. During Shabbat and the holidays, he heads to the coastal suburb of La Goulette, where he informally acts as the rabbi for a local synagogue. It hasn’t been an easy year for Tunisians, Jewish or otherwise.

In January, a gunman entered a kosher supermarket and killed four people, three of them of Tunisian origin. Among the dead was Yoav Hattab, 21, the son of Tunis’s main rabbi Benjamin Hattab. “Yoav was like my son,” Cohen said. “I was his teacher in Hebrew and Torah… When I heard this terrible news, I cried, to be honest, and I cried like I had never cried before… It was a shock for the whole community.”

In Tunis, civil society mobilised around the Jewish community. Vigils and remembrance ceremonies were organised and attended by non-Jewish Tunisians. Condemning the attack, the Islamist Ennahda party sent its condolences to the Hattab family. Pain and sadness reverberated around Tunisia, but fear did not.

“We didn’t feel any fear in Tunis, as the state protects Jewish places well, thanks to God. Plus the Tunisian public doesn’t want to create problems in their country, minus a small minority,” Cohen said. Following the attacks that killed his son, Rabbi Hattab expressed similar sentiments. “Jews are respected in Tunisia, we had no problems either before or after the revolution,” he told France 2 TV channel.

Since the third century BCE, Tunisia has been home to a vibrant Jewish population that always actively contributed to the country’s cultural, social, and economic identity. As late as 1956, there were 100,000 Jews living across the country. In the first half of the twentieth century, Tunisia, which was under French colonisation and considered a protectorate, became absorbed by Vichy France and later occupied by Nazi Germany.

Anti-Semitic policies were imposed, and over 5,000 Tunisian Jews were forced into labour camps. The end of World War II, followed by the creation of the State of Israel, and Tunisia’s independence from France, all contributed to a growing number of Jews moving out of the country. Many left for France or Israel over the years. Today, aside from the small community in Tunis, there are another 1,000 Jews on the island of Djerba.

Legally, the rights of Jews (along with other religious minorities) are protected here. In 2013, the Constituent National Assembly passed a new law establishing the liberty of conscience and belief. Despite the fact that Tunisia’s security apparatus is largely dysfunctional and fragmented, Jewish places of worship, including the Grande Synagogue de Tunis, are physically guarded by the state.

“Actually, we feel it’s harder for the Jews in the US and Europe than in Tunisia,” Cohen said. He might not be exaggerating. According to the most recent FBI statistics, 62.4% of religiously motivated hate crimes committed in the US target Jews. In France, a watchdog group reported an 84% increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the first quarter of 2015.

“I would never send my daughter to university in France,” Cohen said with a shake of his head. “I’m too scared.” In Tunisia, the Jewish community does face discrimination and several religious sites and cemeteries were recently desecrated. When Cohen leaves the house, like many other male Jews, he wears a baseball cap to cover his kippah. But most Muslim Tunisians have no problems with their Jewish countrymen, he notes.

They have, after all, co-existed for millennia. As the Jewish year comes to a close, and a new one rolls in, Cohen will lead his community in ancient prayers for peace and health. Speeches will be made in a mix of Arabic and French, a ram’s horn will be blown, and apples will be dipped in honey. There is hope, as always, that this new year will be sweeter than the last.

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