Tunisian Islamist party turns to Jewish candidate in bid to bolster image

Tunisia is home to no more than 1,200 Jews and they have until now steered clear of political races, according to Perez Trabelsi, the head of the Jewish community.

February 26, 2018 09:20
4 minute read.
A Jewish woman lights candles during a pilgrimage to the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia

A Jewish woman lights candles during a pilgrimage to the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia. (photo credit: ANIS MILI / REUTERS)

Tunisia’s Islamist En Nahda Party is raising eyebrows by running a Jewish candidate in the upcoming municipal elections, in what it says is a sign of its openness.

But Simon Salameh’s nomination for the council in the Monastir district by the party within the governing coalition has come under criticism, referred to as a cold political ploy by the party and a sign of normalization with Israel.

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Tunisia is home to no more than 1,200 Jews and they have until now steered clear of political races, according to Perez Trabelsi, the head of the Jewish community.

But Salameh told the Tunisian radio station, Jawhara FM, that by participating in the election he wanted to prove that Tunisia is “the land of tolerance.”

“I will make my best efforts to do my job if elected,” he said, adding that he had disregarded pressure from his family not to run.

Imad al-Khmairy, an MP who is also the party’s spokesman, was quoted by the London based Al-Quds Al-Arabi website as saying that Salameh “is a Tunisian citizen whose religion is Jewish and his presence on the list is a good point for En Nahda and a sign of tolerance that independent people can participate in administering the municipality.”

“Our movement is open to all components of Tunisian society. We want to reinforce citizenship and coexistence among all citizens,” he added.

Khmairy added in remarks, cited by the Aswat Maghribia news organization, that the nomination is “additional evidence the movement is open for all citizens without regard to religious identity. We focus on the ability to serve the people.”

En Nahda is perhaps unique among Islamist parties in the Arab world, with its founder and leader Rached Ghannouchi long espousing the idea that Islam and democracy are compatible.

During years in exile, he cultivated ties with non-religious Tunisian opposition movements. In the elections after the 2011 revolution, En Nahda emerged as the largest party and played a key role in formulating the new constitution. It showed a willingness to modify its positions and did not demand that Shari’a (Islamic law) be the basis for legislation in Tunisia. When it lost parliamentary elections in 2014-2015, it conceded defeat and handed over power.

“En Nahda is committed to democracy and has demonstrated that commitment in word and deed,” says Daniel Zisenwine, a fellow at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute who specializes in Tunisia.

For about a year, Zisenwine says, En Nahda has been positioning itself not as an Islamist party but as a center-right conservative party with something of a religious orientation, akin to the Christian Democratic parties that emerged in Europe after the World War II.

“They don’t want to be seen as a radical Islamic party,” he says. “Having a Jewish candidate is part of an effort by En Nahda to position itself as a conservative party that is not a threat to secular values in Tunisia.”

Zisenwine notes, however, that having a Jewish candidate does not imply any diminution of En Nahda’s adamant opposition to relations with Israel that is in keeping with the prevalent view in Tunisia.

TRABELSI WAS critical of En Nahda’s nomination of Salameh. In remarks to the website Haqaeq, he said: “En Nahda exploited Judaism to say it believes in pluralism. It did this for election goals and to influence public opinion.”

Political analyst Mustafa al-Qalii was also critical of En Nahda, terming Salameh’s nomination a “political maneuver” by the party to get more votes and to project a “civic” side of the movement. He told Aswat Magharabiya that En Nahda’s inclusion of a Jew does not stem from their belief in freedom of faith. “How do those who refuse freedom of media, union activity, secularism and the activities of leftist parties believe in freedom of faith?” he asked.

En Nahda also came under fire for “normalizing [relations] with the Zionist entity” by making the nomination. Imad al-Dababi, a well-known sports figure, wrote on Facebook: “Those who encourage the Jewish culture in a Muslim country encourage the usurpation of Bayt al-Makdess [Jerusalem].”

“Any honorable Tunisian should reject this. Palestine is bigger than En Nahda. We are in a Muslim country. It is not permissible for a Jew to run the affairs of a Muslim,” he said.

Dababi’s post drew sharp criticism, including from Trabelsi. “Some people are genius talents for producing racism and hatred,” he wrote.

One user, Ziyad al-Ghanini, wrote: “This is racist talk and we should condemn it. He didn’t suggest anything, but he attacked a Tunisian citizen because of his religion. What he said is criminal and he is encouraging strife. It is also tremendous ignorance to connect this to the Palestinian cause. We will not accept any racist position.”

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