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(photo credit: GPO)
He read Hebrew books with five-year-old yeshiva boys, clapped his hands to folkloric music, and ate lamb and couscous with the head rabbi. For the Jews of Djerba, the visit Tuesday of Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was the event of a lifetime.
Never before had such a high-ranking Israeli official come to visit the small group of Jews whose existence in the Muslim city dates back to the time of the First Temple. They expressed their joy by rolling their tongues, clapping their hands and singing in unison.
"It's as if he were Madonna," his wife, Judy Moses-Shalom, said as dozens of Jewish-Tunisian youth crammed before the open window of a local Jewish school to take Shalom's picture.
Shalom arrived in Tunisia on Tuesday to attend the UN World Summit on the Information Society. On Wednesday, the opening day, he plans to meet with the Tunisian ministers of foreign affairs, commerce, and tourism, as well as the mayor of Tunis.
He will also be meeting with the new President of Mauritania, Colonel Ely Ould Mohammed Val, and possibly with Moroccan Prime Minister Driss Jettou. He will also attend a lunch for world leaders hosted by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and a dinner hosted by Tunisian President Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali.
Although he is not the leader of his country, Shalom has been accorded VIP status by the Tunisian authorities that gives him special access to events. At the opening session, Shalom's speech will follow one by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Shalom was accompanied on the first direct flight from Israel to Tunisia by a delegation of some 130 people, including Communications Minister Dalia Itzik, MK Eli Yishai (also of Tunisian descent), and a large delegation of Israeli government officials, businesspeople, press, and Tunisian Jewish expatriates.
The high-profile trip is significant because it is taking place in a Muslim Arab country with which Israel has no diplomatic relations. Shalom hopes to use the event to develop and create Israeli ties with Arab countries that have none and to renew ties with those that did in the past but broke them off.
After the landing of the Israir flight at Djerba International Airport, Deputy Governor Khalif Bin Mansour met the Israeli delegation saying, "We welcome all our guests." Locals watched with somewhat shocked looks on their faces as police stopped all traffic for the long convoy of buses and black Mercedes Benzs that carried the Israeli delegation.
The visit to Djerba caused great excitement among the 1000-person Jewish community, many of whom dressed up in high heels and button-down shirts for the occasion.
"This is a great joy," said the head rabbi of Tunisia Hayim Bita. "We never dreamed that an event like this could happen."
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