One man proving Jews can be part of Tunisian politics

Jewish parliamentary candidate Jacob Lellouche promises to represent all minorities in the Arab Spring's first-born democracy.

Government workers set up polling station in Tunisia 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)
Government workers set up polling station in Tunisia 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)
Jacob Lellouche might have been the only non-Muslim running for public office in Tunisia’s first free elections held on Sunday but he didn’t go around kissing babies and shaking voter’s hands as one might expect.
Instead, the would-be parliamentarian spent his day like almost any other – serving clients traditional Tunisian dishes at his restaurant Mamie Lili, the only kosher venue in Tunis.
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“I don’t know if I will be elected, and it isn’t my objective,” admitted the 51-year-old Jewish Tunisian in an interview over the phone. “I wanted to break some ideas in the Tunisian minds that a minority can involve itself in the struggle for political life in the country, and this is my only goal.”
Lellouche is placed second on the list of the Union, Popular and Republican Party, a moderate outfit that he said was “neither right nor left.”
If elected, he vowed to speak on behalf of all the country’s minorities.
“I will try to represent in this assembly the minorities, not the Jewish one alone, because I think I am the only non-Muslim guy running in the election,” he said.
The historic day began at 7 a.m. for Lellouche, when he paid a visit to the polling station in the Tunis suburb of La Goulette where he lives, escorted by his 85-yearold mother.
“She insisted on being the first to cast her vote,” he said.
From there he continued to his restaurant where he serves regular local fare like couscous with meat and vegetables to dozens of hungry clients. The rookie politician said he planned to spend the rest of the day walking around town soaking up the festive atmosphere.
When the revolution first broke out last year there was concern the country’s Jews might be targeted by Islamic extremists. However, with few exceptions – like the torching of a makeshift synagogue in the South and the harassment of Jewish worshipers by Muslim protesters in Tunis – there has been little to no violence directed at the country’s Jewish community so far, which numbers about 1,500 out of a population of more than 10 million.
Lellouche said he never felt he was in serious danger.
“Lag Ba’omer festivities on the island of Jerba were canceled by the rabbi of Tunis, Haim Bitan, and with the agreement of the Tunisian government, but that was because there were safety problems in the beginning of the revolution in all Tunisia,” he explained. “The Jewish authorities didn’t want to organize a fete when people were dying around the country and also in nearby Libya. It’s like your neighbor’s mother dies and you make a bar mitzva.”
The old regime, he said, “used the Jews of Tunisia as an instrument, like an alibi, to give a better picture of Tunisia, but the Jews of Tunisia don’t need this.
We are perfectly safe and are all Tunisian people.”
Lellouche also dismissed speculation that local Islamists might win considerable backing in the first ever free elections held in the country.
“I don’t think the Tunisian people would abandon one dictator for another one, and I think today all Tunisians are standing up,” he said. “And we don’t want a totalitarian system, religious or otherwise.”
While Lellouche said he had never been to Israel, or has any relatives or friends who live in the country, he would like to visit it one day.
Meanwhile, he was focused on the elections, which he said raised his hopes for the future.
“I have a boy who lives in London, and a girl in Paris,” he said. “And I wish one day that they come back here to live in democratic country.”