Tunisia cancels Jewish pilgrimage for first time

Exclusive: Amid security fears, annual Lag Ba'Omer journey to Tunisian island of Jerba is called off; border with Libya main concern.

The El Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia 311 (R) (photo credit: Mohamed Hammi / Reuters)
The El Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia 311 (R)
(photo credit: Mohamed Hammi / Reuters)
The annual Lag Ba’omer pilgrimage to the island of Jerba in Tunisia has been officially canceled for the first time ever due to security concerns, a Tunisian Jewish leader told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
Roger Bismuth, the president of the Jewish community, said the event, which was set to take place at the El Ghriba synagogue next Sunday and usually attracts thousands of Jews from around the world, was called off five days ago after consultations with the government.
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“We have this fight at the Tunisian border with Libya so the situation is not as we like,” Bismuth said over the phone from Tunis.
“Besides that, we have had a revolution. The situation is not completely quiet yet so we took precautionary measures.”
The former state senator and leader of the Jewish community said the celebratory event has been held on the island every year, even when relations between Israel and Tunisia were at their lowest ebb.
“It is the first time ever we canceled,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the relations with Israel. We just don’t want to create problems for our visitors.”
Last January, local demonstrators overthrew longtime Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in an uprising which inspired similar protests against autocratic rulers in countries throughout the Arab world.
Since then, the government has struggled to fully reestablish the rule of law and fears have risen that Islamists might take advantage of the situation to launch attacks on the country’s 1,500 Jews as they have in the past. In 2002, for instance, Al-Qaida planted a bomb in El Ghriba which killed 21 people.
So far, with the exception of an incident involving a group of Islamic protesters hurling insults at worshipers at a synagogue in Tunis and the burning of a makeshift Jewish place of worship in the south, Tunisia’s Jews have been spared from any violence.
The political situation in the country, however, remains precarious, leading to the decision to cancel the annual celebration.
Bismuth said he believed the annual gathering, which commemorates the temporary victory of Jewish rebels over the Romans, would resume next year.
“Tunisia is always open to everybody, but this year we decided to cancel because we want people to be safe,” Bismuth said.
“Hopefully, we should finish the revolution by next year, but it’s not a small revolution; it’s a big revolution and it’s the first time we’ve had one in our country.”