Tunisia is sentimental journey for more than just FM

"I cannot explain it, but when I walked into the old synagogue in Djerba and saw the Jews there, I felt connected."

shalom 88 (photo credit: )
shalom 88
(photo credit: )
All the cameras were on Israel's Tunisian-born Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom last week as he stepped into the ancient synagogues of Tunisia and chatted with the local Jews. But among the members of the large delegation that accompanied him were government officials, businessmen, and journalists whose emotions also ran high as they too visited the places of their roots. Despite his Tunisian background, Shlomi Mayor Gavriel Naaman would never have visited Tunisia if he had not been invited to join Shalom's delegation. He prefers to travel to developed countries like Europe or the US, he said. "I'm not one of those sentimental people," said the burly man wearing a suit and a kippa as he sat on the specially-chartered Israeli plane between Israel and Tunisia. "I like to go forward, not backward." But when the plane landed in Djerba, the seaside city where his parents were born and about which he had heard so many stories, Naaman felt a strong pull. "I don't know how to explain it," he said afterwards. "When I walked into the old synagogue in Djerba and saw the Jews there, I felt connected. It moved me deeply." Now he is planning on making a trip with his whole family. And he, like many other Israelis of Tunisian descent, hopes Tunisia will approve regular flights between the two countries. Djerba has an ancient Jewish population which dates back to Roman times. Today some 1,000 Jews still live there, where they pray in 11 synagogues and adhere closely to their Jewish faith. Despite the high-profile visit by Shalom to Tunisia, his meetings with Tunisian leaders, and the respect accorded to him and his delegation, Tunisia and Israel do not have diplomatic relations. Israeli diplomats are pushing hard to open a more direct channel. "We explained to them that a million Israelis travel to Turkey annually and only a thousand travel to Tunisia," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Ben-Dor, who attended a meeting between Shalom and Tunisian Minister of Tourism Tijari Haddad on Thursday in Tunis. Haddad told Shalom his country would allow a special flight from Tel Aviv to Djerba for Lag Ba'omer, during which a popular local celebration attracts thousands of Jews from abroad annually. Israel also proposed that Tunisia agree to accept a UNESCO project to preserve Jewish religious sites in the country. "The tourism minister said he would promote the idea," said Shalom's spokesman Ilan Ostfeld after the meeting. Like the businessmen and mayors which Shalom's staff invited for the trip, a few of the Israeli media networks also sent their correspondents of Tunisian descent. Yediot Aharonot sent correspondent Zvi Aloush, who like Naaman, had never been interested in visiting the country of his parents' birthplace. "I wasn't born there, I was born in Israel," explained Aloush, 58, who grew up with Shalom in Beersheva, where he lives today with his family. "When we were children we didn't like that our parents spoke in Arabic. We were Israeli. We didn't feel close to the country because it's an Arab country and a Muslim country and an enemy country." Now, he says, everything has changed. "We are connecting to our roots, to our food, to our language," said Aloush, who during the trip took time to wander in the markets, where he ate from the local food and began remembering Arabic words his mother used to say. After returning to Israel and relating his experiences to his brothers, they are now planning a visit together. "They all want to go and take advantage of this window of opportunity," said Aloush. "You don't know if it will close. Five years ago it did." Following the Oslo Accords, Tunisia began low-level diplomatic relations with Israel by opening a representation office in Tel-Aviv in 1996. It was closed in 2000 at the beginning of the so-called Aksa Intifada. Some Tunisians reacted positively to the visit by the Israelis. "We don't have a problem with the Israelis," said Rejeb Ghorbal, a Tunisian shopkeeper selling tourist items. "Tunisia has always had good relations with the Jews. We only have a problem with the government." When the delegation visited Gabbes, the place of Shalom's birth, they stopped to see the home of his mother. As she looked at the old building, now an office, a middle-aged woman wearing a dress and chiffon headscarf approached her. "Do you remember me?" asked Yahmed Wahida with a smile. "I lived across the street and bought bread from your mother." The two exchanged hugs and Wahida told the elderly Maryam Shalom that she welcomes her and all the Israelis. "We don't have a problem with the Jews or the Israelis," said Wahida. "We ate with them and bought from them. We never had a problem, only with the extremists."