Is Tunisian Jewry in Danger?

by Daniela Enriquez

Habib Kazdaghli

Tunisia is at the edge of a new era. The next few months will be decisive for the future of the country and its inhabitants: Will it be the paragon of the Arab Spring, which it initiated, and continue to be the most democratic country in the Arab World, or will it become an Islamic state, as Salafists seem to hope, governed by Sha’aria? And will Tunisian Jews continue to live freely in this up-until-now-tolerant North African country? The facts are not reassuring.

On March 6, two niqab-wearing girls entered the office of Habib Kazdaghli, dean of the Literature, Arts and Science Department at the Manouba University of Tunis. The girls attempted to destroy his books and papers. Kazdaghli reacted by pushing the two girls out of his office and denouncing the incident to the local police.

Meanwhile, the two girls sued the dean, accusing him of “violence committed by an official while carrying out his duties,” a charge which could put Kazdaghli in prison for up to five years. Despite this, the girls didn’t show up at the trial where, according to current Tunisian law, they are required to take off their veils—an act which would have forced them to go against their Islamic values. The trial, which is postponed to October 25th, will decide the future of Kazdaghli; it will also decide the future of Manouba University and, partly, of Tunisia.

Why is this event of interest—apart of course from the international implications and ethical problems? Why should Jews worry about Kazdaglhi’s fate?

Well, Salafists’ targets are not only women but also Tunisian Jewry, a group whose history has long interested Kazdaghli. Rob Prince of the University of Denver wrote, “[Kazdaghli] has been an active member of the Société d’Histoire des Juifs de Tunisie, a secular historical society bringing together historians of different religions and backgrounds to study Tunisian Jewish history. While this affiliation is perhaps not the central reason for the Salafist campaign against Kazdaghli, it undoubtedly added fuel to their bigoted fire.”

In addition to Habib Kazdaghli’s story, some anti-Semitic sentiments have made their way into recent protests.

As someone with Tunisian Jewish origins, I have always felt close to this amazing country, a center of cultural exchange in the Mediterranean and paragon of a peaceful cohabitation among Jews, Muslims and Christians. When I was there ten years ago, I would have never thought this country could risk sinking into Islamic fundamentalism. However, at that time, I would never have thought it could be the country that would successfully overthrow a dictator and start a region-wide Arab revolution, either. Tunisia has shocked me in the past year, in a positive, remarkable way, and I hope it will continue to do so.

Salafists are targeting women and Jews. They have already convinced young Arab girls to take out their old veils from their closets. What’s next? “Convincing” Jewish men not to wear kippot?

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