Security concerns and threats from some Salafi Islamists kept thousands of Jewish pilgrims away from an annual celebration on the Tunisian island of Djerba this week.
No more than 500 pilgrims attended the religious festival celebrated a month after Passover at one of Africa’s oldest synagogues on Wednesday and Thursday — an event that used to attract thousands of visitors.
Numbers have plummeted since the overthrow of authoritarian secular leader Zine ElAbidine Ben Ali in a popular uprising in January last year, leading to months of political uncertainty, and the rise to power in October of an Islamist-led government.
Israel issued a travel advisory urging its citizens ahead of the festival to “avoid” visits to Tunisia this year, citing information suggesting they might come under attack.
Last year just 100 took part because pilgrims were reluctant to wade into the charged political environment of the Arab Spring, and organizers cancelled traditional celebrations because of security concerns.
This year, the ceremonies — which mark the deaths of ancient Jewish clerics, including a second-century mystic — went ahead amid tight security with police and soldiers lining the streets.
Concrete bollards blocked the entrance to the synagogue and visitors had to go through baggage checks — measures in place since 2002 when an al Qaeda truck bombing outside the synagogue killed 21 visitors, most of them Germans.
“The environment is good and things are progressing as normal. About 400 or 500 people came,” Perez Trabelsi, president of the El Ghriba synagogue, told Reuters by telephone.
“We are just happy that it went ahead and people came.”
Despite the best efforts of the new Islamist-led government to reassure Jewish visitors that they were welcome, some Salafi Islamists – who have a strict interpretation of Islam — have been less tolerant.
At a rally calling for an Islamic state in the capital Tunis in March, one Salafi speaker was heard inciting violence against Jews. The comments followed a similar incident in January when Islamists greeting a Palestinian delegation at the airport chanted “kill the Jews.”
Though the Tunisian government has been quick to condemn such comments, they appear to have revived memories of the 2002 bombing, which took place about a month before the Jewish festival.
The pilgrimage has been held for more than 20 years and in the past has attracted visitors from Israel, France and the United States. Although Tunisia’s own Jewish community now numbers less than 1,800 people, it remains one of the largest and oldest in North Africa.