On the small Tunisian island of Djerba, the politics sweeping the rest of the nation don’t creep up often. The island plays host to one of the Arab world’s largest Jewish communities, dating back 2,500 years, and boasts Africa’s oldest synagogue, called El Ghriba. Every year on Lag B’Omer, thousands of pilgrims flock to the site, in an annual tradition known as Hiloula. Every year, that is, except the last one.
2011’s celebration was cancelled, following the overthrow of Tunisia’s government as well as rising anti-Jewish sentiments. It was an extreme move for the little village where the head imam and chief rabbi co-host cultural events, where street signs are printed in both Arabic and Hebrew.
This year, though, pilgrims alit to El Ghriba once more. The festival isn’t like most you’d find in the states. The bright blue walls and tiled floors of the synagogue help amplify the noise, as trays of nuts and figs, as well as plentiful bottles of spirits, are passed around. Attendees light candles in a small chapel covered in red and gold and thick Persian rugs cushion the floor.
Organizers said this year’s celebration was just as joyful, if not as populated, as it has been in the past.
“Everything is going properly. I am satisfied,” Perez Trabelsi, head of the Tunisian Jewish community, told a Tunisian news agency. He added that there were plenty of police and military on site to protect the 1,500 who arrived, one-third of which were foreigners who traveled to Tunisia just for the event.
Last week, Israel issued a travel warning ahead of the celebration, advising its citizens not to attend. The Counter Terrorism Bureau informed the public there were “credible” threats of terror against Jews and Israelis attending the festival.
Terror threats may have contributed to the decreased turnout. Jews have made pilgrimage to the ancient synagogue for decades and at one time the numbers reached over 100,000. But in recent years attendance has dwindled to the thousands.
“The most important thing is not the number of pilgrims but rather the success of pilgrimage season which will certainly contribute to Jew’s confidence and dissipating their fears,” Trabelsi said.
Those fears are based in a real foundation. In 1985, a security officer charged with protecting the synagogue opened fire, killing three, including one young child. In 2002, a truck loaded with explosives killed 21 at the temple, an attack al Qaeda took credit for. Last month, Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki commemorated the slayings, the first time a politician made an official note of the anniversary.
This week, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali welcomed the resurgence of the Hiloula tradition, saying, “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”