Jewish pilgrimage to Tunisia canceled over coronavirus

With the coronavirus pandemic reaching the island of Djerba in Tunisia, Jews of Tunisian heritage won’t be able to attend this year's traditional Ghriba synagogue festivities.

al-monitor Jewish pilgrims participate in an annual Jewish pilgrimage at the Ghriba synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa, Djerba, Tunisia, May 23, 2019.  Photo by Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Apr 22, 2020

The Jewish community of Djerba, Tunisia, announced April 21 that the annual pilgrimage to the ancient Ghriba synagogue on this Tunisian island, scheduled to occur May 7-13, has been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Organizer of the pilgrimage Perez Trabelsi explained that the synagogue will reopen once the danger of the virus has passed. The decision to cancel the pilgrimage followed a decision by the government in early March to suspend all activities in mosques and other praying spaces across Tunisia.

The pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue — the oldest synagogue in Africa and one of the oldest in the world — draws thousands of Jews each year from across the globe, and it is the only occasion during the year when Israeli tourists are allowed into the country. Festivities take place for several days, starting on the 33rd day after the beginning of Passover and celebrating Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. For the 1,500 Jews still living in Tunisia, these festivities constitute a principle element in their tradition. A procession carrying a candelabra crosses the ancient streets of the Jewish neighborhood of Djerba, and pilgrims pose hard-boiled eggs decorated with wishes and prayers inside the old synagogue building.

Authorities waited until the very last moment to cancel the festivities. Tunisian Jews — those living there and those who have immigrated over the years to Israel, France and the United States — are particularly attached to their homeland. They often speak of the warm relations between the local Jewish community — especially the Jews living in Djerba — and their Muslim neighbors. The 2002 terrorist attack on the Ghriba synagogue shook both Jews and Muslims living on the island. Tunisian authorities placed a distinct emphasis on restoring and reopening the synagogue for visits.

In 2018, Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed appointed Rene Trabelsi from Djerba (son of Perez Trabelsi) as the country’s minister of tourism. The appointment — which lasted for two years — generated demonstrations from Tunisians who considered the move an attempt to normalize relations with Israel. But that did not prevent authorities from organizing grand celebrations in Djerba last year when the Ghriba pilgrimage coincided with Ramadan for the first time since 1987. A communal iftar hosted by Chahed and Trabelsi was organized, and Jews and Muslims sat together outside the synagogue at sunset to break the fast.

‘’In Djerba, we are all neighbors — Jews and Muslims. We have lived peacefully together for hundreds of years. We, Muslims, are also saddened by the Ghriba synagogue being closed now, but better to be safe than sorry,’’ a local businessman speaking on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor. He, like his Jewish neighbors, hopes for the synagogue to reopen for festivities of 2021.

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