Sunday , November 29 2020

Lessons from Tunisia on the Jewish Bridge to the Arab World – Opinion

A Jewish woman shines light during a pilgrimage to the El Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia

A Jewish woman shines light during a pilgrimage to the El Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia.
(Image Credit: ANIS MILI / REUTERS)


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During the Oslo years, Israel experienced openness in trade and diplomatic relations with many Arab states. These days, there are those who quickly describe Israel's secret security relationships with a number of golfing nations as an important political breakthrough that allows Israel to become an integral part of the region. While these ties should not be underestimated, it is important to remember that, in addition to and beyond them, there is already an infrastructure of deeper and more "ecological" ties that Israel is to build its relations with Arab states – namely culture and identity .

The appointment on November 4, 2018 by René Trabelsi – a Jewish businessman from the island of Djerba – as Tourism Minister of Tunisia has received great international attention and has at the same time raised controversy between local political, media and social circles. Tunisia today has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel despite previous precedents for positive relations.

There are those in Tunisia who contradictively oppose normalizing relations and who directly support the boycott, marketing and sanctions and a boycott of Israel. Given this mindset, the appointment of Trabelsi – a Jewish travel agency owner, who for years hosted Israelis in Tunisia, who has himself visited Israel and who supports peace with Israel – is an official role in which he can update His theoretical ideas and make them politics are curious.

Trabelsi is currently the only Jew serving as a minister in an Arab country and wholly the third Jew in Tunisia has served in such a position since his independence in 1957. On the one hand, this is a rather modest representation of a Jewish communities that have lived in the area since the destruction of the first temple. On the other hand, the appointment is significant because of its nature and timing. It also contains several important messages, both on Israel and on the potential role of Tunisian Jews – wherever they may be – to play in establishing relations between the two countries.

Trabelsi's appointment is not the only example of positive attitudes towards Jews in Tunisia. In the local elections in April 2018 in the city of Monastir, a Jew was placed on the candidate list of the al-Nahda Party. While not elected to the City Council, he should place him on the list of tolerance and openness.

Tunisia is not the only Arab country where Jews have reached high positions and been treated well by the regime and local people. In fact, Morocco leads in this regard. Previously, Jews served as ministers and seniors

people. Until today, the highest-ranking Jew in the kingdom serves Andre Azoulay as senior adviser to the king. Azoulay is a key person in inter-religious and intermunicipal relations, primarily in the fields of culture and art, where there is lively cooperation between Israelis (many of whom are Moroccan descent) and Jewish and Muslim Moroccans.

Jewish communities in Arab and Muslim countries, such as Jews from the countries living in Israel, constitute a natural – and yet unrealized – bridge between these countries and Israel. This is especially true of Tunisia and Morocco, where active Jewish communities still exist, but also with regard to Iraq, where historically a prosperous and influential Jewish community.

This does not mean that the only important link is with senior Jewish diplomatic and political staff. Having too much emphasis on contacts with Israel can actually harm their efforts and limit the scope of their potential activities towards Israel. What this means is that there is a historical, cultural, interpersonal and inter-municipal connection between Jewish communities in Middle Eastern and North African countries and the particular diasporas in Israel.

In addition, there are ties between Israel and non-Jewish politicians and businessmen in Tunisia, Morocco and other countries. These relationships can potentially become more meaningful with "backing" historical and current Jewish relations in these countries.

The importance of strategic, security or economic partnerships between Israel and other countries in the region should not be underestimated. But instead of hunting for superficial, secret and short-term contacts with authoritarian leaders, Israel must be prepared for signals that come directly or indirectly from more moderate countries such as Tunisia and Morocco. With them, it is possible to build connections of a more civil and cultural nature based on deep and authentic ties. Public exaggeration of the importance of Trabelsi's appointment can damage its potential, but paying attention to the real opportunities embedded in it – without slogan and noisy headlines – can open important doors.

The author is a visiting scholar at Mitvim-Israeli Institute for Regional Policy. She teaches conflict resolution at George Mason University. This article is based on a research paper titled "Tunisia after the Arab Spring and its relations with Israel" published by Mitvim.

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