Tunisian Jews Seek Place in New Democracy — as Tunisians

Letter From Tunis

One Nation: The Muslim owner of a kosher butchery in Tunis says the Jewish community should be accepted as Tunisians.
Rachel Shabi
One Nation: The Muslim owner of a kosher butchery in Tunis says the Jewish community should be accepted as Tunisians.

By Rachel Shabi

Published April 17, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.

Mamie Lily, a restaurant housed in a charming, French colonial-era building in La Goulette, a faded port town just outside Tunis, is a rare outpost of kosher cuisine in an Arab land. And the annual Seder it hosts seems to reflect something characteristic of Tunisia’s larger Jewish population: It is tiny, but functional and robust — and determined to be seen as a regular part of the landscape.

Jacob Lellouche, the restaurateur who runs both the Seder and Mamie Lily, presided this year over a Passover gathering of just over a dozen participants, mostly middle-aged and upward, who recited from the Haggadah in a mixture of Hebrew and French. But despite his role, Lellouche is tired of being asked by outsiders how it feels to be a Jew in his country.

“I am sick of being considered anything other than Tunisian,” Lellouche said, citing constant media inquiries on the well-being of this country’s Jewish community of about 1,500. “It is as though we only exist in the eyes of others.”

Lellouche ran for a seat in the Constituent Assembly during Tunisia’s first free election in 2011. The election followed the country’s ouster of Western-backed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali the previous year — the front-runner and inspiration of the wave of Arab uprisings that followed across the Middle East. Lellouche lost his race, narrowly, running on the ticket of a small centrist party.

Ennahda, which is viewed as a moderate Islamist party, finished first in that election and eventually cobbled together a three-party coalition to form the country’s first postrevolution government. The party further burnished its public commitment to pluralism in December 2011, when the Constituent Assembly elected as its head of state Moncef Marzouki, a longtime secular human rights activist who was imprisoned by Ben Ali.

But today, the burst of optimism that characterized that early period has faded. In February, Chokri Belaid, a prominent secularist opposition leader, was assassinated in a killing that came days after a Human Rights Watch report warned of escalating political violence in Tunisia that was “motivated by a religious agenda.” Four radical Islamists have been arrested for their alleged involvement in the murder.

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