A police car is parked near Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, May 10, 2023.

An attack at Africa’s oldest synagogue leaves Jews on a pilgrimage in Tunisia concerned

The Ghriba synagogue is the oldest in Africa and is the destination for an annual Jewish pilgrimage on the island of Djerba. The World’s Marco Werman spoke with Daniel Lee, a historian of the Jews of France and North Africa at Queen Mary University of London, about the ancient house of worship and an attack there on Tuesday.

The World

At least five people were killed in a shooting attack at a Jewish holy site in Tunisia on Tuesday. The attack happened at the Ghriba synagogue, the destination for Jewish people taking part in a pilgrimage to the Tunisian island of Djerba.

It’s an annual pilgrimage that can attract thousands of Jewish people to Tunisia, mostly from France and Israel.

The shooter was working as a guard at a nearby naval installation. His motive remains unknown.

To talk about the attack and the history of this pilgrimage, The World’s Marco Werman spoke with Daniel Lee, a historian of the Jews of France and North Africa at Queen Mary University of London.

Marco Werman: There’s a lot we don’t understand yet, but based on what we do know, how do you understand the shooting?
Daniel Lee: I think we need a bit of historical context here first. This is not the first time there has been a shooting or an attack at this particular synagogue. The last time this happened was in 2002. It was utterly devastating then when a bomb went off in the synagogue. That was al-Qaeda. Before that, there was a Tunisian soldier who opened fire inside the synagogue in 1985. So, this is a really, really important — the most important — synagogue in North Africa, if not on the whole continent of Africa. And it’s somewhere that attracts huge, huge attention from all over the world, particularly on this day, on this 33rd day that follows the Jewish festival of Passover. It didn’t just come out of nowhere. It is something that must, I would presume, have been planned by the person who carried out the attacks. But obviously, it is far too soon. We don’t know anything about who this person was or their motivations at this stage.
Remind us why that 33rd day after Passover is significant.
Well, it’s the day that Jews across the world celebrate. It’s called Lag BaOmer. A lot of people celebrate Lag BaOmer as a way to commemorate two very important rabbis who are buried in the Galilee. Jews of Tunisian origin, they go to the Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba, where it is told that Jews fleeing the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC, that the Jews fled from the temple, took parts of the temple with them, including a door and various other items, found this island of Djerba and settled on it and created this temple. So, it’s this very ancient temple, this very ancient ritual that takes place every year on Lag BaOmer.
There was no response from the Tunisian government in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s shooting, no outrage, no mentions of antisemitism. What do you make of that lack of official response so far?
Well, I think it’s very, very disappointing obviously. Not least because so many people from all over the world — ambassadors, diplomats, the American now diplomat you know, brilliant historian, Deborah Lipstadt, who was there herself on Monday and Tuesday at the Ghriba, has sent her condolences. And, you know, there’s been a total silence, other than the Ministry of Tourism talking about how, you know, tourism must continue. But nobody’s mentioned the word antisemitism, nobody’s mentioning Jews, nobody’s mentioning terrorism. And there’s been a total silence. And, you know, there is, in a way, some fear among Jews who are still living in Tunisia today. Unlike most countries in North Africa and the Middle East, there still is a vibrant Jewish population in the country. A lot of them are wondering what the future holds, especially with the president [Kais Saied] who has been accused in the past of saying things that might incite antisemitism over the last two years since he’s been in power.
The Ghriba synagogue also happens to be the oldest one in Africa. So, tell us more about the temple and how meaningful that is to the people who go on this pilgrimage.
You know, I’ve been many times myself as a historian to conduct my research there. You know, you just see the emotion on so many faces of people who sometimes have been saving a lot of money in order to go on this pilgrimage. Tunisia, even though it doesn’t maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, it’s the only time of the year where Tunisia almost turns a blind eye to that fact. And you do have busloads, often of Israeli tourists, entering the country to visit this very, very important site that their grandfathers or grandmothers or ancestors or whatever used to visit once upon a time. In the last, sort of, 30 years, since the Jewish Tunisian diaspora has been growing all over the world, there has been more attempts to encourage Jews of Tunisian origin to come back to the island, to come home, if you like, and to take part in this pilgrimage. There’s lots of singing, there’s lots of dancing. It really is something like a celebration, like a wedding. There’s music, there’s food. It’s a very happy, happy affair. And also for some, it’s deeply moving and deeply religious.
What kind of impact do you think Tuesday’s attack on the synagogue will have on visitors to Djerba in the future?
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in previous attacks, the numbers of people who are visiting Djerba to visit sites of Jewish interest is going to dwindle somewhat. And this is a sad consequence of that. Tunisia, like Morocco, like other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, is a country that still has many sites of Jewish interest, you know, cemeteries, synagogues. The Tunisian government, among other institutions, were hoping that Jews might return to visit — not just Jews, but anyone interested in Jewish history — would be interested to go to Tunisia to visit these sites. And, of course, as we saw with the attacks in 2015, on the beach in Sousse, the numbers of tourists suddenly stopped. People aren’t going to go to a country where a policeman suddenly might open fire on people who he is supposed to protect.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Related: The Jewish graves in Kyrgyzstan are fading. But a small Jewish community continues to thrive.

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