The island of Djerba is just off Tunisia’s southern shore, 294km from Tripoli. Yet the peace that prevails in Djerba is as far from the mayhem of the Libyan capital as can be imagined. So is the very peaceful relationship maintained by the approximately 1,000 Jews who live there with their Muslim neighbours.
Even more unusual in a Middle East where wounded identities clash daily, often unleashing bloody mayhem, millions of refugees and failed states, the annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba involves the happy mingling of Jews and Muslims.
It was the case again this year, as citizens of Djerba came to share the celebration of the annual festival with their Jewish neighbours.
El Ghriba synagogue was, legend says, founded after the destruction of King Solomon’s temple in 586BC. It is more likely, however, that it was founded after the second destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70AD. A Jewish necropolis in Gammarth, near Carthage, attests to the presence of Jews in Tunisia half a millennium before Christ in what was then the thriving capital of a Phoenician empire which spanned the western Mediterranean. The Talmud mentions several Carthaginian rabbis.
Persecution against the Jews and other Christian minorities followed the legalisation of Christianity by the Roman Empire by the edict of Milan in 313 and Byzantine rule in North Africa in the sixth century. During the 1,400 years of Muslim rule in Tunisia and more broadly in North Africa, relations between Jews and Muslims seesawed but never were Jews treated with the callousness shown to them by European Christians in the 13th century or during the 20th century.