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Fear Hangs Over Tunisian Jews After Temple Attack

June 14, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DJERBA, Tunisia -- Murdoch Cohen is frightened, terribly frightened. He can't forget the day when a suicide bomber rammed a truck into the whitewashed wall of the ancient synagogue here, sending a blast of heat, fire, blood and bodies right toward him.

Of course the memory of the attack keeps him on edge. But that's not all that's haunting Cohen. It's the feeling of vulnerability, not just in terms of his safety, but of his entire way of life.

Cohen is a Jew in an Arab country, and even as his community has dwindled in numbers over the years, he and his neighbors have lived comfortably with the conviction that they are safe.

Then came the April 11 blast, which killed 21 people--mostly German tourists--and rattled the collective sense that this secular Muslim country of nearly 10 million people is a perfectly welcoming place for about 1,600 Jews who call it home.

"For a long time I had panic attacks," the 77-year-old said as he pointed to the faded bloodstains on the floor mats of the Ghriba synagogue. "In the beginning, I wasn't fine--I was terrified."

What makes Cohen unusual is not so much that he talks about struggling to get over the blast, but that he talks about the blast at all. Many Jews on this island off the northern coast of Africa, and in the capital, Tunis, would rather forget that it ever happened.

The dogged insistence that nothing changed that day appears to stem from the same fear that hangs over Cohen--that the Jews' centuries-old presence on Djerba, and throughout Tunisia, could be under threat.

Even as Jewish institutions have been turned into fortresses to guard against another attack, and even as the government--which is very supportive of the Jewish community--has acknowledged that it was a terrorist act, Youseff Ouazan, president of a Jewish community organization in Djerba, still insisted that the explosion might have been happenstance.

"It could have been an accident, like a plane crash," he said, shaking his head aggressively at any suggestion otherwise. "We don't have any problems. We have all rights. All Tunisian people have the right to do whatever they want. Here things are calm."

The roughly 1,000 Jews of Djerba live in a community that dates back to the destruction of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. Lore has it that the first Jews brought with them a stone from that synagogue and in 586 BC built a temple on the very site where Ghriba rests today.

At one time, more than 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia. But the turmoil of the last half century, the Arab-Israeli wars and a rise in regional anti-Semitism have prompted most to leave. Those still here are a remnant of what was a diaspora within a diaspora.

They have clung, for better or worse, to the sandy shores of Djerba, perhaps best known as a resort for wealthy Europeans. They stubbornly refuse to let the modern world separate them from their traditional way of life.

Marriages are still arranged, and even after they're engaged men and women can't be alone together. The study of French--the predominant second language in Tunisia--or English is prohibited in school by rabbinical decree, forcing the focus on Hebrew.

"It is a small Jewish community trying to survive," said Yechiel Bar Chaim, country director for the U.S.-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an 88-year-old philanthropic organization that provides financial help and expert assistance to Jewish communities the world over.

Ouazan, who lives in Hara Kbira, the largest Jewish quarter in Djerba, is a tall man, with slightly rounded shoulders and an unkempt mop of salt-and-pepper hair. He tools around the island on a moped and sells jewelry in the open-air market. He is proud to show off the yeshiva where boys study Hebrew texts, and proud to point out a synagogue where his family has worshiped for 300 years. .

But that is where his loquacity stops.

"Of course it happened, but it is not my business," he said of the explosion. "We built our lives here. Politics, I don't want anything to do with it."

Ouazan has been forced to at least think about politics since a truck loaded with a crude bomb crashed into the synagogue, an attack that some reports have linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

Jewish leaders willing to discuss what happened insist that the extremists--or whoever was responsible--must have been targeting the tourism industry as a way to undermine the secular government of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali. They insist that it was not Jews who were singled out.

"Clearly, for me it is not a Tunisian," insisted Joseph Roger Bismuth, 76, president of Tunisia's largest Jewish organization, based in Tunis. "In my opinion, Tunisia was targeted. I very strongly believe the extremists were after Tunisia."

As isolated as Djerba's Jews are on their little island, Tunis' mainland Jewish community already seems like it is slipping away.

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