Pilgrims in their hundreds converged on the Ghriba synagogue on the Mediterranean island of Djerba where one of the last Jewish communities in the Arab world lives as an annual Jewish pilgrimage to Africa’s oldest synagogue got underway in Tunisia on Wednesday.
They were joined by ministers and other dignitaries to celebrate the two-day Lag BaOmer festival. The event, which starts 33 days after the start of the Jewish Passover festival, coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this year for the first time since 1987.
A fast-breaking meal is due to be shared by Muslims and Jews on Wednesday evening in Djerba. “It’s not easy to organise all this while people are fasting here. They are tired, but we are as welcome as usual,” said Laura Tuil-Journo from France.
I am very happy. Especially that this year, there is a huge crowd. I’m very happy of course, because all our wishes will be granted
This year’s pilgrimage is the first since Rene Trabelsi, who has been co-organising the festival for years, was appointed as Tunisia’s first Jewish minister in decades, in charge of tourism. “This year it is packed. People now come with full confidence, especially as Mr. Trabelsi became a minister,” Tuil-Journo said.
Several hundred police officers and soldiers, backed by tanks and helicopters, have been deployed to protect pilgrims. The community is still recovering from a suicide bombing claimed by Al-Qaeda at the synagogue in 2002 that killed 21 people. Before that, some 8,000 pilgrims used to travel to Djerba for the annual celebration. The number plunged afterwards but has since recovered somewhat.
Tunisia’s tourism industry was also left reeling by attacks on a museum and a tourist resort in 2015 that left dozens dead, including 59 foreigners. This year organisers expect more than 5,000 pilgrims, including Israelis, to visit the synagogue, believed to have been founded in 586 BC by Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The number of Jews in Tunisia has fallen significantly, from around 100,000 before independence from France in 1956 to an estimated 1,500 today, most of whom live in Djerba.