Lessons from Tunisia on the Jewish Bridge to the Arab World

Policy Papers and Reports

During the Oslo years, Israel experienced a period of openness in its trade and diplomatic relations with many Arab states. These days, there are those who are quick to describe Israel’s secret security relations with a number of Gulf countries as an important political breakthrough, which would allow Israel to finally become an integral part of the region. While these ties should not be underestimated, it is important to remember that beyond and in addition to them there already exists an infrastructure of deeper and more “organic” ties upon which Israel should build its relations with Arab states – those of culture and identity.

The appointment on November 4, 2018 of René Trabelsi – a Jewish businessman from the Island of Djerba – as Minister of Tourism in Tunisia has received a great deal of international attention, and at the same time has raised controversy among local political, media, and social circles. Tunisia nowadays has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel, despite past precedents of positive relations. There are those in Tunisia who adamantly oppose normalizing relations with Israel, and who directly support the BDS movement and a boycott of Israel. Considering this mindset, the appointment of Trabelsi – a Jewish travel agency owner who has, for years, hosted Israelis in Tunisia, who has himself visited Israel, and who supports peace with Israel – to an official role in which he can actualize his theoretical ideas and turn them into policy, is curious.

Trabelsi is currently the only Jew serving as a minister in an Arab country, and altogether the third Jew in Tunisia to have served in such a position since its independence in 1957. On the one hand, this is a rather meager representation for a Jewish community who has lived in the area since the destruction of the First Temple. On the other hand, the appointment is significant because of its nature and timing, and it holds several important messages, both about Israel and about the potential role Tunisian Jews – wherever they are – may play in establishing relations between the two countries.

Trabelsi’s appointment is not the only example of positive attitudes toward Jews in Tunisia. In the April 2018 local elections in the city of Monastir, a Jew was placed on the candidate list of the a-Nahda party. While he did not get elected into the city council, placing him on the list was meant to convey a message of tolerance and openness. In addition, Tunisia is not the only Arab country in which Jews have reached high positions and have been treated well by the regime and the local population. Morocco, in fact, leads in this respect: in the past, Jews have served as ministers and senior business persons, and until today the highest-ranking Jew in the kingdom, Andre Azoulay, serves as Senior Adviser to the king. Azoulay is a key person in inter-faith and intercommunal relations, mainly in the field of culture and the arts in which there is lively cooperation between Israelis (many of whom are of Moroccan decent) and Jewish and Muslim Moroccans.

Jewish communities in Arab and Muslim lands, like Jews from those countries who live in Israel, constitute a natural – and to date yet unrealized – bridge between these countries and Israel. This is true particularly regarding Tunisia and Morocco, where there still exist active Jewish communities, but also with regard to Iraq where there was historically a prosperous and influential Jewish community. This does not mean that the only important connection is with high ranking Jewish diplomatic and political personnel, since having them place too much emphasis on contacts with Israel may actually hurt their efforts and narrow the range of their potential activities vis-à-vis Israel. What it does mean, is that there exists a historical, cultural, inter-personal, and inter-communal connection between Jewish communities in Middle Eastern and North African countries and these countries’ diasporas in Israel. In addition, there are ties between Israel and non-Jewish politicians and business persons in Tunisia, Morocco, and other countries, and these relations can potentially become more meaningful with the “backing” of historical and current Jewish relations in these countries.

The importance of strategic, security, or economic partnerships between Israel and other countries in the region should not be underestimated. However, rather than chasing after shallow, secret, and short-term contacts with authoritarian leaders, Israel should be attuned to signals coming – directly or indirectly – from more moderate countries like Tunisia and Morocco. With them, it is possible to build relations of a more civil and cultural nature, and which are based on deep and authentic ties. Publicly exaggerating the importance of Trabelsi’s appointment may harm its potential, but paying attention to the real opportunities embedded in it – without slogans and noisy headlines – may open important doors.

Dr. Adina Friedman is a guest researcher at Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Policies. She teaches conflict resolution at George Mason University, and is an experienced leader of courses in and educational trips to Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, the West Bank/Gaza, and Israel. This article is based on a research paper titled “Tunisia Following the Arab Spring and its Relations with Israel”, published by the Mitvim Institute.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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