Israel Reiterates Travel Alert to Tunisia

May 3, 2012  

Israel’s National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau has decided to reiterate its existing travel advisory regarding Tunisia ahead of the upcoming Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer.

The holiday commemorates the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and the ending of a massive plague that took the lives of thousands of his students and those of Rabbi Akiva during the Roman era.

The advisory comes in light of plans to perpetrate terrorist attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets in Tunisia ahead of the annual Lag B’Omer pilgrimage to the island of Djerba.

The NSCCTB notes that there is a high concrete threat regarding travel to Tunisia and recommends avoiding visits to the area.

In opening remarks last month at the two-day International Congress of World Tourism in Djerba, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali said his government hoped to attract Jewish tourism to the island for the holiday.

“Tunisia is an open and tolerant country that will welcome Jewish pilgrims to El Ghriba, as is customary each year,” he was quoted as saying by the Tunisian newspaper Le Temps.

However, it is important to note that the head of Tunisia’s governing Islamist party, Ennahda, said exactly one month ago that the country cannot normalize ties with Israel. “Tunisians’ problem is with Zionism, not with Judaism,” emphasized Rashid Ghannouchi, president of Ennahda, stressing “there can be no normalization with Israel,” according to a report at the time by the official TAP news agency.

The current government has strong ties with the Palestinian Authority, and Tunisia’s Islamist activists warmly welcomed Gaza’s de facto Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh when he came to visit in the past year.

Nevertheless, the government has made a point of protecting its gradually returning tourist industry — including that of the Jewish population — as a means of restoring the country’s battered economy, even though it has meant going head-to-head with Islamist factions.

The ancient El Ghriba synagogue on Djerba is considered to be the home of the oldest Torah in the world, with the name “El Ghriba” meaning “the marvelous” or “the strange” in Arabic. It is believed that the synagogue was connected with the establishment of a Jewish settlement by a group of kohanim (priests) from the First Holy Temple in Jerusalem following its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The community was later referred to as Harah Sghira.

According to the tradition, this group brought with them a door and a stone from the altar of the destroyed Temple. The stone was allegedly incorporated into one of the arches of the synagogue, which is to this day shown to visitors who come to El Ghriba.

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