Tunis, Tunisia – Tunisian academic Habib Kazdaghli was on a bus outside the Ghriba Synagogue when the attack happened earlier this month.
Neither he nor any of his coaching students knew what was going on. “We thought it was a fight between the police at first,” he told a translator later. “We don’t know how many people were involved. We just lay on the floor of the bus in silence, for over an hour and waited.”
A Muslim by birth, Kazdaghli travels to the Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba every year to join the Jewish community in celebrating the festival of Lag Ba’omer.
“We were just waiting there, wondering if the gunman would come on the bus. I hope none of the students contact their parents or friends from the bus, because the gunman might hear. We are just waiting. We don’t know anything.”
He paused, pondering for a moment. “A lot of it is about memory. We all experience and repress memories. Something like this, especially among the Jews of Tunisia, just brings everyone back,” he said.
The Jews of Tunisia have been in the country for more than 2,000 years, mixing with the Native Berbers, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs. From exile within Tunisia to persecution during the Nazi occupation of the country, few of these years have been without incident.
However, as the story of this latest attack spread through the Tunisian media, the government’s determination to frame it as a criminal attack on the tourism industry, rather than an anti-Semitic act attack on one of the most vulnerable communities in the region, became more apparent.
The facts we know are: Shortly after 8 pm, National Guardsman Wissam Khazri, after killing another officer and stealing his weapon and ammunition, arrived at the Synagogue, after traveling in more than half an hour on land by quad bike to reach it. When there, the interior ministry said, he fired apparently indiscriminately, killing two pilgrims, cousin Avial and Ben Haddad, and two policemen, as well as wounding several others.
Two minutes later, the officers shot him.
However, in the next 24 hours, the government continued on a course to minimize the anti-Semitic nature of the attack, while emphasizing the small disruption caused to the country’s tourism industry, where the island of Djerba contributed a lot of money.
The problem, says Kazdagli, is not that the government is not used to responding to crises, it’s more that they don’t know how to respond to this crisis. “That the attack targeted Jews and that it happened in El Ghriba” left them paralyzed, he said. “They don’t know how to explain it. They don’t know how to make it make sense to people,” he said through a translator.
Speaking to the nation a day later, President Kais Saied described the attack as “criminal”, rather than “terrorist”, in nature, a term he spread quickly against his opponents and critics. There was no mention of the gunman’s anti-Semitism or his specific targeting of the Jewish community. In a short news conference two days later, the interior minister informed journalists of the attacker’s name and that the ministry considered the attack to be planned. Few more are added.
The truth, according to observers like Hamza Meddeb of the Carnegie Middle East Center, is that, despite the reports of four arrests since the shooting, the reality, including the race of the targets, is very chaotic.
“I understand why they don’t want to call it a terrorist incident,” he said. “It raises a lot of questions. Let’s not forget that the attacker was a policeman, we don’t know anything about this man’s background. Was he radicalized? If so, by whom? How wide is his network? If they say he is anti-Semite, how widespread are those sentiments within the police? More importantly, how broad are the sentiments across society? That’s an uncomfortable question.
“It’s easier to dismiss the attack as a criminal act and move on,” he said.
Currently, throughout Tunisia, the gaps on the supermarket shelves are one of the best indicators of the variety of household staples subsidized by the government. With each passing year, the burdens on the Tunisian economy grew heavier as the national currency, the dinar, depreciated further. Critically, healthy tourism revenues, and the hard currency they bring, may go some way to giving the president and his ministers room to maneuver in their negotiations on a potential bailout of the International Monetary Fund.
Against this terrible backdrop, tourism, one of the few bright economic bright spots in the endless night of Tunisia, shows at least the seed of optimism. In a normal year, according to Tunisian economist Raddhi Meddeb, tourism contributes about 7 percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product (GDP). Factoring in ancillary industries, from farming to catering, that number doubles to 14 percent. Receipts so far, up 60 percent over the same period last year, point to a good summer.
“In terms of tourism, Tunisia is generally competitive in terms of price. The reason for the financial crisis that is happening within Europe at the moment, as well as the instability of [competitor] Turkey and you look at Tunisia to be one of the main destinations for European tourists this summer,” said Meddeb.
However, all this stands derailed by the mention of a violent attack against a community considered so vulnerable that large parts of the Tunisian security services are deployed every year to guard them.
“We know that for what we call sun and sand tourists, safety is an important part,” said Grzegorz Kapuscinski, a senior academic in tourism management at Oxford Brookes University.
“And it’s not really about an attack, but the frequency of incidents and the collective awareness of them,” Kapuscinski said. “So yes, I understand why the Tunisian government chose to handle it this way. With that said, I’m not sure it will work. I think full transparency is always the best idea .”
However, hoping that the world will just forget about it and move on is highly unlikely.
An additional obstacle for Tunisia’s efforts is an investigation launched in France with which Ben Haddad shares nationality, (Avial Haddad also carries an Israeli passport) which may not be too sensitive to sensitivities. in Tunisia as expected by President Saied.
For now, however, the effect is more immediate. The families of the synagogue’s defenders, as well as those of Ben and Avial Haddad, all had to reconcile themselves to a cruel and unexpected loss. For them, at least, summer can wait.