published Sunday, May 18th, 2014

Jewish pilgrimage in Tunisia grows despite debate

Jewish pilgrims light candles in the Ghriba synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa more than 2,500 years ago, as they attend the annual Jewish pilgrimage in the resort of Djerba, Tunisia, in this April 26, 2013. Jews coming from Tunisia, Europe or Israel make their annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue, commemorating the death of Shimon Bar Yohai, a second-century kabbalistic rabbi who authored a famous religious text known as The Zohar.
Jewish pilgrims light candles in the Ghriba synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa more than 2,500 years ago, as they attend the annual Jewish pilgrimage in the resort of Djerba, Tunisia, in this April 26, 2013. Jews coming from Tunisia, Europe or Israel make their annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue, commemorating the death of Shimon Bar Yohai, a second-century kabbalistic rabbi who authored a famous religious text known as The Zohar.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

DJERBA, Tunisia — Despite years of security concerns and a harsh debate over Israeli passports, officials said Sunday the number of Jewish pilgrims taking part in an annual rite in Tunisia is up dramatically for the first time in years.

Rene Trabelsi, who helps organize the trek to the Ghriba synagogue, Africa's oldest, said 2,000 people, including 1,000 from abroad, took part in the three-day pilgrimage ending Sunday.

"The pilgrimage of 2014 has definitely been a success. It is a great day," he said, thanking security forces for protecting the event.

The pilgrimage to the island of Djerba, site of the synagogue, was canceled in 2011 after the revolution and in subsequent years there were only hundreds attending, down from a peak of 7,000 in 2000.

In 2002, al-Qaida militants set off a truck bomb near the synagogue, killing 21 people, mostly German tourists -- and badly jolting the now-tiny Jewish community

This year was the first time that Israeli pilgrims have been allowed to use their passports rather than a special document issued by the Tunisian government, prompting an outcry among some lawmakers. Tunisia has no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Iris Cohen, who runs an Israel-based travel agency, said it was the first time she had done the pilgrimage since the revolution.

"I thank the tourism minister who made it easier for Israeli pilgrims to come," she said.

Jews have been living in Djerba since 500 B.C. The Jewish population has shrunk to 1,500, down from 100,000 in the 1960s. Most left following the 1967 war between Israel and Arab countries, and the economic policies adopted by the government in the late 1960s also drove away many Jewish business owners.

Djerba, a dusty island of palm trees and olive groves, lures hundreds of thousands of tourists every year -- mainly Germans and French -- for its sandy beaches and rich history. The Ghriba synagogue itself, said to date to 586 B.C., once drew up to 2,000 visitors per day, Jewish leaders have said.

The site is rich with legend. The first Jews who arrived were said to have brought a stone from the ancient temple of Jerusalem that was destroyed by the Babylonians. The stone is kept in a grotto at the synagogue. Women and children descend into the grotto to place eggs scrawled with wishful messages on them.

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