Tunis — A large number of Tunisians were surprised by news of the recent commemoration of the deportation of 5,000 Jews from the country during World War II.
"This is an interesting step that comes at a time of increasing preoccupation with the growing hatred and religious extremism among Tunisian Muslims, let alone toward the Jews," said Tariq Weslati, a teacher in his fifties.
"I think it is a courageous step and gives us a chance to think that coexistence between Tunisians, whatever their religions and beliefs, is possible," he noted.
In a rare event for the Arab world, the Tunisian capital on December 14th welcomed international scholars and historians for a conference on the Holocaust.
"Commemorating the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of many Tunisian Jews, is very positive because it promotes convergence and tolerance between religions," said political activist Elie Trabelsi, a Tunisian Jew from Jerba.
"That Tunisian associations commemorate an event concerning the Jews is a source of pride and a crown for the Tunisian revolution," Trabelsi told Magharebia.
The event was broadcast by various international television stations. The forum "was among the first events focusing on the Holocaust to be held in an Arab country", the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) noted.
Five thousand Jews were subjected to forced labour in Tunisia and some were deported to death camps in Europe during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia, which lasted six months, between 1942 and 1943.
The conference was also an opportunity for the organisers and participants to learn about the contribution of Tunisian Muslims to protecting Jews from Nazi persecution.
The event memorialised Muslims who saved Jews during the period, including Khaled Abdelwahhab, a Tunisian who successfully hid more than 20 Jews from the Nazis in a factory on his property.
"Our mission in this conference is to stop forgetting what happened and to make sure that nothing terrible like the Holocaust happens again," Yamina Thabit, president of the Tunisian Association to Support Minorities, said at the opening of the conference.
She added, "The horrible events that took place in 1942 and 1943 show us that we must be careful to defend the rights of all Tunisians, including the Jewish minority. Religious fanatics who were allowed in the past months to infringe on citizens without punishment are threatening this peace."
"Do not forget that the first government in Tunisia had two Jewish ministers and we are proud of what they have accomplished to this day," noted Saifeddin Tahiri, a retired teacher.
Tahiri added, "You will discover when in Europe how much Tunisian Jews are proud of belonging to this country. They watch what is happening with passion, worry about what we worry about, and rejoice about each joyful event that takes place in Tunisia. They are staunch advocates of their Tunisian roots."
Nearly 2,000 Jews still live in Tunisia, mostly on the island of Djerba where the oldest synagogue in Africa is located.