27 May 2019

Africa: Pilgrims Return to Africa's Oldest Synagogue for the Lag Baomer Festival

Countless pilgrims converged at Africa's oldest synagogue, in Tunisia, where one of the last Jewish communities in the Arab world lives, for the annual Jewish pilgrimage and Lag BaOmer festival. For years, the synagogue has not welcomed as many pilgrims because of security concerns in the region.

The ancient El Ghriba Synagogue, also known as Djerba Synagogue, is the oldest synagogue not only in Tunisia but in Africa as a whole. It is located on the Tunisian island of Djerba in the Jewish village of Er-Riadh. It is a site of pilgrimage, whose status approaches that of the Holy Land, as legend claims that either a stone or a door from either Solomon's Temple or the Second Temple is incorporated in the building.

According to accounts, the construction of the synagogue goes back to the High Priests' escape following the destruction of Solomon's Temple by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II in the year 586 BCE (or, alternately, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE). The High Priests carried with them a door and a stone of the destroyed temple. Thus the synagogue links the Jewish diaspora to the "sole sanctuary of Judaism".

This year's annual pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue for the Lag BaOmer festival not only coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan for the first time since 1987 but it also marks a resurgence for the country's Jewish community after years of security woes.

In fact, the community is still recovering from a suicide bombing at the synagogue in 2002, which killed 21 people. Before the attack, some 8 000 pilgrims used to travel annually to Djerba for the celebration. Furthermore, a state of emergency imposed after a series of attacks on tourists and security forces in 2015 still remains in place today.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed went to the synagogue and told The New Arab news site that his visit sent "a message to say that Tunisia is a land of peace and tolerance".

"All religions have been welcome for 3 000 years, and this will continue," he said, adding that "Tunisia is a safe country, a country of tourism open to the world."

Towards the protection of pilgrims, several hundred police officers and soldiers will be backed by tanks and helicopters. Tunisian worshippers were also joined by numerous dignitaries from Israel and Europe.

"This is the first time I have come here; it's a historic moment for me," Rabbi Moshe Sebbag of the Victory Synagogue in Paris told the news agency AFP.

Unfortunately, the number of Jews in Tunisia has fallen significantly, from around 100 000 before independence from France in 1956 to an estimated 1 500 today. However, with the event, which starts 33 days after the start of the Jewish Passover festival, coinciding with Ramadan this year, the first day of Lag BaOmer celebrations ended with an interfaith breaking of the fast involving Muslims, Jews and Christians. This was a monumental show of togetherness despite historical differences and security concerns.

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