More than 1,000 Jews, including dozens of Israelis, gathered in the southern Tunisian city of Djerba on Thursday and Friday to stage a rare pilgrimage in an Arab land, reported Reuters.
The pilgrimage, known as El Ghriba festival, combines faith and legend and is deeply anchored in the centuries-old local Jewish culture which survives despite often uneasy relations between Arabs and Jews, said the agency.
El Ghriba drew more than 7,000 Jews last year before the failure of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, but only 1,300 attended the event this year, organizers said.
"The turnout this year was a bit low because of the gloomy news coming from the Middle East. But we are happy that the event was not stopped by that," said Trabelsi Ouzifa, one of the organizers.
For many participants, the festival has taken on a new meaning this year as a rare occasion for proximity and tolerance between Arab and Jewish cultures.
"With the situation in the Middle East now, this pilgrimage is an occasion and a reminder for both Arabs and Jews to do their utmost to nurture and preserve every inch of understanding between them," a Frenchwoman who flew from Paris to attend the event told the agency.
More than 400 Palestinians have been killed since the outbreak of the Intifada in September.
"They came straight from Israel. Welcome to Djerba!" shouted one of the organizers through a loudspeaker in French as the Israelis mingled with other pilgrims to sing Jewish and Arab lyrics.
"Assalam alikum, Shalom," replied one of the Israelis in Arabic and Hebrew, prompting an explosion of joy in the gathering.
El Ghriba was instituted to celebrate Jewish victory over suffering, said Reuters.
According to legends, Jews have resided in Tunisia since the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, in 586 B.C. While this cannot be substantiated by historical evidence, it is known that Tunisia was home to the most important center of Jewish life in North Africa during the period of the Roman Empire, a study by the Hebron University in Jerusalem said.
Djerba has the largest population of Jews in Tunisia today.
"Djerba is comprised of two major groups: the Cohanim, who were the original Jewish residents in the hara zgeira (small quarter) of Djerba, and the B'nai Yisrael (Tribes of Israel) community comprised of Jews who originated in Tunisia, Libya and Morocco, and live in the hara kebira (large quarter)," said the study.
The most important and oldest synagogue in Djerba is the Ghriba, built by the Cohanim in the hara zgeira, it said, adding that the Ghriba synagogue is considered a pilgrimage site throughout North Africa - Albawaba.com
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )