Tunisia’s Spring: what precedent for Jews?

October 28th, 2011 by Mark Gardner

Tunisia is where ‘the Arab Spring’ first bloomed. Now, it is the first such country to have held a democratic election. The election has been won by a political Islamist group, the Ennahda  Party, which took 90 of the 217 seats.

Ennahda and its leader Sheikh Rached Al-Ghannouchi are widely regarded as pro-democracy and relatively moderate within Islamist circles. A Guardian editorial (22 October) summarised Ennahda’s positioning and stressed the strategic importance of what it does next:

It [Tunisia] will also roadtest the claim that political pluralism can be navigated with an Islamist party at the helm. The Islamist movement is a broad church ranging from global jihadis, Salafis, Hamas and Hizbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to Recep Erdogan’s AKP in Turkey. Mr Ghannouchi’s Ennahda lies at the liberal end of this spectrum. If it succeeds, it would provide the most authentic, endogenous political model that the Arab world has seen in generations. We are not at the end of the Arab spring but at the very start.

Nevertheless, when it comes to Jews, Zionism and Israel, this season’s Tunisian Spring is neither fresh, nor fragrant, with Ghannouchi in particular regarding the fight against Zionism as by far the most important matter facing not only Muslims, but the entire world. The position is clearly laid out in his relatively well-known 1994 paper, “Palestine as a Global Agenda”.

Less well-known is an extensive in–depth interview with Ghannouchi, archived from Muslim Student Association News website (dated 10 Feb ‘98), in particular the successive chapters on “Islam and American foreign policy”, “Islam and antisemitism”, and “A pluralist, multi-religious, democratic state for Palestine, Israel and Jordan as solution…via resistance”.

Both of the above are excerpted in some depth at the conclusion of this article, but Ennhada’s attitudes to Tunisian Jewry, Israel and Diaspora Jewry should not only concern Jews. One persistent, yet often overlooked, feature of attitudes to Jews is that these attitudes provide an early warning system regarding the health and mentality of a movement, society or nation as a whole. Jews are often the first targets, but never the last.

In the context of an ‘Arab Spring’ in which ascendant Islamists may promote antisemitism, this would likely be followed by persecution of non-observant Muslims, Christians, liberals, trade unionists, communists, homosexuals, women, democrats, journalists etc. (The list is in no particular order, but Saudi Arabia, Iran and Gaza provide useful templates.)

To be very clear, none of this is to say that Ennahda will necessarily promote antisemitic incitement or actions: it is, rather, to state that Ennahda’s short and long-term behaviour can go a very long way indeed to either placating, or realising, global Jewish fears about potential antisemitic and anti-Israel consequences of the ‘Arab Spring’.

There are local, regional and global aspects regarding Ennahda’s attitude to Jews, by which it will be judged. Locally, there is its behaviour towards Tunisian Jewry (which once numbered approximately 100,000, but is now under 2,000 people); regionally, its behaviour towards Israel; and globally, its attitudes to mainstream Diaspora Jewish communities and also “Zionists” worldwide.

Israeli media has quoted Tunisian Jews expressing concern as to whether or not Ennahda will stick to its expressed democratic principles, but it is noteworthy that Ennahda’s attitude to Tunisian Jewry seems deliberately and demonstrably positive. Rabbi Benjamin Hatab, head of the main Tunis synagogue told YNet news:

…as long as there’s a democracy like everyone keeps promising. We have no problem with Islamic leaders…[Ghannouchi] even sent a delegation to Djerba to reassure the Jews there that everything would be ok and that they have nothing to worry about. His representatives even brought gifts to Tunis’ Jewish nursing home.

Djerba is a Tunisian island that is home to one of North Africa’s oldest and best known synagogues. In 2002, it was targeted by an Al Qaeda bombing in which 21 people, mainly European tourists, were murdered. In 1985, a police guard shot and killed three of its worshippers. In January 2011, it was attacked by arsonists. Tunisia’s transitional government condemned the attack.

So, this is a small and potentially vulnerable Jewish community; and it is important that Ghannouchi continues to publicly demonstrate that it is a part of Tunisia’s future, as well as its past. 

The other part of the equation concerns Ennahda’s attitude to Jews beyond Tunisia. It remains to be seen if the country contents itself with standing by; engages in Turkish-style anti-Israel meddling; or, far less likely, goes the full distance with Iranian-style state-sponsored terrorism against Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities.

In deciding these matters, Ghannouchi and his party now face the reality of being in power. Will power bring harsh realities of how one must behave in decent global society? Or, will prior anti-Zionist rhetoric somehow be actioned? The question is one of urgent importance. For over twenty years Ghannouchi lived in Britain in exile. During this time he, and his colleagues, became leading lights in Britain’s extensive network of local and overseas Islamists: helping their drive for ideological and political supremacy over Britain’s diverse Muslim communities, and striving to bring Britain ‘closer’ to Islam.

Ghannouchi’s past pronouncements on Zionism, Israel and the supposed complicity of Diaspora Jewish organisations have been ferocious. If Ghannouchi seeks to actually implement these beliefs, then he has the British and European contacts with which to do so. (For example, playing a senior role in Sheikh Qaradawi’s European Council for Fatwa and Research.)

What then, of the rhetoric?

Ghannouchi’s 1994 paper “Palestine as a Global Agenda”, begins by stressing that Zionism comes out of European, not Jewish values; and that its “broader context” is that of the West attacking the Islamic world:

Zionism is both alien and illegitimate in origin: it is a hegemonist and nationalist project rooted and nourished on the traditional European impulse towards expansion and domination. The founding fathers of the Zionist adventure were not in any way believers in Judaism, not even in its distorted, rabbinical form: they were in essence pragmatists who exploited the Jewish heritage as a means to achieve their nationalistic goals. All this, moreover, was done within the broader context of Western strategic hopes for the destabilizing and enfeebling of the Islamic world.

Next, he draws in the Zionists’ “Diaspora” (a clear nod to Jewish communities per se) and intensifies the claims of European and Western imperial ambitions:

Because Zionism’s progenitors were European in their training and mental orientation, they did not find it difficult to reach an understanding with Western politicians, exploiting their own financial power through their extensive and committed Diaspora, until the Zionist agenda became subsumed under the more general objectives of nineteenth-century European imperialism. The idea of inserting an alien polity into the very heart of the Islamic world, which would exhaust its resources and obstruct any attempt at reforging Muslim unity, proved immediately appealing to European policy-makers and served well the new Western orientation which was materialistic, secular, and obsessed with the idea of territorial expansion.

He spells out the guilt of “Jewish organisations” in all of this, and the responsibility of Muslims everywhere to oppose them:

[Palestinians] are entitled to expect instant and automatic assistance from those who are working on other fronts, however seemingly remote. For Israeli Zionism, itself draws eighty percent of its income and prosperity from Jewish organizations abroad. To keep this central front open and operational in the heart of the enemy is a responsibility and a trust falling on the shoulders of all Muslims and other free people around the world.

He concludes by calling for nothing less than a global Muslim mobilisation to lead revolt “everywhere on earth”:

[Zionist] power can only be drained by mobilizing the resources of the entire Muslim nation… demanding a return to the principles of renunciation, repentance, piety, reliance on God, yearning for the ultimate meeting with Him, the spirit of Islamic fraternity, selflessness, and the certainty that the final victory shall go to God and the believers. No project undertaken on this tremendous scale can be ‘regional,’ or ‘Palestinian,’ or Arab.’ It is far broader. It represents nothing less than a struggle which is at once cultural, Islamic, and humanitarian, We must, therefore, light the fires of longing, resistance, and sacrifice everywhere on earth. For Palestine will not be retrieved until there is war against oppression in all its forms throughout the world.

The extensive in–depth interview with Ghannouchi, archived from Muslim Student Association News website includes denunciations of hating Jews for being Jews, or for following Judaism, and warns explicitly against hating Jews. Nevertheless, when asked about a former colleague’s publication of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, his evasive answer to its “genuineness” is like that given by modern day Nazis who say its content is more pertinent than its authenticity. This is the exchange:

Q. What about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion?… Sheikh Abdelfattah Mourou, before he severed his ties with your [Ennahda] movement introduced a modern, abridged and accessible edition? Was this an endorsement, at least intellectually, of its message, by your movement?

[Answer] Our movement does not usually publish books…Our movement published numerous communiqués and analyses denouncing the Zionist attack on Palestine, the Muslim Ummah and on international law.

…Our stand as ‘enemies of Zionists’ does not emanate from their being Jews, for we have no problem with Judaism as a religion or Jews as a religious group, and does not have its origin in the document entitled “Protocols of the elders of Zion”, regardless of its genuineness, but springs from principles and unchanging religious and human values rejecting hostility and oppression, recognising the sacred right of peoples whose lands are occupied to fight against that oppression using any possible means…

…Muslims, Christians or secularists, it is our national, human and religious right and duty to resist foreign occupation regardless of the nature of its raised banners…our generations will continue resisting the Zionist occupation and eliminating this cancerous protrusion that the West had implanted at the heart of our world, dispossessing millions of our children, elderly people and women…their sacred symbols violated by a group of people driven from the extremities of the world by a western plot…[trample] our dignity and destroy the holy place of our Prophet’s Night Journey and construct on its ruins a temple springing from Talmudic myths as a cover for the original colonial intentions in demolishing our Ummah’s aspirations for unity and renaissance…

When asked about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ghannouchi replies that after the Zionist state is defeated, Israeli Jews will be respected. Indeed, he rebukes the notion that Israeli Jews should be thrown “in the sea”, because: 

Wars of our nation were not characterised by such Nazi Talmudic savagery.

When asked, “Do you still think that the US is hapless victim of a Jewish conspiracy to use it/push it to fight Islam?”, Ghannouchi’s lengthy reply has no apparent rejection of the question’s phrasing. He says that where once Europe opposed Islam, now America does; and uses the word Zionist to describe the various financial and media components of the conspiracy that bends America to its will, but the word “Jewish” is occasionally used within this context, for example:

the weight of the Jewish element that can no longer be ignored in the election process

the Jewish element intervened to invoke Islam as a candidate [for a new Cold War], satanised by the Jewish media…the Zionist media succeeded, together with arms lobbies and other parties with various interests, in inflating this void to create a terrifying enemy…Hostility towards Islam had never extinguished in the West, but Zionists have succeeded in kindling it further.

Ghannouchi then cites the hoary old American Nazi forgery, the Franklin Prophecy (as did his former British running mates – see previous CST blog, here):

…when Americans did not follow their wise leader Franklin’s advice when he warned them of what Jews could do in America if they were left to their wishes…They continue injuring the victim, provoking it, degrading it, attacking its dignity, until the victim one day revolts and destroys all their satanic dreams and Talmudic illusions. Would not the wise among the Jews who are a people of knowledge/science, philosophy and culture, realise the destructive fate of what the actions of Jewish Masonic Zionist atheistic gangs would lead to…and save the fate of their people from the dangerous destruction that awaits them…

To conclude, when gauging the threat posed by a real or potential enemy, it is paramount to assess their actual intentions and capabilities; and these often change according to circumstance. The circumstances of Sheikh Ghannouhci, and Ennhada, have changed dramatically.

Tunisia’s small Jewish community seems to have been well treated thus far and their well-being is the most vital thing in all of this; but it is sincerely hoped that Tunisia’s Spring does not turn into a storm for Jewish communities in the Middle East, Europe and beyond.

Here in Britain, the Jewish community already faces considerable overlapping political and physical threats from British and British-based outlets of the global Islamist movement, (other West European Jewish communities face similar issues); and now, some of these Islamists are assuming power back in their countries of origin. We have seen their rhetoric. Only time will tell if, or how, they intend to put it into practise.