Hélé Béji, a prominent woman writer from an old notable family in Tunis, was outraged by an incident in early January when a small crowd of religious extremists at the airport in Tunis to greet a visiting Hamas leader chanted “Death to the Jews.” She published this cry of the heart in Le Monde on January 19, and kindly consented for it to be translated and appear at Informed Comment in English.
Tunisians do not betray the ideals of your revolution!
by Hélé Béji, writer.
Tunisians, you rose up against tyranny and injustice with true hearts: you were righteousness. You have illumined the world of the flame of your dignity: you were humanity. You made your streets ring with cries of generosity: you were fraternity. You have rekindled the sense of valor of the next generation: you were goodness itself. You have won the esteem of all by your panache: you were pride. You smiled with your million different faces: you were tolerance.
But recently at Tunisia’s Carthage International Airport, you were not fair, or fraternal, or worthy, not great, neither good nor human. By pounding your raised fists and shouting “Death to Jews!”—or worse, “Killing the Jews is a duty”– you offered the spectacle of a crazed phalanx that plunges us into stupor and affliction. Not only have you failed in your endeavor, but you have insulted the Palestinian cause, in deploying slogans as mordant as those used by their enemies. You have betrayed the message of your faith.
What? Within the space of a few months? Your peaceful nature turned fanatic? Within a few months you have changed your character? In the world of feelings, it is only a few seconds. Within seconds, the infectious bite of human wickedness turned you toward low fellowship of racist impulses. Suddenly, your friendly faces took on a gloomy mien. Your bright eyes were draped in black. You are few in number?
A tiny minority, they tell me? Maybe, but I do not want to know, I do not care. You have made possible the unbearable, by voicing the very idea of the mass murder of the Jews of Tunis. This is enough to degrade us all. You have begun to distil a dark poison in the credulous soul of a good-natured and kind people.
I do not recognize you, Tunisians, I do not recognize you. You have frozen in my veins that admiration to which you had given birth, you have spoiled the taste in my mouth of our land of birth, you have rendered me indifferent to its light, you have ruined the image of your heroism, you smothered the music of our nation that had played in my heart. Are you the same, Tunisians? Are you the ones who shouted in chorus: “Muslims, Jews, Christians, we are all Tunisians”?
Between this and that other, joyous crowd, what resemblance? Who are you, lovers of humanity or fundamentalists? Which of these portraits is most accurate? Which one will win? You made the first romantic revolution of the twenty-first century, with the inimitable skill of thwarting violence by playful and tolerant means, you are not Tunisians for nothing. And now you’re trying to glorify violence by obscure undertakings, with the torment of which you have already well acquainted.
You have caused a regime to fall, guided by an inspiration higher than ethnicity, identity, religion, or tribe. You placed yourselves above chauvinism and prejudice. Your liberty was delivered from narrow identity. Or rather, that was your identity, getting rid of the last vestiges of decolonization. You did not make your revolution against Western culture, against imperialism, against Zionism, against the infidels, against the Jews. No. You revolted against yourselves.
And now what are you doing? Behind the wall of fear that you broke, you erect ferocious sentinels, who chant odious slogans. Have you entered into a reign of dignity, only to make it so undignified? Have you embraced equality, only to better snuff it out? Have you ascended to freedom only to track it down now with a pack? Despotism, formerly concentrated in one person, has now left the head of the body politic to course through all the nerves of that body, giving it frightful shocks. The damage was limited today, but it ramifies through the branches of our being, it is the responsibility of all.
One of two things. Either: you bestow on your minorities rights just as sacred as your own, and you forbid yourselves to inflict on them the sort of exile you suffered. Then you would show that your dreams have not in vain raised the hopes of those who, throughout the world, recognized in you their conscience. Or: your reason is abandoned for the idolatry of racism, sexism and xenophobia, and you ruin your morality with infractions of a sort committed by the crudest members of society, in a primitive cacophony.
I know that victorious victims may one day go over to the executioners. This is the reproach you launch at the Israelis. But you, do not be blinded by the rage of historical revenge. Remain at the heights of the Enlightenment of your revolution. Does not endorse the guilty who are chasing innocents to degrade and persecute. Do not drive the revolution backwards, nor consign your minorities to hell. You who have known the secret police, do not be self-described agents of Heaven armed with the swords of inquisition and punishment to terrify your brothers. Journalists, academics, women, French speakers, the Jews … that’s a lot of people that you blame, denounce, assault, beat, molest. It is too much.
Remember that it only took one pariah, who was among the walking dead, for all Tunisians to be reborn. Now it only takes one Tunisian Jew to be insulted for us all to be insulted, without exception. The offense is collective, the answer is unanimous: “We are all Tunisian Jews.”
Hélé Béji is also the author of “We, the decolonized” (Arlea, 2008) and “Islamic Pride: behind the veil” (Gallimard, 2011)
Article published in the 1/19/12 edition of Le Monde.