Béji: “We are all Tunisian Jews”

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.

Victorious victims

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.

19 Responses

  1. My thanks to Hele Beji for allowing Informed Comment to share this translated version of her work with all of its readers, and to Juan Cole for his great scholarship and his astute awareness that such rich and powerful literature has universal application and benefit around the world–even for those who know nothing about about the Arab Spring or the recent Tunisian revolution.

  2. I am so glad Hele Beji spoke up. It’s notable that it is a woman. I think we women have allowed men to make the mess we are in today, and those bigots and racists who continue to besmirch the name of humanity as if usurping the second syllable of the word need to be overpowered by the rest of humanity so they keep their hatred to themselves, turn it inward and shut up.

    • “I think we women have allowed men to make the mess we are in today, and those bigots and racists who continue to besmirch the name of humanity as if usurping the second syllable of the word need to be overpowered by the rest of humanity so they keep their hatred to themselves, turn it inward and shut up.”

      Strong words, Sydney Levine. But I do not think your quote, cited above, holds up under historical scrutiny. It is true that most of the “mess we are in today” has been the work of men, but not because men are inherently greater “bigots,” or “racists,” or that they resort to war more often than women. Rather, it is because throughout history men have been the rulers and leaders, far more than women, and thus have had many more opportunities to exhibit those qualities and inclinations than have women.

      Let’s look at some of the women who have been rulers and leaders and see how they relate to your claim.

      Golda Meir was Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974. She was a very hard-line leader and was quoted as saying, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people… It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn’t exist.”

      Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister of India twice. During her first time in office (1966-1977) two things stand out. First, she was responsible for a program of forced sterilization as a population-control measure, a program that was cruel and resisted by much of the Indian population. Second, During the Indo-Pakistan Ware in 1971, she was largely responsible for using the war as a pretext to dismember Pakistan and transform the former East Wing of Pakistan into Bangladesh. It made good strategic sense, but it hardly demonstrated that a female had any less sense of geopolitical advantages for her country than a male.

      Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain (1979-1990), broke the back of the British labor unions (which was not such a bad thing, as British labor unions held the British public hostage with their interminable strikes). Most notably, she presided over the Falklands War, after Argentina, against international law, invaded the Falkland Islands, which had been British since the early 19th century. She won a resounding victory over the Argentines.

      In each of the cited cases, women showed themselves to be every bit as willing to do what they felt was necessary to secure their nation as men, including going to war. And as for racism and bigotry, I have yet to see a male leader top Golda Meir’s remark about Palestinians.

      Women as greater peacemakers and more tolerant than men? I don’t think the historical record supports such an assertion.

    • Sidney, it is not only men who have made the ‘mess’ women have also contributed. There is no pure gender; good and bad are found in both.

      It is not a positive message to our son’s when full blame is placed on the male. People who have been abused, or provoked, need to keep in mind to act out may be want some may want in order to discredit. We have run across aligned people intentionally doing highly abusive acts in hopes causing a forceful response – so it would be used against as a method to say “see we told you ‘they’ were violent”. It is best not to fall into an all ready dug pit.

  3. Thanks for posting this.
    Am I correct that Tunisia was one of the few, if not the only Arab country, that did not expel Jews after the 1967 war?
    Wikipedia does not address that topic specifically–it says that many left for France and Israel–but provides this quote:
    “After the Tunisian Revolution, the Ennahda, a moderately Islamist party, became the leading political force in the country. The party’s leader, Rashid Al-Ghannushi, sent a delegation to the Jews in Djerba, assuring them that they have nothing to worry about in a democratic Tunisia, where the Islamists will play a larger role. He even sent gifts to the Jewish nursing homes in Tunis.”

  4. There will always be anger and hostility toward Jews in the Middle East as long as Israel continues to exists as a state exclusively for Jews – a state that arose at the expense of the Arab people on land the Arabs understood belonged to them.

    We need to be clear: Israel is and was a alien implant imposed on the Arab people against their will.

    It is a state without definitive borders which invites all of the world’s Jews to emigrate to Israel and expand its ranks along with its borders into Arab lands.

    It is a state which readily accepted the judgement of Christian Zionists, Lord Shaftsbury, that, as he said to Haim Weiszmann, who lobbied the British for the Balfour Declaration, “No one lives in Palestine except Negroes, and they are of no importance.”

    It is a state that specifically cites its Jewishness as a justification for the invasion of Arab lands and the subjugation of, not only the Palestinians, but of the Arab people in the surrounding states.

    If there is continued anti-semitism, then Israel has itself to blame, because you cannot subjugate and oppress another people without creating anger and hatred.

    • Sir–
      If you want to use history: Jews were on that land as long if not longer than Muslims (Arabs). If you prefer not to go to the past, The Ottomans and then the British controlled the land, a land that had no nations. The UN granted room for two states and the Arabs turned down the offer.
      Israel is a Jewish state–that is, open to all Jews; but it is also a state tyhat allows Christians, Druze, Muslims…how many
      Jew are allowed in most of the Muslim states?
      Anti-semitism goes back to early Christianity, and the Koran llsltates clearly that Jews should be killed.

  5. I might add, that it speaks very well of the Palestinian people that there seems to be very little anti-semitism among them, meaning hostility toward Jews as Jews, that I have been able to discern. They appear to be able to make a clear distinction between the state of Israel and world Jewry and the Jewish people.

    • You must live in a world that I do not know I see over and over that Jews and Israel are equal in the contempt shown all too often

  6. I cannot help thinking that they meant israelies, not Tunisian Jews. “Jews” and “israelis” might often be used interchangebly in the Arab world.

    However, calling for death to Jews rarely is ever intended or percieved as a literal call for a mass killing of every Jew anywhere; but rather calling to fight -not mass kill- Israelis in Palestine. Such a stance has always been popular in the Middle East. Their hostility towards Israel is well heard of.

    • As a New York Jew, I can only say how reassured I am by Marshmellow’s comment.

  7. I worked in the American Aid Mission in Tunis from 1958-70. I have never been back but have watched the country’s occasionally faltering progress ever since. I had many Tunisian friends–they were all very warm and outgoing everywhere my wife and I and our two children went, despite the ambiguous American role with the Algerian War continuing next door. We were deeply concerned about the Jewish Tunisians at the time and many left. So it is good to realize that sense still prevails among most Tunisians. A great people in a small but significant country.

  8. Nice statement. These comments are a part of a small but loud `salafist’ revival in Tunisia that has been going on since Ben Ali was kicked out of the country. These are the same people who firebombed the home of a tv producer who showed an Iranian cartoon portraying Allah in live form (as a respectable elderly man) and who had an ugly demonstration in front of Tunis’ main synagogue last February. They are also the ones who have been holding demonstrations at the University of Tunis demanding the right of women to wear the veil in class (and beating up on school administrators). They are a small group actually, but little has been done by the Ennahdha led government to reign them in politically.

  9. Thanks, yes.

    I’m also curious to know your take, Juan, on recent events in Syria.

  10. This is an incredibly eloquent, masterful, and well-reasoned statement, and you are to be greatly congratulated for bringing it to our attention here on your site.

    Successful revolutions are often, if not always, plagued afterward by the fear that the revolutionaries, inebriated by their newly gained powers, will eventually become as tyrannical as the forces that they overthrew. But there’s reason to feel that the Tunisians will be luckier — or more careful about what they are doing — and will therefore, despite some stumbles, avoid that all too common disaster. Having a communicator in their midst like Ms Beji is as good a reason as any to be optimistic on this occasion.

  11. Having travelled many years ago around the Middle East, without knowledge of the language but with eyes wide open at the magnificence of the architecture, the gracefulness of the people, and the ordinary everyday hospitality shown in the course of daily interaction with coffee vendors, food sellers and the like, this passionate and sweeping piece of literature conveying feelings we Anglo Saxons find startling in their intensity,comes as no surprise. I would wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments, and hope that one day soon, before we all get caught up in the potential catastrophe of an aftermath to an invasion of Iran, an Israeli woman will denounce her compatriots treatment of the Palestinians in the same condemnatory tone of outrage.

  12. An inspiring message — leads me to consider that we are not only all Tunisian Jews; but, that we are also all Tunisians and indeed common citizens of the world. No amount of boasting, denial or scapegoating can erase our common humanity and increasingly shared destiny. Thanks again for an inspiring message which I read not as a scolding of Tunisians but as a paean to all that is admirable among them and potentially among us all.

    Jim

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