Perez Tarabulsi was 24 years old when he took over Al-Ghribah synagogue, an ancient site located on the Tunisian island of Djerba. That was in 1964, and in all the years since Tarabulsi inherited the responsibility from his father, Al-Ghribah Synagogue has remained the destination for Jews making a pilgrimage (this year from May 13 – 18) in celebration of the Lag Ba Omer holiday.

This very pilgrimage was at the heart of a recent controversy that brought the normally politically “passive” Jewish community here to center stage.

Perez Tarabulsi was 24 years old when he took over Al-Ghribah synagogue, an ancient site located on the Tunisian island of Djerba. That was in 1964, and in all the years since Tarabulsi inherited the responsibility from his father, Al-Ghribah Synagogue has remained the destination for Jews making a pilgrimage (this year from May 13 – 18) in celebration of the Lag Ba Omer holiday.

This very pilgrimage was at the heart of a recent controversy that brought the normally politically “passive” Jewish community here to center stage.

When the Minsters of Interior and Tourism—in an attempt to boost the anemic, post-revolutionary tourism industry—allowed for the issuance of visas for Israeli pilgrims, it caused a ruckus in the parliament.  Eighty MPs put together a petition for the withdrawal of confidence of tourism minister Amel Karboul for “normalizing relations with Israel.”

Perez Tarabulsi, how have Jews in Tunisia interacted with political changes since the revolution?

We have not had any problems, neither before nor after the revolution. But I think things are better now because the Tunisian media has started to talk about minorities in general and Jews in particular and covering Jewish rituals and customs during celebrations, like the pilgrimage to Al-Ghribah. This was not the case in Ben Ali’s era when Jews were virtually second-class citizens. Tunisia is now a multi-faith and tolerant country whose citizens are bonded by their love for their homeland.

Why are Jews in Tunisia politically passive, particularly their representation in the constituent council? Is it a result of fear, due to their minority status?

We have never been afraid in Tunisia. We live in mutual respect on Djerba Island where I was born and which is an icon of tolerance and peace. I was personally against the participation of Jews in the constituent council on the basis of ethnic representation because, like many Jews, I am convinced that any Tunisian who respects religious tolerance could represent us in the constituent council and help solve our problems like other citizens of our beloved homeland.

Jews in Tunisia did not support your son, Rony, when he nominated himself as Minister of Tourism in Mehdi Jomaa’s government.

The number of Jews in Tunisia has dropped sharply and we are no longer interested in politics. Jews all over the world are more concerned with business and living quietly without problems, which caused many Jews to migrate from Tunisia 30 years ago— their main goal is to work. Most Tunisian Jews migrated from France to other countries like Belgium because they are calmer. When Jews lose comfort and peace, they migrate to work in other places in peace.

Why didn’t Jewish Tunisian businessmen contribute to investments aimed at supporting the national economy?

Thirty years ago, the Tunisian economy used to depend on the Jews as most factories were owned by Jewish people. However, after migrating from Tunisia to Europe in particular, they transferred all their businesses, as life was better and business was more profitable there. It is not easy for them to come back now after all this time. Nevertheless, they like visiting Tunisia as tourists, to visit relatives or for pilgrimages here in Al-Ghribah Temple on Djerba Island.

Do Jews play a role in promoting Tunisia as a tourist destination since most of them are owners of travel agencies?

Absolutely. My son Rony, for example, owns a travel agency. His main concern is how to reintroduce Tunisia as a destination for tourists worldwide. He has greatly helped many tourists come to Tunisia.

Was he involved in allowing Israeli tourists to come to Tunisia, which recently caused so much controversy?

Rony had nothing to do with the Israeli tourists coming to Tunisia. The Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Interior allowed them to come. As I said earlier, it is not the first time Israelis have visited Tunisia but mass media did not talk about it under Ben Ali.

What is the relationship between Rony Tarabulsi and Amel Karboul, the Minister of Tourism?

My son Rony and Minister Karboul are friends. They share love for this country and concern with reintroducing it as a tourist destination. As a matter of fact, Rony calls him often for advice on issues related to the sector. For the minister, despite her proficiency, she has limited experience in Tunisia, politics and tourism. It is the duty of my son and other influential people in the sector to offer help.

What have been the latest preparations for the Jewish pilgrimage season in Al-Ghribah?

The pilgrimage this year is from May 13 – 18. What is encouraging is that the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Mehdi Jomaa’s government has reintroduced our share of financial assistance, which we used to enjoy from 1990 onwards but was interrupted after the revolution for unknown reasons.

What are your expectations for the pilgrimage season this year?

To be honest, we were very optimistic and thought the season this year would be better than the past year. We expected around 2500 Jewish pilgrims to come from around the world. However, after the media coverage of the controversy over the Israeli tourists last month, which infuriated some members of the constituent council and part of the public opinion, we were afraid the number of pilgrims would drop as this will have a negative impact on the arrival of Jewish pilgrims to Al-Ghribah.

What is your stance on the recent controversy over the visit of Israeli tourists?

I am surprised by the furious attack on the Minister of Tourism and the Minister of Interior for allowing Israelis to come to Tunisia. This has been happening for years. It is not the first time Israelis have come to Tunisia. Most are from the 1500 Tunisian-origin Jews who have been living in Israel since 1948 and who come to visit their families and for tourism because they love their country and it is their right to enjoy its beauty.

Will any Israelis attend the pilgrimage this year?

It is up to the government to decide on that and we would act accordingly. I hope Mehdi Jomaa’s government will contribute to the success of the pilgrimage season this year to boost tourism in Tunisia, which has been on a downturn since the revolution.