Tunisia says it has heightened security for the historic Lag BaOmer pilgrimage to the Ghriba shul, located on the island of Djerba, in view of the Bardo National Museum attack in Tunis in March that left 22 people dead, mostly foreign tourists.
Fears have been additionally heightened by Israeli government warnings of “concrete threats” of terror in North Africa.
Tour operators estimate that around 500 foreign visitors, including people from Eretz Yisrael, France, Italy, Britain and the U.S., will participate in the pilgrimage to Africa’s oldest shul on Djerba Island Wednesday and Thursday.
“Very few people will go,” Rabbi Shmuel Pinson, director of Chabad of Tunis, told Hamodia. “There is a lot of extremist activity along the border with Libya, which is less than an hour from Djerba. Even people from Tunis are afraid to go there; it is a real security threat.”
In past years the event attracted thousands of people from both Tunisia’s own dwindling Jewish community as well as many ex-patriots, especially from France.
The presence of police and the military has been increased and roadblocks installed at all entrances to the city and around hotels.
“The government is doing everything in its power; it’s important for the tourist industry and for the country’s image,” said Rabbi Pinson. “In past years there was a very strong security presence — they close the island and bring thousands of police and soldiers.”
Tour operator Rene Trabelsi said that tourist numbers are lower than normal, as some changed their minds after the March 18 Bardo attack, for which al-Qaida claimed responsibility.
“People are afraid, but for the moment the situation is under control,” said Rabbi Pinson, speaking of the general state of the Jewish community, given the rising tensions from Islamacist factions. “The government is protecting the community. Both the synagogue and the school have guards.”
He added that the community maintains good relations with most of its older Moslem neighbors, but has experienced more friction with younger ones, touched by radical ideologies.
The shul, known as El Ghriba, is believed to have been founded by Jews fleeing the destruction of the First Beis Hamikdash and is said to have been built on a stone rescued from the Beis Mikdash itself.
The tradition of the Lag BaOmer pilgrimage is rooted in the ceremony of lighting a lamp in front of the aron kodesh dedicated to the memory of the Tanna Rabi Shimon bar Yochai.
With reporting by Associated Press