A Tunisian national guardsman murdered two Jewish cousins and three Tunisian officers last Tuesday, turning a festive occasion into a tragedy. Aviel and Benjamin Haddad were among thousands of Jews visiting Djerba island to celebrate the holiday of Lag Ba’Omer. This appears to be the most recent case of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spills over into antisemitic violence abroad.
Lag Ba’Omer celebrations draw large crowds to Djerba because of a legendary local figure associated with the holiday. US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt, US ambassador to Tunisia Joey Hood, and Tunisia’s former tourism minister were among the roughly 6,000 attendees at this year’s celebration. That is roughly four times the number of Jews who live in Tunisia, most of whom are in Djerba.
Tunisia was once home to more than 100,000 Jews, but heavy persecution — government-sanctioned and otherwise — following Israel’s independence in 1948, and Tunisia’s independence in 1956 convinced most of the country’s Jews to flee. Once a year, Jews flock to Djerba, breathing life back into this 2,500-year-old community.
This year, however, the line between joy and sorrow was painted with blood. A Tunisian national guardsmen stationed on the island shot his partner, seized his weapon, and set out to murder Jewish revelers at El Ghriba synagogue, the focal point of the pilgrimage. The gunman killed four more, including two soldiers and the Jewish cousins, before security forces killed him. Tunisia’s interior minister named the assailant and called it a premeditated attack, though he said nothing about the attacker’s motive.
The same week as the Djerba attack, the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad terror group launched more than 1,200 rockets at Israel from Gaza. This flare-up came after more than a year of increased tensions in the West Bank, including violent confrontations at the al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan last month. There has been no evidence of any link between the rocket fire and the Djerba murders, but the timing suggests they might be related.
This is also not the first time El Ghriba has been targeted. An al-Qaeda operative carried out a suicide bombing there in 2002 that left 19 dead. The exact motive for that bombing, which took place during the Second Intifada and within a year of the 9/11 attacks, is unclear.
In events eerily similar to this week’s attack, in 1985, a Tunisian guard who was supposed to be protecting the site killed four worshipers and a police officer. The gunman claimed to be taking revenge for an Israeli raid a week earlier on the Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters near Tunis.
Given these precedents, security at El Ghriba was tight, with metal detectors and armed guards, a familiar sight at synagogues in numerous countries these days. Many congregations require visitors to submit information and have their identities verified before gaining entry. Jewish buildings have security cameras, security personnel, and security barriers. Attending a prayer service can feel like going into battle, and many Jews have war stories.
I have never been at a synagogue under attack, but there was a moment last October, following evening prayer services, when I was not so sure. Along with a few dozen congregants outside our synagogue, I was schmoozing in the sleepy twilight of Georgetown’s cobblestone streets. Shattering our tranquility, a car zoomed by with passengers displaying Palestinian banners and shouting “Free Palestine.” They kept on driving, but their attempt at intimidation was jarring.
In recent years, synagogues, Jewish student buildings, and Jewish schools have been defaced with anti-Israel graffiti. During the 2021 war between Israel and Hamas — the latter armed and funded by Iran — American Jews were frequently the victim of anti-Israel hatred. Antisemites beat Jews in the streets of New York, assaulted Jewish diners in Los Angeles, and hurled profanities, threats of violence, and garbage at a Jewish family out for a stroll near Miami.
During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, three individuals torched a synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany, a few days after unknown vandals scrawled “Free Palestine” on the building. Shockingly, the judge in the case ruled that the firebombing was an act of protest against Israeli actions, not a form of antisemitism. Though it seems obvious that attacking Jews and Jewish institutions over grievances in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is antisemitic, the German courts and others need reminding.
Fortunately, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an intergovernmental organization comprising dozens of countries, mainly European, have drafted a widely endorsed working definition of antisemitism. The definition helps explain how hatred of Israel spills into antisemitism. “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel” is one of IHRA’s examples of antisemitism.
It is too early to be certain that the Djerba attacker murdered Jews because of anti-Israel sentiments. But if this is the case, this would be far from the first time Jews have been summarily executed over perceived Israeli crimes. Regardless, the violent spillover of anti-Israel animosity is a threat to all Jews around the world.