(RNS) — A Tunisian naval officer opened fire on fellow security officers and Jewish pilgrims at a synagogue on the North African island of Djerba on Tuesday evening (May 9), killing two worshippers and two guards. A third security officer, shot by the gunman before he arrived at the synagogue, also died.
The shooter was killed by other security officers, according to Tunisian authorities.
The attack came as thousands of Jews had traveled to the island for an annual pilgrimage to the El Ghriba synagogue, the oldest in Africa.
David Benaym, an Israeli journalist covering the pilgrimage, said the shooting broke out just minutes after buses carrying hundreds of pilgrims had departed, though hundreds of locals still remained inside the synagogue.
“They locked everybody inside, while this police officer, who was not on duty, began to shoot frantically against the crowd,” Benaym told Religion News Service. “At this time, there was a sense of panic inside the synagogue.”
The design of the compound, which kept the shooter down a corridor from the main crowd, and a strong security presence protected the overwhelming majority of the worshippers, according to the journalist.
“That’s why they were able to stop a bigger massacre. Inside the synagogue, it was extremely crowded, extremely packed, and could have been terrible,” Benaym said.
The pilgrimage, which usually coincides with the minor Jewish holiday of Lag B’omer, is a deeply held tradition among the Tunisian Jewish diaspora around the world, and worshippers come from the U.S., France and even Israel, despite the lack of official relations between Tunisia and the Jewish state. Organizers of the event said that more than 5,000 pilgrims came for the event this year, the largest turnout since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two worshippers who were killed, Aviel and Ben Hadad, were cousins, according to The Jerusalem Post. Ben was a French citizen, while Aviel was both Israeli and Tunisian, and living in Djerba.
Present at the pilgrimage the day before were Joey Hood, the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, as well as Deborah Lipstadt, the Biden administration’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism.
In Tunisia, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians have lived side by side for centuries, pilgrims from around the world gathered on the island of Djerba last night for the annual Lag B’Omer celebration. Ambassador Joey Hood and visiting Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat… pic.twitter.com/6AqQPVNF8k
— U.S. Embassy Tunis (@usembassytunis) May 9, 2023
Tradition holds that a synagogue has been present on the site for nearly 2,500 years, since a group of Israelite priests settled on the island in the wake of the destruction of the first Temple, bringing with them a stone from the Solomonic structure in Jerusalem. The current structure on the site dates to the 19th century.
A legend tells of a young woman named Ghriba who, after years of infertility, prayed at the site of the synagogue and was blessed with a child. As such the pilgrimage has become popular among young women praying for marriage and family.
“The energy was absolutely incredible,” Benaym said, describing a group of all ages largely from French-speaking countries who were in the synagogue before the shooting began. “Inside El Ghriba, the energy, the joy, the singing, the celebration, was absolutely incredible.”
Seventy-five years ago, Tunisia’s Jewish community was one of the largest in Africa, numbering more than 100,000, but it has since been whittled down to only a few thousand. Today, large Tunisian Jewish communities exist in France and Israel.
One of the few holdouts in the North African country is in Djerba, where the Jewish community has maintained multiple schools, kosher restaurants and 12 synagogues, including El Ghriba.
However, the community’s vibrancy was muted by the strong security presence.
From the minute Benaym arrived, “there were very high tensions,” he said. He explained that he had been invited by the Tunisian government “to show fraternity and brotherhood between Jews and Arabs on the island, to show a nice postcard of the place, but the postcard was actually with hundreds and hundreds of police officers and anti-terrorist squads protecting the area.”
Since the attack, Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Amichai Chikli, said he had previously instructed his officials to consider a plan to facilitate immigration among Tunisia’s remaining Jews to Israel, but there had been little interest in the Tunisian Jewish community, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Tuesday’s attack was not the first time that pilgrims to the synagogue had been targeted, nor is it the first time that a member of the same security force that was tasked with guarding the synagogue had attacked it.
In 1985, a police officer tasked with protecting the synagogue opened fire on a group of Jews celebrating the autumn festival of Simchat Torah, killing three and wounding 15, while in 2002 al-Qaida detonated a truck full of explosives near the synagogue, killing 21.