Simon Slama and his family are the only Jews left in the Tunisian city of Monastir, once home to a thriving Jewish community. But instead of joining the exodus, he is running for office — as a candidate of Tunisia’s Islamist party.
Slama’s candidacy with the Ennahdha party in May municipal elections is causing a sensation in this overwhelmingly Muslim country, and some controversy.
Critics see it as a calculated tactic by Ennahdha to regain power and to restore its reputation among Western allies like the United States. Others however see it as an example of Tunisia’s long-standing traditions of tolerance.
A sewing machine salesman and repairman, 56-year-old Slama says he just wants to serve his country and the city where he was born, suffering from economic difficulties and social tensions.
“I chose Ennahdha because I found that because of the crisis the country is going through, everyone is turning toward this party,” he told The Associated Press in his workshop.
“I see no difference between the Islamic and Judaic religions. We are all one family and we are all Tunisian citizens and we should go hand in hand to build the Tunisia of tomorrow,” he said.
Slama returned to Monastir, on the Mediterranean coast about 170 kilometers (105 miles) south of the capital, Tunis, after studying in the French city of Strasbourg even as other Jewish families left because “we love the city and it has the spirit of my ancestors.”
Tunisia is home to an estimated 1,500 Jews nationwide. Monastir “used to have 520 Jewish families. Today mine is the only one left,” Slama said.
Tunisia once had a Jewish community that numbered around 100,000 in the late 1940s and 1950s. Most of the community has moved to France or Israel, where Jews are entitled to automatic citizenship. Many felt compelled to leave as the result of an increasingly hostile climate toward Jews that began with a surge in Arab nationalism following Tunisia’s independence from France. The exodus continued and has nearly brought an end to one of the last Jewish societies in the Arab world.
Slama said he wants to enter public service because he sees towns and cities “as essential in the evolution of society.”
Tunisia is holding its first municipal elections since the 2011 revolution that overthrew a long-time autocrat and unleashed uprisings across the Arab world. Tunisia is the only country to emerge with a new and carefully constructed democracy, though the going has been rough.
Ennahdha, banned under the old regime, was victorious in the first post-revolution elections but had to abandon power in 2013 amid a political crisis after the assassination of two opposition politicians and a rise in Islamic fundamentalism.
The party leadership wants it to come out on top in the municipal vote, considered a springboard for legislative and presidential elections next year.
It’s the only party with candidates in all 350 municipalities, and also drew attention for putting a woman at the head of its party list in the capital, positioning Souad Abderrahim to become the city’s first female mayor if it wins.
The party’s Monastir leader, Adel Messaoud, insisted that they accepted Slama’s candidacy because it “conforms with the positions of Ennahdha, which is a civilian party that opted during its last congress to separate its political action from ideological action.”
While acknowledging that the candidacy could seem “a bit bizarre,” he insisted that the controversy around it is unfounded.
“I know him well, he’s a neighbor who is appreciated by his compatriots for his human qualities and good reputation,” he told the AP, noting that Tunisia had a Jewish federal government minister after winning independence from France and other Jews have served as local officials.
“We are really an open party. It is not about trying to please anyone. We took into account the country’s general interest, which is going through a unique democratic experience in the Arab world, which we want to succeed with the participation of all Tunisians regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation,” he said.
Borhene Bsais, head of political affairs for the ruling Nida Tounes party, doesn’t buy that argument. He called the candidacy “a propaganda operation by Ennahdha to seem like an open and tolerant party.”
While Nida Tounes and Ennahdha are currently in a government coalition together, they are the main rivals in the municipal vote, which will determine the political contours of the country for years to come.
“We fear the exploitation for electoral reasons of non-Muslim citizens, who we consider as equal … and not second class citizens,” Bsais said.
He said the candidacy is Ennahdha’s effort to distinguish itself from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements to keep alliances with the United States.
One of Slama’s Muslim clients, Moez Dali, praised his community spirit.
“Everyone knows Slama,” he said. His family “loves everyone here. And they come to our weddings and we go to their weddings. There is no difference between us. He is in the end a Tunisian from the city of Monastir.”