Religious Tolerance Flourishes on Tunisia's Djerba Island

June 6, 2008

Author: Jamel Arfaoui

Source: Magharebia

Eliza Wazzen was playing in the middle of the school yard with her cousin Gael and friend Ahlam Chehibi when scores of visitors appeared. The children didn't understand anything about what was going on around them or why all these strangers were taking pictures. For Eliza and her friends, Essouani School in Houmt Souk is where they go to learn, but to the Jewish pilgrims visiting Djerba Island and the journalists documenting their trip, it is a truly unique and extraordinary place.

Essouani School is the only school in Tunisia where Jewish and Muslim students study together. Their different religions do not prevent them from taking the same classes in sciences, arts and history. Students sit side by side and receive the same classes—except on Saturday.

Saturday is the sacred day for the Jews. For this reason, the school management organised the class calendar to accommodate the needs of the two groups. On Saturdays, Muslim students attend Islamic education lessons while their Jewish classmates attend classes on religion at a Jewish school in Djerba's Al Haret Al Kabira.

"We wanted to send a message that divine religions have nothing to do with what's going on in the world in terms of conflicts and rejections of others," says Zeinab Jandali, an inspector in primary education. The government school, she continues, is "an example of fraternity and co-existence". In the minds of the students, she says, "there are no ethnic or religious motives".

"All of them are Tunisians, and children's innocence brought them together," she adds.

Britain's chief rabbi, touring the school as part of the Djerba pilgrimage, comments softly, "They are practicing co-existence without speaking about co-existence. My hope is to one day see all the schools of the world move on the same track."