Two months after his son, Yoav, was among four killed in a kosher supermarket in Paris, his father and Chief Rabbi of Tunis, Benjamin Hattab, talks movingly to Haxie Meyers-Belkin about a young man who ‘fulfilled my every ambition’
The spacious, sanitised reception of the Regents Park Marriott Hotel isn’t the sort of place you’d expect to come face to face with human tragedy. But there it is, in the gentle yet pained features of Benjamin Hattab, Chief Rabbi of Tunis’ Great Synagogue.
Two months have passed since his 21-year-old son, Yoav, was murdered on 9 January alongside three other Jews by Parisian gunman Amédy Coulibaly, who laid siege to kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher on the eve of Shabbat, the day of rest, as the world looked on.
In London to honour his son at a communal dinner hosted by the Centre for Jewish Life, Rabbi Hattab is speaking to the British media for the first time since the Paris attacks.
Having appeared already on French and Tunisian television, Hattab has been a powerful ambassador for reconciliation and interfaith dialogue.
But when it comes to the spectre of rising European anti-Semitism, what we believe and what we want to believe can be two very different things.
Did his son feel safe in Paris? “Yes, he felt at ease in France. He never feared that something like [the attack] could happen.”
No provocations at all? No warning signs? “The truth is that when he first arrived [in France] he told me: ‘Dad, there’s ‘death to the Jews’ written on walls.’ Then he said: ‘Dad, when I walk in the street wearing my kippah, Arabs sometimes hit me.’ Then, he paid for his Judaism with his life.”
In 2014, some 7,000 of France’s 600,000 Jews made aliyah. That’s twice as many as the previous year. Hattab sympathises with their motives, saying: “I feel safer in Tunisia than I do in France, more than I do in England.”
The tragic irony of this latest attack on Paris’ Jews is not lost on him. Having left an Islamic country for the land of liberté, egalité and fraternité, his son met his end at the hands of a French-born Islamist.
For Hattab, it is the cultural and religious exclusion felt by Arabs living in the West that is chiefly to blame for the fractious ideological landscape that serves as fertile ground for home-grown jihadists. Radicalised Arabs aren’t ‘chez eux’, at home in the West, whereas, he says, in Tunisia “we live together, we have a shared history. There are no problems between Jews and Arabs. I myself am an Arab”.
There are an estimated 2,000 Jews living in Tunisia today – that’s just two percent of the 100,000 strong community at the outbreak of the Second World War.
As Chief Rabbi of a diminished Jewish population in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, Hattab is as skilled a diplomat as he is a scholar. His measured delivery and broken voice betray a still-raw grief. Yet his message for the Tunisian government that “protects our synagogue, our school” is one of gratitude.
For those of us unfamiliar with Tunisian politics, the country’s Islamist Ennahda party (which narrowly lost out to secular prime minister Beji Caid Essebi in last year’s election) might seem an unlikely champion of the Jewish community. But Hattab warmly recalls how, in the days of mourning that followed his son’s murder, Ennahda’s vice president came to the Great Synagogue of Tunis. “He offered his condolences, saying that what was done to Yoav affected not just Jews, but all citizens of Tunisia.”
The visit came at a sensitive moment for Hattab. All four Jewish victims of the supermarket siege were buried in Jerusalem. In Tunsia, where many regard Israel as a de facto enemy, one Salafist imam took the decision as proof of the rabbi’s Zionist agenda.
As Netanyahu enthusiastically invites the world’s Jews to “come home to Israel”, Rabbi Hattab insists: “Our Tunis yeshiva is apolitical.”
A refusal – polite, but firm – to discuss the Jewish nation state is, it appears, a prerequisite of the job. Minutes before being fatally shot as he tried to disarm Coulibaly, Yoav told a fellow hostage that, should anything happen, he wanted to be buried in Israel.
His father respected this final wish, despite the sacrifice, both political and personal, that it entailed. “Me, I wanted to bury him in Tunis. I wanted him to be close to me. I wanted to be able to visit him every day. It would have comforted me.”
Unable to visit Yoav’s grave, Hattab instead dedicates his time to honouring the son who, he says, “fulfilled my every ambition”.
In raising funds for the Tunis Jewish School in Yoav’s name, the rabbi hopes to turn a community’s tragedy into an opportunity for renewal. “A Sefer Torah will be written, and a synagogue, Beit Yoav, dedicated,” he says, to a young man whose death has shaken Tunisia’s small, observant Jewish community.
As our meeting draws to a close, Hattab recalls the last text message his son sent. It was a request to a friend to keep Shabbat. A brief, warm smile creeps into the rabbi’s eyes.
“Light an extra candle on Shabbat for Yoav. To honour him. That would make me very happy.”
• For more information on projects planned in honour of Yoav Hattab, email email@example.com