The police and military response was quick, with men on horseback and armored vehicles arriving to disperse protesters — identified as hardline Islamists — who raised a black flag of the radical Salafi movement over the embassy.
There are also reports that American embassy staffers have been evacuated, including the ambassador, though it is unclear if Tunisian staffers are still inside as a large fire continues to burn within the embassy compound. At least three protesters have been killed and 28 wounded by police, according to Reuters. The demonstrations came as anger over an anti-Islam movie, drone strikes and US involvement in the Middle East spread across the Arab world.
The chaos was jarring for me because I reported from Tunisia in April and met with a number of representatives of the small Jewish community, many of whom live in La Goulette, a traditionally Jewish neighborhood just a stone’s throw from the embassy.
The Jewish history of the neighborhood was made famous by the 1996 film “A Summer in La Goulette” which traces the lives of Jewish, Muslim and Christian residents of the neighborhood.
I spoke with Jacob Lellouche, the owner of a kosher restaurant in La Goulette, who said that Muslims and Jews in Tunisia have had unusually good relations over the 3,000 years that Jews have been in the region, despite the fact that only a month earlier a large Salafist demonstration had 1,000 protestors chanting “death to the Jews” in downtown Tunis.
Earlier today there was another, somewhat odd, incident involving Tunisia and the Jews. The Constituent Assembly, the body tasked with writing a new, post-revolution constitution, distributed press materials bearing the Tunisian flag — typically a crescent and star.
But someone had swapped out the traditional five pointed star (symbolizing the five pillars of Islam) with a six pointed star, leading some commentators to assert that it was the Star of David, which they saw as a sign of Jewish plots and conspiracies.
The scene from the embassy is being streamed live by Al-Jazeera and is available here.