Speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv and dealing with the contribution of the World Jewish Congress to contemporary Jewish life and Jewish politics, Dr. Nahum Goldmann made a pointed reference to the personal friendship of two vastly different types of men—Habib Bourguiba, president of Tunisia, and Alex L. Easterman, the international affairs director of the World Jewish Congress. And so the silence was broken.
In the prevailing circumstances, the story of this connection is as remarkable as it is unique. On the personal level, the friendship between Bourguiba and Easterman remained intact through all the vicissitudes of the last decade. It is even more remarkable if we consider the totally opposite temperaments and backgrounds of the two men. One is the leader of a North African people in a successful struggle for independence against a great power— mercurial, tempestuous, given to explosions of temper, single-minded, impatient but realistic, and on the ball all the time; the idol of the masses and the redeemer. The other, a son of a Lithuanian Jew, born in Scotland, with the analytical mind of the Litvak and the reflective habits of a son of the Scottish soil, a cautious, perhaps over-cautious, foreign correspondent and editor turned politician, a man given to puff twice at his pipe before committing himself once on any subject, sometimes brooding but always clearheaded. How could these two extremes get along even without a clash of interests? But they took to each other when they first met. What they do have in common is a sense of humor.
The story must be traced back to the forties and early fifties, when Tunisia was clamoring for independence, and there was no apparent prospect of her attaining it in the foreseeable future. Easterman and a few of his intimate friends had the imagination and perception to assume that, however bleak it might look for the Tunisians, their independence could not be long delayed, that France would be bound to give way without a colonial war, and that Bourguiba, the virulent leader of the Neo Destour, would be the ruler of the free nation and a free country within a short time.
The foresight proved to be correct. Having made this assumption, Easterman and his friends acted accordingly, whenever the opportunity arose, and sought contacts with the dramatic personae in the North African drama. The Tunisians, and other North Africans for that matter, were quick to notice it. People fighting for their freedom against odds never despise allies.
Easterman went to see Bourguiba for the first time in 1954. They met in very dramatic circumstances. Bourguiba was under detention in the French countryside. But France being a civilized country, certain people did get permission to visit him, and Alex Easterman was one of those. The place of Bourguiba’s detention was under strong military guard; but once inside, the two men were free to talk and talk. They discussed many things, including the Jewish position and Israel and the Jews of Tunisia and their fate in the event of Tunisia’s independence. It was a frank and uninhibited exchange of views. This was less than two years before Suez, when the Israel-Arab conflict was at its height.
As to Tunisian Jews, Bourguiba said at the time that they would be treated as equal citizens of the country. He has rigidly and meticulously kept this pledge. Tunisian Jews enjoy full citizenship rights, and the authorities do not interfere with their religious life or their communal institutions. Any Jew who wants to leave the country can do so, on the same terms as other citizens.
During the dramatic meeting between Bourguiba and Easterman, Bourguiba expressed substantially the same views on Israel which he propounded this spring in his now famous speeches, radio and television appearances, and press interviews. He was not in favor of a Jewish State and would in principle have opposed it. But it was there and had come to stay, so there was no alternative but to accept its existence. Here was the realist talking.
Bourguiba’s clash with Nasser is not only based on their different attitudes to Israel. Bourguiba never accepted Nasser as leader of all Moslems, from Dakar to Karachi. He also refuses to accept the notion that North African Moslems and the Arabs of Egypt, Arabia, and the Levant are the same nation, divided only by geography.
Bourguiba’s constant efforts to assert the independence of North Africa from Nasser received a new impetus after the last elections in Tunisia, in November 1964. Bourguiba was given a vote of confidence by 96.43 percent of the electorate, to be exact. He is now the unchallenged leader of his people. As soon as he quarreled with Nasser over Israel, the students came out in his support. No one is glad to see buildings burned down anywhere, but the demonstrations were spontaneous and the support for Bourguiba whole-hearted.
Bourguiba, with his education, experience, political knowhow, and flare for leadership and dramatic action, has a big part still to play in the shaping of his vast region.
This article must not be taken as a plea to consider Bourguiba’s proposals regarding Israel. What Bourguiba suggests is utterly unacceptable to any Jew. But Habib Bourguiba has broken the front of implacable Arab hostility to Israel, and has accepted the fact that Israel is there for good. The Arab world is now astir. It will never be the same again after Bourguiba has spoken.