A Jewish pilgrimage returns to Tunisia

Though the powerful and prominent Islamist Ennahda party has sent mixed messages about its attitude toward Tunisia's 1,500-strong Jewish population,  President Moncef Marzouki's government has made an extraordinary effort this year to promote the Hiloula, an annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba that commemorates the death of second-century rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, the father of the Kabbalah tradition. The two-day event was canceled last year for security reasons due to the popular uprisings that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but it remains "the barometer of expectations for the coming tourist season," according to the Guardian.

Before the revolution, the Hiloula typically brought "almost 10,000 foreign visitors" every year, but the website Tunisia Live reported yesterday that the numbers are significantly smaller this year:

"So far, no more than two hundred Jewish pilgrims have joined the Hiloula.... According to our reporter in El Ghriba, police and journalists outnumbered the pilgrims, mainly Jewish Tunisians, who attended the event."

The Tunisian government has deployed a large security force to the area surrounding the synagogue, the oldest in Africa.  Ten years ago, al Qaeda militants bombed the synagogue, killing 21 and wounding 30. Marzouki visited El Ghriba in April for a memorial ceremony, during which he declared that violence against Tunisian Jews was "unacceptable." Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali also voiced his commitment to a tolerant Tunisia:

"Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past."

The government of Israel, on the other hand, apparently sees things differently. The Israeli Prime Minister's Office issued a travel warning earlier this month advising Israelis to avoid Djerba, citing a "specific-high rating" terror threat to Jews and Israelis. Hiloula may end today, but whether Marzouki can convince the rest of the country to practice what he preaches remains uncertain.



Argentina passes landmark transgender rights law

The big political news in the U.S. today is that President Obama has finally "evolved" -- with a push from Joe Biden -- into supporting same-sex marriage. Obama is still sticking with a states-rights position on this issue and is unlikely to push for action at the federal level, but as Uri points out, if the United States were to legalize gay marriage, it would be the 11th country in the world to do so. It would be the third in the Western Hemisphere after Argentina and Canada. (It's also legal in Mexico City. Plus, Uruguay and Brazil both recognize civil unions.

Obama's change of heart probably wouldn't impress anyone in Argentina, where full marriage for same-sex couples has been legal since 2010. Today, the country went a step further

Adults who want sex-change surgery or hormone therapy in Argentina will be able to get it as part of their public or private health care plans under a gender rights law approved Wednesday.

Senators approved the Gender Identity law by a vote of 55 to zero with one abstention and more than a dozen senators declaring themselves absent — the same margin that approved a "death with dignity" law earlier in the day.

It gives people the legal right to officially change their gender without having to go to court for a judge's approval, and obligates health care companies to provide them with surgery or hormone therapy on demand.

Other countries, including neighboring Uruguay, have passed gender rights laws, but Argentina's "is in the forefront of the world" because of these benefits it guarantees, said Cesar Cigliutti, president of the Homosexual Community of Argentina.

Treatments related to gender changes will be included in the "Obligatory Medical Plan," meaning that both private and public health care providers will not be able to charge extra for the services.

Sex reassignment surgery is covered by a growing number of health plans in the United States, but it's pretty remarkable that a bill like this didn't get a single no vote in a 92 percent Catholic country.