Tunisia was the only Arab country to come under direct
German occupation during World
War II. According to Robert Satloff, “From November 1942
to May 1943, the Germans and their local collaborators implemented a
forced-labor regime, confiscations of property, hostage-taking, mass
extortion, deportations, and executions. They required thousands of Jews in the countryside to wear the Star of David, and they created
special Judenrat-like committees of Jewish leaders to implement Nazi
policies under threat of imprisonment or death.”1a
After Tunisia gained independence in 1956, a series of anti-Jewish
government decrees were promulgated. In 1958,
Tunisia's Jewish Community Council was abolished
by the government and ancient synagogues,
cemeteries and Jewish quarters were destroyed
for “urban renewal.”2
The increasingly unstable situation caused more than 40,000 Tunisian
Jews to immigrate to Israel. By 1967, the country's Jewish population
had shrunk to 20,000.
During the Six-Day
War, Jews were attacked by rioting Arab mobs, and synagogues and
shops were burned. The government denounced the violence, and President
Habib Bourguiba apologized to the Chief Rabbi. The government appealed
to the Jewish population to stay, but did not bar them from leaving.
Subsequently, 7,000 Jews immigrated to France.
In 1982, there were attacks on Jews in the towns of
Zarzis and Ben Guardane. According to the State Department, the Tunisian
government “acted decisively to provide protection to the Jewish
In 1985, a Tunisian guard opened fire on worshipers
in a synagogue in Djerba, killing five people, four of them Jewish.
Since then, the government has sought to prevent further tragedy by
giving Tunisian Jews heavy protection when necessary. Following Israel's
October 1, 1985, bombing of the PLO headquarters near Tunis, “the government took extraordinary measures
to protect the Jewish community.”4 After the Temple Mount tragedy in October 1990, “the government placed heavy security
around the main synagogue in Tunis.”5
Djerba has one Jewish kindergarten. There are also
six Jewish primary schools (three located in Tunis, two in Djerba and
one in the coastal city of Zarzis) and four secondary schools (two in
Tunis and two in Djerba). There are also yeshivot in Tunis and Djerba.
The community has two homes for the aged. The country has several kosher
restaurants and five officiating rabbis: the chief rabbi in Tunis, a
rabbi in Djerba, and four others in Tunis. The majority of the Jewish
community observes the laws of kashrut.
“Many tourists come to visit Djerba's El Ghirba
Synagogue in the village of Hara Sghira. Although the present structure
was built in 1929, it is believed there has been a continuously used
synagogue on the site for the past 1,900 years. Tunisian Jews have many
unique and colorful rituals and celebrations, including the annual pilgrimage
to Djerba which takes place during Lag BaOmer. The Bardo Museum in Tunis
contains an exhibit dealing exclusively with Jewish ritual objects.”6
Today, the 1,000 Jews comprise the country's largest
indigenous religious minority. “The government promoted anti-bias and tolerance education through a series of lectures regarding religious tolerance. Jewish community leaders reported that the government actively protected synagogues, particularly during Jewish holidays, paid the salary of the grand rabbi, and partially subsidized restoration and maintenance costs for some synagogues.”7
On April 11, 2002, a natural
gas truck exploded at the outer wall of the
Ghriba synagogue on the resort island of Djerba. Tunisian officials
at first said the truck accidentally struck
the wall of the synagogue, but a group linked
to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network claimed responsibility for carrying
out what was actually a terrorist attack on
the oldest synagogue in Africa. The explosion
killed 17 people, including 11 German tourists.8
During the political unrest and protests, that began in December 2010 and continued through the early months of 2011, and resulted in the ousting of longtime Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, demonstrations were also held outside of one of Tunisia's ancient synagogues. In videos of the gather, protesters were filmed chanting, “Iqbal al Yahud!” (translation: “Death to the Jews!”).9
The political climate in Tunisia is uncomfortable for Jewish residents currently, with anti-semitic attacks and vandalism on the rise over the recent years. Tunisians have plundered and desecrated over 100 Jewish gravestones since the begining of 2013, and in May 2014 the Beith El synagogue in Tunisia was violently vandalized in an anti-semitic attack. On March 11 2014 a Norwegian Cruise Line ship docked in the Port of Tunis to let off it's passengers for the day, and the Tunisian government prohibited the Israeli passengers on board from disembarking while all other passengers were allowed to get off of the ship. In retalliation, Norwegian Cruise Lines has stated that they are outraged by the situation, have cancelled all future port stops in Tunisia, and never plan on returning there again.
The last Kosher restaurant in Tunisia's capital closed in November 2015, out of concern for the security of their patrons due to terrorist threats. After being warned by the Tunisian government, the owner shut down amid security threats against him and his establishment.
1. North American Jewish Databank
1a. Robert Satloff, “In
Search of “Righteous Arabs,” Commentary,
(July 04, 2004).
2. Maurice Roumani, The Case of the Jews
from Arab Countries: A Neglected Issue, (Tel Aviv: World Organization
of Jews from Arab Countries, 1977), pp. 33; Norman Stillman, The
Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times, (NY: Jewish Publication
Society, 1991), p. 127.
3. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
for 1982, (DC: Department of State, 1983), pp. 1290-91.
4. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
for 1985, (DC: Department of State, 1986), p. 1321.
5. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
for 1990, (DC: Department of State, 191), pp. 1664-65.
Communities of the World.
State Department Report on Human Rights Practices for 2009.
Post, (April 17 & 23, 2002).
Inskeep, Steve. “Amid security threats, Tunis's only Kosher restaurnt shutters,” NPR (November 4, 2015)