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Tunisia has had a significant Jewish minority since at least Roman times. In 1948, the Jewish population was an estimated 105,000, but by 1967, most Tunisian Jews had left the country for France or Israel, and the population had shrunk to 20,000. As of 2012, however, the population had shrunk to an estimated 150 Jews with another approximately 1,000 on the resort island of Djerba, comprising the country’s largest indigenous religious minority.
Map of Tunisia
A tradition among the descendants of the first Jewish settlers were that their ancestors settled in that part of North Africa long before the destruction of the First Temple in the 6th century BCE. Though this is unfounded, the presence of Jews there at the appearance of Christianity is attested by the Jewish monument found by the French captain Prudhomme in his Hammam-Lif residence in 1883. After the dissolution of the Jewish state, a great number of Jews were sent by Titus to Mauritania, and many of them settled in Tunis. These settlers were engaged in agriculture, cattle-raising, and trade. They were divided into clans, or tribes, governed by their respective heads, and had to pay the Romans a capitation tax of 2 shekels. Under the dominion of the Romans and (after 429) of the fairly tolerant Vandals, the Jewish inhabitants of Tunis increased and prospered to such a degree that African Church councils deemed it necessary to enact restrictive laws against them. After the overthrow of the Vandals by Belisarius in 534, Justinian I issued his edict of persecution, in which the Jews were classed with the Arians and heathens.
In the seventh century, the Jewish population was largely augmented by Spanish immigrants, who, fleeing from the persecutions of the Visigothic king Sisebut and his successors, escaped to Mauritania and settled in the Byzantine cities. These settlers, according to the Arabic historians, mingled with the Berber population and converted many powerful tribes, which continued to profess Judaism until the reign of the founder of the Idrisid dynasty. Al-Kairuwani relates that at the time of the conquest of Hippo Zaritus (Bizerta) by Hasan in 698 the governor of that district was a Jew. When Tunis came under the dominion of the Arabs, or of the Arabian caliphate of Baghdad, another influx of Arab Jews into Tunis took place. Like all other Jews in Islamic countries, those of Tunis were subject to the ordinance of Umar ibn al-Khattab.
In 788, when Imam Idris proclaimed Mauritania’s independence of the caliphate of Baghdad, the Tunisian Jews joined his army under the leadership of their chief, Benjamin ben Joshaphat ben Abiezer. They soon withdrew, however; primarily, because they were loath to fight against their coreligionists of other parts of Mauritania, who remained faithful to the caliphate of Baghdad; and secondarily, because of some indignities committed by Idris against Jewesses. The victorious Idris avenged this defection by attacking the Jews in their cities. After an unsuccessful resistance, peace was concluded, according to the terms of which the Jews were required to pay a capitation tax and to provide a certain number of virgins annually for Idris’ harem. The Jewish tribe ’Ubaid Allah preferred to migrate to the East rather than to submit to Idris; according to a tradition, the Jews of the island of Gerba are the descendants of that tribe. In 793, Imam Idris was poisoned at the command of Harun al-Rashid (it is said, by the governor’s physician Shamma, probably a Jew), and about 800 the Aghlabite dynasty was established. Under the rule of this dynasty, which lasted until 909, the situation of the Jews in Tunis was very favorable. As of old, Bizerta had a Jewish governor, and the political influence of the Jews made itself felt in the administration of the country. Especially prosperous at that time was the community of Kairwan, which was established soon after the foundation of that city by ’Ukba ibn Nafi’, in the year 670.
A period of reaction set in with the accession of the Zirite Al-Mu’izz (1016-62), who persecuted all heterodox sects, as well as the Jews. The persecution was especially detrimental to the prosperity of the Kairwan community, and members thereof began to emigrate to the city of Tunis, which speedily gained in population and in commercial importance.
The accession of the Almohade dynasty to the throne of the Maghreb provinces in 1146 proved very disastrous to the Jews of Tunis. In pursuance of a fanciful belief, of which there is no trace in Muslim tradition, the first Almohade, ’Abd al-Mu’min, claimed that Mohammed had permitted the Jews free exercise of their religion for only five hundred years, and had declared that if, after that period, the Messiah had not come, they were to be forced to embrace Islam. Accordingly, Jews as well as Christians were compelled either to embrace Islam or to leave the country. ’Abd al-Mu’min’s successors pursued the same course, and their severe measures resulted either in emigration or in forcible conversions. Soon becoming suspicious of the sincerity of the new converts, the Almohades compelled them to wear a special garb, with a yellow cloth for a head-covering.
The Jews of Tunis at that time scrupulously observed most of the festivals, but did not celebrate the second days; they entirely ignored the festival of Purim, although they observed that of Hanukkah. According to their statutes, a man who had lost two wives could marry only a widow; on the other hand, if a woman lost two husbands she was called a “husband-killer” and was not allowed to remarry. This prohibition included also a woman who had been twice divorced. Male twins were always named Perez and Zerah; female twins, Sarah and Rebekah; a male and female, Isaac and Rebekah.
Under the Hafsite dynasty, which was established in 1236, the condition of the Jews greatly improved. Besides Kairwan, there were at that time important communities in Mehdia, Kalaa, the island of Gerba, and the city of Tunis. Considered at first as foreigners, the Jews were not permitted to settle in the interior of the last-named city, but had
to live in a building called “Funduk”; later, however, a wealthy and humane Muslim, Sidi Mahrez, who in 1159 had rendered great services to the first Almohade, ’Abd al-Mu’min, obtained for them the right to settle in a special quarter of the city proper. This quarter, called the “Hira,” constituted until 1857 the ghetto of Tunis; it was closed at night. In 1270, in consequence of the defeat of Saint Louis of France, who had undertaken a crusade against Tunis, the cities of Kairwan and Hammat were declared holy; and the Jews were required either to leave them or to embrace Islam. From that year until the conquest of Tunis by France (1857), Jews and Christians were forbidden to pass a night in either of these cities; and only by special permission of the governor were they allowed to enter them during the day.
That the Jews of Tunis, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, were treated more cruelly than those of the other Barbary States may be surmised from the fact that, while refugees from Spain and Portugal flocked to Algeria and Morocco, only a few chose to settle in Tunis. Indeed, the Tunisian Jews had no rabbis or scholars worthy of mention, and had to consult those of Algeria or Morocco on the most ordinary religious questions. Their communal affairs were directed by a council, nominated by the government, the functions of which consisted in the administration of justice among the Jews, and, more especially, in the collection of the Jewish taxes. Three kinds of taxes were imposed upon the Tunisian Jews: (1) a communal tax, to which every member contributed according to his means; (2) a personal or capitation tax; and (3) a general tax, which was levied upon the Muslims also. In addition to these, every Jewish tradesman and industrial had to pay an annual tax to the gild to which his trade or industry belonged. In spite of all these exactions, however, the commerce of the country was in Jewish hands, and even the government was compelled to have recourse to Jewish merchants for the exploitation of the various monopolies; after the thirteenth century it adopted the policy of entrusting to a Jew the post of receiver of taxes. This functionary, who bore the title of “caid,” served also as an intermediary between the government and the Jews, and his authority within the Jewish community was supreme. The members of the council of elders, as well as the rabbis, were nominated at his recommendation, and no rabbinical decision was valid unless approved by him.
During the Spanish occupation of the Tunisian coasts (1535-74), the Jewish communities of Bizerta, Susa, Sfax, and other seaports suffered greatly at the hands of the conquerors; while under the subsequent Turkish rule the Jews of Tunis enjoyed a fair amount of security, being practically guaranteed the free exercise of their religion, and liberty to administer their own affairs. They were, however, always exposed to the caprices of princes and to outbursts of popular fanaticism. Petty officials were allowed to impose upon them the most difficult drudgery without compensation. They were obliged to wear a special costume, consisting of a blue frock without collar or ordinary sleeves (loose linen sleeves being substituted), wide linen drawers, black slippers, and a small black skull-cap; stockings might be worn in winter only. They might ride only on asses or mules, and were not permitted to use a saddle.
From the beginning of the eighteenth century the political status of the Jews in Tunis steadily improved. This was due to the ever-increasing influence of the political agents of the European powers, who, while seeking to ameliorate the condition of the Christian residents, had to plead also the cause of the Jews, whom Muslim legislation classed with Christians. Joseph Azulai, who visited Tunis in 1772, described in glowing terms the influence at court of the caid Solomon Nataf. Forty-two years later the United States consul to Tunis, Mordecai M. Noah, gave the following account of the situation of the Tunisian Jews: (“Travels in Europe and Africa,” p. 308, New York, 1819).
“With all the apparent oppression, the Jews are the leading men; they are in Barbary the principal mechanics, they are at the head of the custom-house, they farm the revenues; the exportation of various articles, and the monopoly of various merchandise, are secured to them by purchase, they control the mint and regulate the coinage of money, they keep the bey’s jewels and valuable articles, and are his treasurers, secretaries, and interpreters; the little known of arts, science, and medicine is confined to the Jews. . . . If a Jew commits a crime, if the punishment affects his life, these people, so national, always purchase his pardon; the disgrace of one affects the whole community; they are ever in the presence of the bey, every minister has two or three Jewish agents, and when they unite to attain an object, it cannot be prevented. These people, then, whatever may be said of their oppression, possess a very controlling influence, their friendship is worthy of being preserved by public functionaries, and their opposition is to be dreaded.”
During the long reign of Ahmad Bey, the Jews enjoyed a period of great prosperity. His successor, Mohammed Bey, inaugurated his reign in 1855 by abolishing the drudgery formerly imposed upon the Jews; the caid Joseph Scemama, with whom the bey was on very intimate terms, probably used his influence in behalf of his coreligionists. In the same year, however, Mohammed Bey, being very religious, caused the execution of a Jew named Batto Sfoz on a charge of blasphemy. This execution aroused both Jews and Christians, and a deputation was sent to Napoleon III, asking him to interfere in their behalf.
After two years of diplomatic negotiations, a man-of-war was sent to enforce the demands of the French government. Mohammed Bey yielded, and issued a constitution, according to which all Tunisians, without distinction of creed, were to enjoy equal rights. The following articles of this constitution were of special interest to the Jews:
(§ 4) “No manner of duress will be imposed upon our Jewish subjects forcing them to change their faith, and they will not be hindered in the free observance of their religious rites. Their synagogues will be respected, and protected from insult.”
(§ 6) “When a criminal court is to pronounce the penalty incurred by a Jew, Jewish assessors shall be attached to the said court.”
During this period in the mid-1800's, Jews made up about one sixth of Tunis's population and had no fewer than 27 synagogues and an array of financiers, rabbis, merchants, and craftsmen.
The constitution was abrogated, however, in 1864 in consequence of a revolution, which entailed great suffering on several Jewish communities, especially on that of Sfax; but the constant fear of foreign interference rendered the government very circumspect in its treatment of the Jews.
Tunisia was the only Arab country to come under direct and full Nazi occupation during World War II; Morocco and Algeria were governed by Vichy France. When the Nazis arrived in Tunisia in November 1942, the nation was home to some 100,000 Jews. According to Yad Vashem, the Nazis imposed anti-Semitic policies including forcing Jews to wear Star of David badges, fines, and confiscation of property. More than 5,000 Jews were sent to forced labor camps, where 46 are known to have died; an additional 160 Tunisian Jews in France were sent to European death camps. Tunisia, however, was home to Khaled Abdelwahhab, the first Arab nominated for the Israeli Righteous Among the Nations award.
During the 1950's, most Jews supported Tunisia's independence movement, led by Habib Bourguiba, who would become the country's first free president. He appointed many Jews to prominent positions and guaranteed their religious and civil rights, however after independence Tunisia’s Jewish Community Council was abolished by the government and many Jewish areas and buildings were destroyed for “urban renewal.”
The current head of the Jewish community in Tunisia, Perez Trebelsi, however, questions the narrative of some Western historians that Jews were also persecuted under Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, the founder of the republic after independence from France in 1956.
"Bourguiba put all Tunisians on an equal footing, excluded nationalists, and annulled Sharia-compliant articles in the constitution like the ones related to polygamy and inheritance," says the head of the Jewish community in Tunisia, Perez Trebelsi.
By 1967, the country’s Jewish population was fleeing, over 40,000 had left for Israel, leaving 20,000. During the Six Day War, Jews were attacked in riots, and, despite government apologies, 7,000 Jews immigrated to France. "Anti-Jewish sentiments ran high during the  Six-Day War," Mr. Trebelsi recalls. "Some [Tunisian] Jews came under attack but from mobs. It was individual practices really, not systematic".
In 1985, Yasser Arafat’s offices in Tunis were bombed by the Israeli Air Force in retaliation for the murder of three Israelis in Cyprus, an attack that killed over 70 people and leveled the entire PLO complex.
In 1987, a military coup led to the rule of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali who allowed the Jewish community to thrive despite occasional bursts of anti-Semitic violence. Many prominent Tunisian Jews hailed Ben Ali as their "protector," and in comparison to other Muslim countries, the Jews of Tunisia fared relatively well. By 2004, the Jewish community in Tunis supported three primary schools, two secondary schools, a yeshiva, and the Chief Rabbi. The Jewish community in Djerba was supporting one kindergarten, two primary schools, two secondary schools, a yeshiva, and a Rabbi. There was also a Jewish primary school and synagogue in the coastal city of Zarzis and the community supported two homes for the aged, several kosher restaurants and four other rabbis.
In January 2011, however, an uprising started by a fruit salesmen in Tunis led to revolution across the Arab world. Ben Ali eventually fled the country to Saudi Arabia and out of the confusion of revolts stepped Islamist parties to take over the government. Though the spiritual leader of the ruling Emnahda party, Rachid Ghannouchi, pledged to support the Jewish community and counter anti-Semitic waves, there have been a number of causes for concern. First, soon after the revolution, a Hamas leader visited Tunis and upon arrival at the airport shouted, "Kill the Jews!" A couple of months after that incident, a crowd of Salafi Muslims gathered in front of Tunis's Grand Synagogue shouting anti-Jewish slogans, led by a cleric who urged Muslims to "rise up and wage a war against the Jews."
"Revolution is never a good thing," said Roger Bismuth, a leading Jewish businessman in Tunis who prospered under Ben Ali. "I thought [the Arab Spring] was going to be a mess, and it's even worse than I thought."
Ridha Belhadj, chairman of Hizb Tahrir - the Party of Liberation, which calls for a Muslim caliphate to rule the entire Arab world - disagrees that the Jews of Tunisia face any discrimination from the new government. "Why are people exaggerating this problem?" Belhadj asks. "No one has a problem with Jews who live here. They've been here for centuries. They are our neighbors. When they were preaching against the Jews, they meant Israel - not individual Jews here in Tunisia." Rafik Ghaki, a lawyer for a Salafi organization, agrees. "The fact is that when you talk about 'Jews' in Tunisia, you're talking about Zionists. Even the Jews understand that when you talk of Jews, you are speaking only of Zionists."
In April 2012, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki visited the El Ghriba synagogue to commemorate a decade since the deadly bombing and to ensure that he would do all in his power to protect Tunisia's dwindling Jewish community. Some Jews in the country were unsettled by street demonstrations held in the months priors to the president's visit in which radical Salafi Islamists called on Muslims to kill Jews everywhere. “It is a blessing to live together as Tunisians. Muslims and Jews, our bonds challenge the hatred of the Salafists,” said Perez Trabelsi, president of the El Ghariba synagogue and the Jewish community of Hara Segira, Djerba. “The day-to-day living situation for Jews has not changed since the revolution, and we hope it will never change. We don’t live in fear.”
It’s difficult to pin down the exact origins of the Jewish community in Djerba. Depending on different oral histories, the first settlers may have come from Judea about 3,000 years ago, at the time of King David and King Solomon, or at the time of the destruction of the First Temple and the forced Babylonian exile in 586 BCE. They were probably joined by the Jews who fled Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and others who ran from the Spanish Inquisition. They settled in two separate communities: Hara Kabira (the large Jewish quarter) and Hara Saghira (the small Jewish quarter).
According to local lore, the priestly Kohanim who escaped from Jerusalem in 70 CE settled in Hara Saghira, and their descendants still live there today. The Jews dress exactly like their Muslim neighbors - the men in red felt hats, tunics and pantaloons and the women in long dresses and headcoverings, while the younger generation dresses in Western style garb. The only distinguishing feature is a narrow black band at the bottom of the mens’ pantaloons, a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.
Interior of El Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba
The most famous synagogue in Tunisia is the El Ghriba synagogue in the village of Hara Sghira on Djerba. The current building was constructed in late 19th or early 20th century, but the site is believed to have had a synagogue on it for the past 1,900 years. Tunisian Jews have for centuries made an annual pilgrimage to the synagogue on Lag Ba’Omer. The restored white building with its ornate interior is only about a century old, but it is built on the foundations of all the Ghribas that preceded it. The many legends that circulate about El Ghriba say that its foundation stone, or perhaps a gate, came from Solomon’s temple.
On April 11, 2002, a truck full of explosives was detonated close to the synagogue, killing 21 people (of whom 14 were German tourists and 2 Frenchmen), and wounding over 30, in the Ghriba Synagogue Attack. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.
Because they lived in virtual isolation from the rest of the world until the advent of 20th century mass tourism, the Jews of Djerba have been able to preserve a very undiluted form of Judaism. The whole community, over 1,000 people, is religiously observant and maintains 11 different synagogues (some are only open on holidays). Once a month, a minyan stays up all night studying and praying. Boys and girls do not meet alone before they are married, and even older men and women are rarely seen in public together. The conservative, traditional Jews of Djerba are fairly insular, keeping themselves apart from other Jews in Tunisia and abroad.
The children’s first language is Arabic, but they learn the aleph-bet and basic Hebrew prayers at a day school. By eight or nine years old, Djerba boys are undertaking serious Gemara studies at a yeshiva.
The Muslims and the Jews and Djerba live side by side in relative peace. Indeed, there is a lot of crossover between the two groups. The kosher restaurant, L’Oscar, serves staples that are typical local dishes eaten by the local Muslims, such as couscous and spicy red harissa sauce. Muslim farmers deliver chickens to a Jewish stall to be inspected for the kosher ritual slaughter, and a Muslim man bakes bread for the Jews on Shabbat.
The Djerban Jews are famed for their filigree jewelry and many today still work as gold and silversmiths. Other Jews have small businesses alongside their Muslim neighbors in Houmt Souk, the business district on the island.
The Lag Ba'Omer procession returning to the El Ghriba synagogue in Er-Riadh (Hara Sghira), Djerba 2007
The coexistence between Muslims and Jews has been continuous, but not always easy. Before 1948, there were 100,000 Jews living in Tunisia. Today, there are only about 2,000 left, most of whom live in Djerba. Many left for Israel when the state was founded, or during periods of fear and insecurity such as the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the 1967 Six Day War, the government’s brief stint with nationalism in 1969-70, and following an isolated incident where a guard opened fire on worshippers in El Ghriba in 1985, killing three people. Though several thousand Jews left Djerba in the 1940s, very few are leaving today.
On the spring holiday of Lag B’Omer, boys and girls get together wearing their finest clothes, women and men appear together in public, and Jews from all over the world (especially Tunisians who now live in France and Israel) gather to celebrate. Lag B’Omer marks the 33rd day of the Omer, a period of semi-mourning in the Jewish calendar. On that day, an epidemic that killed thousands of students of the first-century Rabbi Akiva is said to have ended. Jews traditionally hold parties and visit the shrines of revered sages to mark that and other miracles attributed ot this date.
In Djerba, the Lag B’Omer celebration centers on a legendary woman named La Ghriba (Arabic for “the foreigner” or the “extraordinary one”), who lived on the island at some unspecified time in the distant past. There are multiple versions of the story but the one most often heard speaks of a beautiful, pious woman who lived alone and had no family and intimate connections. One night, her house caught on fire. She was found dead, but miraculously umblemished by the blaze. The local inhabitants hailed her as a kind of saint and decided to bury her at the site of the catastrophe. To honor her, they built a sanctuary, which was subsquently named El Ghriba.
Today, pilgrims come on Lag B’Omer to ask her for help. Barren women claim they became pregnant after asking La Ghriba to intercede, and others who were single got married. Many miraculous healings are also attributed to her intervention.
Ancient Torah scroll in El Ghriba synagogue in El Kef.
The centerpiece of the Lag B’Omer celebration is a huge, wooden candelabrum shaped like a wedding cake, called the Grande Menara. It is adorned with multi-colored scarves, set on a rolling cart and wheeled through the streets of Hara Saghira. Women rush up to spray the Grande Menara with perfume and embrace her. There’s an auction where spectators bid hundreds of Tunisian dinars for the right to ride a few yards atop the cart (the money goes to support the synagogue for the coming year). The procession is accompanied by musicians, and there is much joyous dancing and singing.
In May 2000, the festival drew more than 8,000 visitors, mostly from France and Israel. Then in October 2000, following the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Tunisia severed diplomatic relations with Israel. Although the government encouraged the El Ghriba festival to continue, the tourists coming to visit the island significantly decreased.
In 2002, a few weeks before the celebration was set to take place, a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with natural gas up to the synagogue and exploded into it’s outer wall. Eighteen people were killed, of whom most were German tourists. The government at first claimed it was accident, but the terrorist organization al-Qaeda soon claimed responsibility.
Following the Arab Spring upheaval in 2011, the celebration on Djerba was severely cut back and in 2012 only a few dozen participants showed up amid fear of possible attacks by hardline Islamists. However, in 2013, hundreds of Jews came for the three day celebration as Tunisian police promised the secure the event and ensure the protection of the Jewish revelers.
"The strong presence of security is a positive step and sends a message to the Jews in the world that Tunisia protects us even if its leaders are Islamists", said Perez Trabelsi, the head of the Jewish community in Djerba. "Jews in the world will see the government's efforts to make the celebration safe and will return in their thousands over the next few years and will not pay attention to any threat," he added.
"We are here to send a message of peace and tolerance embracing everyone," said a Tunisian woman named Zahayra Lakhel, putting on a Jewish head scarf before she entered the synagogue. "We also want to change the image of Muslims who have been associated with violence and terror. The Jews have been our friends for years and we are here to remember old and beautiful memories away from religious and political tensions."
In the northwest region of Tunisia, Jewish visitors go on pilgrimages to visit another El Ghriba synagogue in the town of El Kef (there is a third Ghriba synagogue, in Algeria). Although no Jews remain in El Kef, having left between the 1950s and 1970s, locals point out the area where they lived, the rabbi’s house, and where the Jews traded in the souks (markets).
The small synagogue was restored, which now contains two ancient Torahs, a bimah, a circumcision chair, pieces of tefillin, tzedekah boxes, silver wall plaques that honor the dead, photos of the Jewish community from the 19th century up until the 1950s, and drapery embroidered with the Star of David.
“The Island of Djerba” and “El Kef” information is from: Judith Fein, “The Legend of El Ghriba,” The Jerusalem Report (June 17, 2002).
"Tunisian President Marzouki Pledges Safety for Tunisian Jews," JTA (April 11, 2012).
Marc Fisher, "Is There A Future for Tunisia's Jews?" Moment Magazine (July/August 2012).
"Jews Head to Tunisian Island for Annual Pilgrimage," Reuters (April 27, 2013).
"Tunisia's Last Jews at East Despite Troubled Past," BBC News (May 1, 2013).