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Jews in Islamic Countries: Tunisia

Jewish Population
1948: 105,000    |    2019: 1,0001

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

Great Synagogue in Tunis

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 community.”3

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). The government-run Essouani School and the Houmt Souk Secondary School in Djerba are the only public schools where Jewish and Muslim students study together. The Jewish students can could choose to attend classes on religion at a Jewish school 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

“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.

Today, the 1,000 Jews comprise the country’s largest indigenous religious minority. One-third of the Jewish population lives in and around the capital, and the remainder lives on the island of Djerba and in the neighboring town of Zarzis.

Zarzis Synagogue

As of 2019, the State Department reported, “Jewish groups said they continued to worship freely, and the government continued to provide security for synagogues and partially subsidized restoration and maintenance costs. Government employees maintained the Jewish cemetery in Tunis but not those located in other cities, including Sousse and El Kef.”10

On May 21-24, 2019, a delegation from the U.S. embassy, including the Ambassador, participated in the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba Synagogue and met with Jewish leaders. The Ambassador and embassy officials then attended a multifaith iftar near the Synagogue hosted by the minister of tourism which included the prime minister and the ministers of religious affairs and culture. At the same time, a new school for 120 girls from the Jewish community wass opened in Djerba.

The Department also noted, “In September, the Aleph Institute, an international Jewish organization that assists individuals in prisons, expressed concern about possible anti-Semitism in the treatment of two Jewish detainees held in the country, including Jewish citizen Ilane Racchah, who remained in pretrial detention from July 2018 to October 2019 and whose case remained pending at the end of the year. The investigative judge posted social media comments that ‘appear anti-Semitic’ by referencing Racchah’s religion and “the history of Jews and Arabs” in his judgment….Although prison officials allowed his family to bring him kosher meals, the normal visiting hours precluded the family from visiting Racchah on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays, and the limited hours prevented the family from bringing him meals in a timely manner.”

In 2021, Edy Cohen reported disturbing trends in Tunisia, starting with Tunisian president Kais Saied accusing Israel of being at war with the Muslim world during his campaign and saying that Muslim leaders who normalize relations with the Zionists should be prosecuted for treason. Following his election, Cohen said, Saied directed his fire at Tunisian Jews, whom he has called thieves. Cohen notes he later apologized and claimed his words had been taken out of context.

Cohen also reported that Lassaad Hajjem, the Muslim mayor of the Midoun Islands off Djerba, added the names of Islamic sites in Saudi Arabia, Al-Riad and Al-Suani, to the Jewish neighborhoods. He also placed a sign near the entrance to the Jewish neighborhoods that says: “Al-Quds [Jerusalem] is the capital of Palestine.” The sign states the distance to “Al-Quds” as 3,090 kilometers and displays the Palestinian flag.11

1 Sergio DellaPergola, “World Jewish Population, 2020,” in Arnold Dashefsky and Ira M. Sheskin (eds.), The American Jewish Year Book, 2020, Dordrecht: Springer, (2021).
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.
6 Jewish Communities of the World.
7 U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices for 2009.
8 Washington Post, (April 17 & 23, 2002).
Inskeep, Steve. “Amid security threats, Tunis's only Kosher restaurnt shutters,” NPR (November 4, 2015).
10“2019 Report on International Religious Freedom: Tunisia,” U.S.State Department, (June 10, 2020).
11Edy Cohen, “Tunisian Jews Are in Immediate Danger,” BESA, (March 14, 2021).

Photos: Great Synagogue - Maherdz, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Zarzis - Chesdovi, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.