The history of the Jews in Tunisia goes back to Roman times and perhaps earlier, although it is difficult to determine the exact origins of the Jewish community in the adjacent island of 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 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 later by others who escaped from the Spanish Inquisition. They settled in two separate communities: Hara Kabira (the large Jewish Quarter) and Hara Saghira (the small Jewish Quarter).
Many of the exiled Jews settled in the city of Tunis and engaged in agriculture, cattle-raising and trade. They were divided into clans governed by their respective heads (Mokdem) and had to pay the Romans a capitation tax of 2 shekels. Under Roman rule, and after 429 CE, under the dominion of the fairly-tolerant Vandals, the Jews of Tunis increased and prospered to such a degree that the African Church councils deemed it necessary to enact restrictive laws against them in order to minimize their influence. After the overthrow of the Vandals in 534, Justinian I issued his edict of persecution in which Jews were classified with the Arians and Pagans. Like elsewhere in the Roman Empire, the Jews of Roman Africa eventually adapted Latinized names, wore togas and spoke Latin rather than Greek—the language of the Jewish Diaspora at that time.
In the seventh century, the Jewish population was augmented by Spanish immigrants fleeing persecution by the Visigoth king Sisebut and his successors and when Tunis came under the control of the Arabian Caliphate of Baghdad, another influx of Arab Jews from the Levant took place.
When the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 sent Jews fleeing from Spain, only a few Jews emigrated to Tunisia due to the harsh conditions experienced by Tunisian Jews at that time. In 1855 Mohammed Bey executed a Jew named Batto Sfoz. Two years of negotiations took place with the French government who ultimately responded by granting Jews equal rights. Not only was this a victory for the Jews, but also the Tunisian government became weary of interfering with the Jews.
The French protectorate of Tunisia was established by treaty in 1881, after which the situation of the Jewish community once again improved. Many Tunisian Jews welcomed the opportunity to become French citizens and quickly shifted their cultural identification from Moslem-Arab to French-European. For the generation born under the protectorate, the French language replaced Judeo-Arabic as the Tunisian Jews’ mother tongue. This situation changed dramatically in 1940 when France’s anti-Semitic Vichy regime came to power.
During World War II, Tunisia was governed under Fascist France’s Vichy rule and anti- Jewish legislation was implemented. Tunisia became the only Arab country to come under direct Nazi occupation when the Nazis arrived in November 1942. By then, Tunisia was home to some 100,000 Jews. The Nazis imposed anti-Jewish policies which included forcing Jews to wear Star of David badges, fines and confiscation of property. Community leaders were imprisoned and more than 5,000 Jews were sent to forced labor camps, where 46 are known to have died; an additional 160 Tunisian Jews in puppet France were sent to European death camps. Tunisia, however, was home to Khaled Abdelwahhab, the first Arab nominated for Israel’s ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ award.
Before 1948, the Jewish population of Tunisia reached a peak of 110,000. During the 1950s, half this number left for Israel and the other half for France. After the country’s independence in 1956, Tunisia’s Jewish Community Council was abolished by the government and many Jewish areas and buildings were destroyed for urban renewal. Although the situation of Tunisian Jewry was now tolerable, anti-Jewish rioting erupted during the Six Day War in 1967 resulting in the destruction of several Jewish shops and damage to the Great Synagogue in Tunis. Despite government apologies and attempts to ease the fears of the Jewish community, 7,000 of the country’s remaining 20,000 Jews immigrated to France in the wake of the violence.
Today, it is estimated that only 700 Jews are living in Tunis and 1,000 on the island of Djerba, comprising the country’s largest indigenous religious minority.
CULTURE AND EDUCATION
The Jewish community in Tunis supports three primary schools, two secondary schools, a yeshiva and the Chief Rabbi. The Jewish community in Djerba supports one kindergarten, two primary schools, two secondary schools, a yeshiva and a Rabbi. There is also a Jewish primary school and a synagogue in the coastal city of Zarzis. The Jewish community also maintains two homes for the aged, several kosher restaurants and four other rabbis. Most Tunisian Jews observe the laws of Kashrut.
The most famous synagogue in Tunisia, and the most important symbol of Djerba’s Jews, is El Ghriba Synagogue in the village of Hara Saghira. The current building was constructed in the late 19th or early 20th century, but the site is believed to have had a synagogue on it for the past 1,900 years. Many legends that circulate about El Ghriba say that its foundation stone, or perhaps a gate, came from Solomon’s temple. Tunisian Jews have for centuries made an annual pilgrimage to the synagogue on the Jewish holiday of Lag B’ Omer.
Because they lived in virtual isolation from the rest of the world until the advent of 20th century mass tourism, the Jews of Djerba were able to preserve an undiluted form of Judaism, with its whole community being religiously observant and strict in traditional practice. Boys and girls do not meet alone before they are married and even older men and women are rarely seen in public together. The community is largely insular, keeping itself apart from other Jews in Tunisia and abroad. The Djerban Jews are famed for their filigree jewellery and many today still work as gold and silversmiths. Other Jews have small businesses alongside their Muslim neighbours in Houmt Souk, the business district on the island.
Despite the authorities’ concern to ease the fears of the Jewish community, occasional attacks on Jews and Jewish property have recurred, including the destruction of two synagogues, in 1979 on Djerba and in 1983 in Zaris, near the Libyan border. More recently, on April 11, 2002, a truck full of explosives was detonated close to the El Ghriba Synagogue, killing 21 people. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility. However, Moslems and Jews in Djerba live side by side in relative peace with much crossover between the two groups.
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.