THE HISTORY OF THE JEWS OF TUNISIA
Tunisia is the easternmost of the three Arab states that constitute the Maghreb, the western mostregion of the Muslim
world, the other two being Algeria and Morocco. Its landmass is equivalent to that of England and Wales, but its
population is only six million souls who live mainly along the 800 miles of Mediterranean coastal plain.
It was the seat of the Carthaginian civilisation which extended over a period of 700 years, and was followed by a long period
of Roman rule, but by the ninth century became Muslim. From literary and archaeological sources, evidence has been
gathered of a rich Jewish communal life going back some 2,300 years. Tunisia is mentioned in a number of places in the
Talmud and in the works of Josephus, who testified to the transportation from the Land of Israel of 30,000 Jews to Tunisia,
by the Romans under the Emperor Titus.
Near the ruined city of Carthage lies a site known as Garmath, where excavations have revealed a third-century CE Jewish
cemetery. At a place called Hamman Lif the remains of a well-preserved third-century CE synagogue have been discovered
containing a mosaic displaying the words Sancta Sinagoga.
Under the Roman Emperors Vespasian and Hadrian, life was particularly harsh for the Jews, although they were permitted to
practise their religion in comparative freedom. The rise of Christianity brought with it an undoubted decline in the fortunes of
the Jewish communities. Tertullian was a Roman lawyer born in Tunis and a proponent of the new religion, and in his work
Adversus Judaeorum he described the Jews as "fugitives and vagabonds, condemned to be scattered all over the earth because
of the disrespect they had shown to the Christian Saviour". Tertullian's works became a blueprint for the vilification of the
Jews and their religion and the justification for their brutal treatment. Judaism was eventually eradicated and the synagogues
converted into churches. Methods of torture were used to force the Jews to convert.
It was the advent of the conquering Arabs in 642 CE that restored the Jews to some equality and allowed them to flourish in
trade and commerce. The Jews brought prosperity to the country as a whole and virtually monopolised trade in a multiplicity
of products such as hides and skins and Tunisian silk. Seizing the opportunities presented, immigrants from Italy, Sicily and
Spain formed new communities in coastal cities and ports such as Sousse, Monastir, Sfax and Gabes.
The city of Kairouan saw the establishment of the finest academies of learning, on a par with those of Babylon. Rabbi Jacob
and Rabbi Nissim have gone down as two of the most outstanding medieval scholars. Jews were at the forefront in secular
studies, producing scholars such as Isaac Israeli and Abu Sahl Dunash ben Tamin, the latter being a physician and author of
the mystical treatise, Sefer yetzira (the book of creation). The Muslim dynasties of the twelfth century, the Almoravids and
the Almohads, proved to be fanatical opponents of the Jews. Abraham ibn Ezra depicts a scene in his writings in which "the
blood of our sons and daughters was spilt on the Sabbath day". The historian Abraham ben David described the events as
"years of distress, persecution and oppression for Israel; they were exiled from their homes; they fled before the sword of the
cruel ruler who went forth to eliminate the people of Israel so as to cut them off from being a nation and that the name Israel
shall be remembered no more". The Jews were given the choice of conversion or death and in many instances were sold into
slavery. By the thirteenth century a more tolerant dynasty, the Hafsids, had assumed control of the country and the Jews were
allowed to resume the practice of their religion, though much of the discriminating legislation remained, including the djezia
(the Jew-tax), the requirement to wear distinctive clothing and the segregation of the Jews into special quarters of the cities
known as the Hara-al-Yahud. A number of distinguished scholars, expelled from Spain in 1492, reached Tunisia. Included
were Abraham Zacuto, Columbus's astronomer and mathematician, who wrote his famous work, Sefer Yuhasin (The book of
genealogy), in Tunis in 1504. A number of Tunisian rabbis distinguished themselves, including Abraham Levy Bucrat who
wrote a famous commentary on Rashi, and Moses Alashkar who wrote a celebrated commentary on the Talmud.
A community divided
The year 1574 heralded the beginning of three hundred years of Turkish Ottoman rule, the Turks having cleared the whole of
North Africa from foreign occupation. Under the rule of the Muslim Bey of Tunis, appointed by the government in Istanbul,
the Jews integrated themselves fully into the economic life of the country.
However, a significant social change took place concerning the shape of Tunisian Jewry. The community found itself divided
into two disparate elements. The 'native' community, called in the Judaeo-Arab dialect the Touansa (the Tunisians) were
distinguished from the immigrant community, predominantly from Italy, who called themselves the Gornim, derived from the
Italian city of Ligorno (today's Livorno). To complicate matters even further, the Touansa also referred to the Gornim as the
Grana. Both sections of the community lived in the Hara-al-Yahud, in which the Gornim established their market place called
By the eighteenth century the initial cordiality between the two communities gave way to a bitter deterioration in relations
between them. The Touansa resented the privileged status of the Gornim, who as foreign nationals were free to wear
fashionable European clothes, unlike the Touansa, who were obliged to wear the prescribed distinctive clothing displaying to
the Muslims their second-class status. Ultimately the Touansa refused to pray together with the Gornim, who were banished
into a separate corner of the synagogue. It was no surprise in these circumstances that the Gornim decided to effect a
complete separation from the Touansa by establishing their own synagogue, cemetery and Beth Din outside the confines of
the Hara-al-Yahud. As foreign nationals they were not obliged to live in the Jewish quarter. The single act by the Gornim that
most injured the Touansa was the establishment of their own ritual abattoir. It had been the system to levy communal taxes
on all purchases of meat, the proceeds of which went into the communal chest to be used for the maintenance of the
communal structure and to provide welfare and assistance to the needy. Not only were the Touansa deprived of a significant
proportion of the collected taxes, as a result of the defection of the Gornim, but it became evident that many of their own
members were buying their meat from the Gornim. This situation became intolerable for the Touansa and in 1741 they issued
a decree banning their members from patronising the butchers of the Gornim. Since the decree was barely observed by the
Touansa, it was left ultimately to the good offices of the rabbis of both communities to heal this rift by re-establishing co-
operation between the two communities.
The nineteenth century was notable for the growing interest of the European powers in the Maghreb, and with the acquisition
by the French of Algeria in 1830 an illusion of security spread also into the minds of the neighbouring Jewish community of
Tunisia. The desire for European rule was prompted largely by frequent outbursts of violence against the Jews on various
pretexts, such as in 1856 when the Tunisian Jew, Batto Sfez, was falsely accused of blaspheming against Islam and was
dragged through the streets by a howling mob and lynched.
Another violent incident occurred in 1864 on the island of Djerba on the day of Yom Kippur, when Muslims entered the
synagogue and "scrolls of the Law were torn into pieces and burnt; worshippers were trampled under foot and women and
girls were raped; the pillage did not stop until they had torn the last rags off the Jews".
In 1869, the rabbis and leaders of the community of Tunis appealed desperately to the government in Paris that "in the face of
Muslim ferocity, eighteen Jews have fallen to the knives of the fanatical murderers. We are treated with the utmost hostility
and our lives and possessions are in the greatest danger."
At the Congress of Berlin in 1878 the European powers intimated that they were not opposed to the extension of French
influence in Tunisia following France's acquisition of Algeria. The Jews at first welcomed the arrival of the French, but they
were soon to learn that the French expected all citizens of Tunisia to remain loyal citizens of the Bey of Tunis and, unlike the
Algerian Jews, were not to be offered French nationality. With the approval of the French, the Bey undertook the task of
radically re-organising the Jewish community. The prime representative of the community was to be the Chief Rabbinate.
The Beth Din was to deal with matters of personal status and civil matters were to be dealt with only in the Muslim courts.
The Chief Rabbinate was to submit its accounts to the Bey and to raise its revenue from the jabella, a tax on kosher meat,
wine and matzoth. Any shortfall in revenue would be made up by a levy on the value of the property of the community.
Revenue raised was to be applied to support the aid and welfare program and the traditional educational institutions, such as
the Talmud Torah, yeshivoth and schools. With the outbreak of the First World War, the French were most disappointed at
the reluctance of the Tunisian Jews to recruit for active service on behalf of France, in contrast to the patriotism of the
Algerian Jews who flocked to the colours. The Tunisian Jews felt disinclined to risk their lives for their colonial masters
whilst they stood by and allowed the Muslims to confer inferior legal status upon them. They were also disenchanted with the
anti-Semitism of the French colonial officials. Matters came to a head in August 1917 when, for three consecutive days,
intense anti-Jewish feeling amongst the military resulted in soldiers attacking the Jews and pillaging their homes and
businesses. Nevertheless, the French presence over a period of time had the effect of imbuing the Jews with French culture
and the French language. Eventually, under a decree of 1923, the Jews were granted the option of acquiring French
citizenship, of which some 35,000 took advantage between 1923 and the end of the French Protectorate in 1956.
The conquest of France by the Germans in 1940 led to the establishment of the pro-German puppet regime of Vichy whose
anti-Semitic race laws were incorporated into the Statute Books of France and its protectorates, including Tunisia. Following
the Allied victory at El Alamein in October 1942, German forces were ordered to occupy Tunisia and in doing so brought
under their control a population of 90,000 Jews. The Germans immediately abolished all the communal organisations and
mandated all Jews to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothing. 5,000 young Jews were taken into forced labour camps;
a fine of twenty million francs was levied on the community as a whole; bank accounts were expropriated and valuables
Fortunately, the Germans were forced to evacuate the country in March 1943 before they could annihilate the Jewish
population as they were doing in Europe, but nevertheless it took some time before the pain and suffering of the six-month
With the ending of the German occupation, the rights of the Jews were restored. After 1945, the Jewish population of Tunisia
reached a peak of 105,000 (65,000 in Tunis alone), along with hundreds of rabbis and synagogues. Jewish newspapers
appeared in abundance, and Jewish students were graduating from the universities in significant numbers and entering a wide
spectrum of professions.
However, despite the sense of revival and renewal that pervaded the Jewish population, it was going to be proved a false
dawn. The revival coincided with an intensification of the struggle of the Muslim population for independence. The
independence movement had commenced its activities in the 1930s under the leadership of the young Habib Bourguiba and
had included a number of Jewish activists, most notably André Barouche. The struggle escalated with increasing ferocity
until, in 1954, the French Prime Minister, Pierre Mendès-France, himself a Jew, granted Tunisia home rule as a first step to
full sovereignty, which was achieved in March 1956. Habib Bourguiba became President and in his first government
included his old comrade-in-arms, André Barouche.
Despite the apparent warm and tolerant attitude towards Tunisia's Jewish subjects, Bourguiba ordered the dissolution of all
Jewish organisations into one body known as the Jewish Religious Council, the members of which were appointed by the
President. The existence of a multitude of Jewish organisations was held to be in conflict with the Government's aiming of
equality for all citizens as guaranteed by the new constitution. Under an order for slum clearance, the ancient Jewish quarter
was razed to the ground, thereby demolishing the oldest and most historic synagogue in Tunis.
Jews became prime targets for attack, particularly in the wake of occurrences such as the Suez crisis of 1956. Mob violence
broke out in Tunis on 5 June 1967, the day Israel attacked its neighbours. One hundred shops were systematically looted and
burnt; cars belonging to Jews were overturned and set ablaze; forty scrolls of the Law were taken out of the main synagogue
by the pillagers and were desacrated before they were burnt; the main synagogue was itself set on fire until it lay a
smouldering ruin, the police having stood by and watched. President Bourguiba made an impassioned plea on radio and
television to stop the rioting, apologising to the Jewish community and promising to punish the perpetrators. Under these
conditions, the Jews of Tunisia derived little comfort from the Government's expressions of regret and abandoned any idea
that there could be a future in remaining in the country. From the peak Jewish population of 105,000, the community
declined to 23,000 by the end of 1967 and to 9,000 by 1990. About 60,000 chose to go to France, which allowed unrestricted
immigration, while the remaining 45,000 emigrated predominantly to Israel. The Jewish population today numbers about
3,000, most of whom live mainly in Tunis and on the island of Djerba in the south of the country. The security of this very
small community has been guaranteed by the Government, which has restored to the community a number of communal
buildings that had been confiscated at the time of the riots. However, although the community is acquiring synagogues it is
not acquiring congregates to fill them, and it is therefore hard to visualise a return by this ancient community to its former
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- Copyright © 2001: Moïse Rahmani -