History of the Jews in Tunisia

Jews of Tunis, c. 1900
Jewish couple in Tunisia, 1900

The history of the Jews in Tunisia goes back to the Punic era. As of 2011, 700 Jews were living in Tunis and 1,000 on the island of Djerba.[1]

The community formerly used its own dialect of Arabic. The vast majority of Tunisian Jews have relocated to Israel and have switched to using Hebrew as their home language. Tunisian Jews living in France typically use French as their first language, while the few still left in Tunisia tend to use either French or Tunisian Arabic in their everyday lives.


A tradition among the descendants of the first Jewish settlers was that their ancestors settled in that part of North Africa long before the destruction of the First Temple in the 6th century BCE. The ruins of an ancient synagogue dating back to the 3rd-5th century CE was discovered by the French captain Ernest De Prudhomme in his Hammam-Lif residence in 1883 called in Latin as sancta synagoga naronitana ("holy synagogue of Naro"). After the fall of the Second Temple, many exiled Jews settled in 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 the dominion of the Romans and (after 429) of the fairly tolerant Vandals, the Jews 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 the Pagans. As elsewhere in the Roman Empire, the Jews of Roman Africa were romanized after hundreds of years of subjection and would have adopted Latinized names, worn the toga, and spoken Latin.

In the 7th century, the Jewish population was augmented by Spanish immigrants, who, fleeing from the persecutions of the Visigothic king Sisebut and his successors, escaped to Mauritania and settled in Byzantine cities. Al-Ḳairuwani relates that at the time of the conquest of Hippo Zaritus (Arabic: Bizerta) by Ḥasan 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 Arabic-speaking Jews from the Levant into Tunis took place.

Under Islam

In 788, when Idris I of Morocco (Imam Idris) proclaimed Mauritania's independence of the Abbasid 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 Jewish women. The victorious Idris avenged this defection by attacking the Jews in their cities. The Jews were required to pay a capitation-tax and 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 Djerba are the descendants of that tribe. In 793 Imam Idris was poisoned at the command of caliph Harun al-Rashid (it is said, by the governor's physician Shamma, probably a Jew), and circa 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 (Kairouan), which was established soon after the foundation of that city by 'Uḳba 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 Almohad dynasty to the throne of the Maghreb provinces in 1146 proved very disastrous to the Jews of Tunis. The first Almohad, 'Abd al-Mu'min, claimed that Muhammad 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 Almohadis compelled them to wear a special garb, with a yellow cloth for a head-covering.

Under the Hafsid and the Spanish (1236-1857)

Under the Hafsid dynasty, which was established in 1236 as a breakaway from the Almohad dynasty, the condition of the Jews greatly improved. Besides Kairwan, there were at that time important communities in Mehdia, Kalaa, the island of Djerba, and the city of Tunis. Considered at first as foreigners, the Jews were not permitted to settle in the interior of Tunis, but had to live in a building called a funduk. Subsequently, however, a wealthy and humane Muslim, Sidi Mahrez, who in 1159 had rendered great services to the Almohad king, 'Abd al-Mu'min, obtained for them the right to settle in a special quarter of the city. 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 Louis IX of France, who had undertaken a crusade against Tunis, the cities of Kairwan and Ḥammat 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.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Jews of Tunis were treated more cruelly than those elsewhere in the Maghreb. While refugees from Spain and Portugal flocked to Algeria and Morocco, only some chose to settle in Tunis. The Tunisian Jews had no eminent rabbis or scholars and had to consult those of Algeria or Morocco on 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 collection of Jewish taxes.

Three kinds of taxes were imposed on Tunisian Jews:

  1. a communal tax, to which every member contributed according to his means;
  2. a personal or capitation tax (the jizya);
  3. a general tax, which was levied upon the Muslims also.

In addition to these, every Jewish tradesman and industrialist had to pay an annual tax to the guild. After the 13th century, taxes were collected by a "caid," who also served as an intermediary between the government and the Jews. 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 Bizerte, 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. They were free to practice their religion and administer their own affairs. Nevertheless, they were subject to the caprices of princes and outbursts of 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 16th century Tunisia and more particularly Tunis had an influx of families of Spanish origin, initially settled in Livorno (Tuscany, Italy), and who moved to work in trading centers. These new settlers, called granas in Arabic or gorneyim (גורנים) in Hebrew after the name of the city in both languages, were wealthier than the Jewish natives called touensa. They spoke and wrote in Italian but gradually adopted the local Arabic while introducing their traditional liturgy in their newly host country.

From the beginning of the 18th century the political status of the Jews in Tunis improved. This was due to the 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. Haim Joseph David Azulai, who visited Tunis in 1772, praised this development. In 1819, the United States consul in Tunis, Mordecai Manuel Noah, gave the following account of the situation of the Tunisian Jews:[2]

"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."

Mohammed Bey (1855-1881)

During the long reign of Ahmed I Bey, the Jews enjoyed prosperity. His successor, Muhammad II ibn al-Husayn, inaugurated his reign in 1855 by abolishing the drudgery 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. That year, however Mohammed Bey had a Jew named Batou Sfez executed for 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."

The constitution was abrogated 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.

French Protectorate (1881-1956)

Mourners in the Borgel Jewish Cemetery, Tunis, c. 1900.
Jewish Money changer in Tunisia

The Jews of Tunisia felt much safer under the French protectorate. Contact with the French colonizers of Tunisia and the official presence of the French facilitated the assimilation of the Jews of Tunisia to French culture and their emancipation. Relying on the French revolutionary promise of Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the Jews hoped for a better life and were very receptive to the new French influences, though they had a Christian European source. For the generation born under the protectorate, the French language replaced Judeo-Arabic as the mother tongue of the Jews of French Tunisia."[3]

The Holocaust

Following the armistice in June 1940, French Tunisia became part of Vichy France, the new French state ruled by collaborationist Marshal Philippe Pétain during France's occupation by Nazi Germany in World War II. Under the rule of Pétain's collaborationist regime, the Jews of Vichy France and Vichy Tunisia were subjected to the two antisemitic Statut des Juifs (Jewish Statutes of October 3, 1940 and June 2, 1941), like the Jews in mainland France. Thus, discriminatory legislation defined the Jews, restricted them in the public service, in educational institutions and journalism, and in liberal professions (numerus clausus), counted them (Jewish census), and forced them to register their property to be subsequently aryanized. Consequently, Jews found themselves in their prior inferior status of “natives” and were impoverished. In August 1941, Xavier Vallat, head of the Office for Jewish Affairs (Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives), came from Metropolitan France to check the matter of the Jewish question. According to an article on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) website[4] “The history of the Holocaust in France's three North African colonies (French Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) is intrinsically tied to France's fate during this period.” Holocaust scholar Martin Gilbert specified that the persecution of the Jews of French North Africa was an integral part of the Holocaust in France. French Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia in North Africa were considered part of Europe, as per a French and German document relevant to the Final Solution of the Jewish question. The Jews of French North Africa were relatively fortunate because their distance from Nazi concentration camps in Central and Eastern Europe permitted them to avoid the fate of their coreligionists in Metropolitan France. Immediately after the Allied landings in Algeria and Morocco, the Germans occupied Vichy Tunisia. On November 23, 1942, the Germans arrested Moises Burgel, the president of the Tunis Jewish community, and several other prominent Jews. The Jews of Denmark and Vichy Tunisia were spared the mass deportations and mass murder that happened in the rest of Europe

When the Nazis invaded Vichy Tunisia, the country was home to some 100,000 Jews. According to Yad Vashem, the Nazis imposed antisemitic policies including forcing Jews to wear the yellow badge (Star of David), fines, and confiscation of property. More than 5,000 Jews were sent to forced labor camps, where 265 are known to have died. An additional 160 Jews of Tunisia living in France were sent to European extermination camps.

Khaled Abdelwahhab, a Muslim Arab of Vichy Tunisia, "the Arab Schindler," was the first Arab nominated for the Israeli Righteous Among the Nations award.

Arab Spring (post 2011)

Lag Ba'Omer procession returning to the El Ghriba synagogue in Er-Riadh (Hara Sghira), Djerba 2007

After the Tunisian Revolution, Ennahda became the leading political force in the country, elected as the largest party in the transitional government. The party's leader, Rashid Al-Ghannushi, sent a delegation to the Jews in Djerba, assuring them that they have nothing to worry about in a democratic Tunisia, where the Islamists would play a larger role. He even sent gifts to the Jewish nursing homes in Tunis.[5] Nevertheless, multiple profanations against Jewish cemeteries occurred and the Jewish Ghriba festival was cancelled in 2011 for security reasons. Anti-Jewish actions were reported to mount and a case was filed for hate speech against Jews in April 2012. In November 2012, the community asked for the army's protection when a policeman was arrested after plotting to kidnap a young Jew for a ransom.[6]

In 2011, the Israeli cabinet announced that it had allocated funding to help Tunisian Jews move to Israel due to growing manifestations of anti-Jewish and the difficult economic situation.[7]

In January 2014, the Ennahda-led government voluntarily stepped aside and a transitional government, appointed to rule during the drafting of the new constitution until democratic elections would be held later in the year, took office. The new secular constitution for the first time explicitly protected not only freedom of religion, but freedom of conscience (freedom to become atheist, leave or change religions), and explicitly protected minorities such as Jews from official or unofficial discrimination. The new Tunisian constitution is the first of its kind in the Maghreb and the Arab world in embracing both Arabism and liberal secularism, and is seen as a model for other countries to adopt. The democratically-elected constitutional committee, dominated by Ennahda, also rejected terms which would have forbidden relations with Israel.

On January 12, 2014, the new Tunisian Prime Minister, Mehdi Jomaa, nominated René Trabelsi, a kippah-wearing Tunisian Jew from Djerba and the owner of a large Tunisian travel agency, to be the new Minister of Tourism.[8]

Education and culture

The Jewish community in Tunis operates three primary schools, two secondary schools and a yeshiva. The Jewish community in Djerba operates one kindergarten, two primary schools, two secondary schools and a yeshiva. There is also a Jewish primary school and synagogue in the coastal city of Zarzis. The Jewish community also has two homes for the aged and several kosher restaurants.

Tunisia's first Jewish museum opened in 2012. [9]


Great Synagogue of Tunis

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. 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. Hayyim Madar was the chief rabbi until his death on 3 December 2004. Memorial services were held at the Beit Mordekhai Synagogue in La Goulette, Tunis, and the El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba.[10][11][12]

Notable Tunisian Jews

See also


  1. Ettinger, Yair (2011-01-17). "Sociologist Claude Sitbon, do the Jews of Tunisia have reason to be afraid? - Israel News | Haaretz Daily Newspaper". Haaretz.com. Retrieved 2012-10-04.
  2. "Travels in Europe and Africa," p. 308, New York, 1819
  3. Shaked, Edith. "On the State of Being (Jewish) between "Orient" and "Occident"" (PDF). University of Arizona. Retrieved October 14, 2012.
  4. "Vichy Discrimination against Jews in Vichy North Africa". Ushmm.org. Retrieved 2012-10-04.
  5. "Islamist victory casts shadow over Tunisian Jews". Ynetnews.com. Retrieved 2012-10-04.
  6. "Tunisie : la communauté juive réclame sa protection par l'armée". LePoint.fr. Retrieved 2013-04-30.
  7. Israel, Tunisia Spar Over Jewish Immigration
  8. http://alyaexpress-news.com/2014/01/un-juif-au-sein-du-nouveau-gouvernement-de-tunisie-par-raafet-khamouna/
  9. Lavie, Dan (January 1, 2012). "Tunisia's first Jewish museum opens its doors". Israel Hayom. Retrieved 2016-10-07.
  10. "Death of the Grand Rabbi of Tunisia". Alfassa.com. Retrieved 2012-10-04.
  11. Archive: 12/3/2004 (2004-12-03). "Chief Rabbi of Djerba Dies in a Jerusalem Hospital - Latest News Briefs". Israel National News. Retrieved 2012-10-04.
  12. "Condolences Extended to Family of Head Tunisian Rabbi". Magharebia.com. 2004-12-05. Retrieved 2012-10-04.
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