History of the Jews in Tunisia

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Tunisia 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. Judaism was eventually eradicated and the synagogues converted into churches.

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. 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, harshly persecuted the Jews, who 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 poll-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.

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 the Suq-al-Grana.

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.

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.

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. 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 confiscated.

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 occupation receded.

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.

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.

Starting from the mid-1950, emigration of Jews to Israel or France gradually accelerated. In all, some 25 000 Jews left Tunisia between 1948 and 1955. Today, the last traces of the past are fast fading away. Despite real efforts by the Tunisian government and associations, cemeteries are lying in ruin and synagogues are closing down for lack of followers. In the collective memory, especially of the new generations, Tunisian Judaism is a thing of the past.