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Graduates of Alliance school, Tunis Tunisia 1953

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Eighth-grade Graduates of Alliance school,
Tunis Tunisia 1953
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Georgette Thuthan)
Photo period:
1953
ID Number:
148973
Image Purchase: For more details about image purchasing Click here, make sure you have the photo ID number (as appear above)
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Tunis

In Arabic:  تونس

Capital of Tunisia and its largest city. Located in the northeast of Tunisia.

Jews probably lived in Punic Carthage (which was destroyed in 146 BCE), though there is no hard evidence that can positively prove their presence there. Nonetheless, the Septuagint and the Aramaic Targum of the prophets identifies the "Tarshish" mentioned in the Bible as "Carthage." The province of Africa under Roman rule did include a number of Jewish communities for which there is ample archeological and textual evidence. Jews of the Roman province in Africa during the first centuries CE enjoyed a level of tolerance and freedom that allowed them to both practice their religion, and flourish economically. The Jews of Carthage were particularly wealthy and engaged in maritime trade or agriculture.

Things began to change, however, during the fourth century when Christianity began to dominate religious and political life. Jews were subject to various discriminatory laws that impacted their economic and religious lives. Later, with the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the 8th century, the Jews coexisted peacefully with their Muslim neighbors, and both communities maintained friendly intellectual, social, and business relationships with each other. A major intellectual center of North African Jewry emerged in the city of Kairouan in the northeast of Tunisia. Kairouan had a number of famous yeshivot, led by prominent scholars who maintained close relationships with the geonim of the academies of Sura, Pumbedita, and Palestine. Though Tunis had been chosen in 698 to replace the fallen capital of Carthage, it would not become as important as Kairouan for many years.

In 1159 the Almohad Dynasty invaded Tunisia and conquered Tunis. They killed the inhabitants of the town who refused to convert to Islam. Many Jews converted, while others fled. The situation of the Jews improved considerably, however, under the Hefsid Dynasty (1228-1574). Tunis became the capital city, and many Jews who had been forced to convert returned to Judaism. The synagogues, which had been closed under the Almohads, were reopened and the Jews no longer had to live in fear. Though the community did not enjoy the same level of wealth that it had before the reigns of the Almohads, it was nonetheless able to reestablish profitable business enterprises and some individual members were appointed to important positions within the empire. At the same time, it is important to note that Jews under Hafsid rule were legally classified as "dhimmi," tolerated and protected as "people of the Book," but seen as inferior to Muslims. This meant that the Jews, along with other dhimmi, were required to pay special taxes, and had to wear distinctive badges or clothing that would distinguish them from Muslims. The Jews of Tunis wore special clothing and displayed a piece of yellow cloth on their heads or necks as late as 1470.

In spite of the restrictions imposed on them, the Jews of Tunis were allowed full property rights and could buy and sell property without any special restrictions. The Jewish community was also officially recognized by the government and enjoyed administrative and cultural autonomy. The communities were led by "gedolei ha-kahal," essentially the wealthiest businessmen, and were not elected by the community. These gedolei hakahal were responsible for managing charitable funds, while other community leaders administered the synagogues and religious funds.

During the period of Ottoman rule (1574-1881), the city of Tunis became the cultural and economic center for the Jews of Tunisia and North African Jews more generally. During this period the Jews of Tunis worked as traders, artisans, craftsmen, goldsmiths, jewelers, tailors, shoemakers, and carpenters. They were also appointed to various government positions.

Tunisian Jewry began to flourish economically in the 16th century with the arrival of Jews from Livorno, Italy. The Jews of Livorno turned the "Shuq-el-Grana" into the economic center of the town, and opened three synagogues and two payer houses. Most of what was produced there was sent to Livorno or Marseilles. There was, however, tension between the Jews who were native to Tunisia and those who arrived more recently from Livorno. Ultimately the two communities split in 1710, and the "Grana" (those Jews who had arrived from Livorno) established an independent community, including a cemetery, slaughterhouses, rabbinical court, dayyanim, and chief rabbi. This state of affairs lasted officially until 1899, when the authorities called for the two communities to merge; however, in reality the communities maintained distinctions and distances between them, prompting the authorities to once again intervene and decree that the communities merge in 1944.

The leadership structure of the Tunisian Jewish community remained unchanged for centuries. The community was led by a qa'id, who had considerable authority over the community and was mainly responsible for collecting taxes. The qa'id was usually a member of the native Tunisian community, as opposed to the Livorno community, giving the former considerable power over the community. Additionally, rabbinic leaders tended to be from native Tunisian families, with the exception of Rabbi Isaac Lombroso who was nonetheless a student of prominent rabbis from the native Tunisian community, most notably Rabbi Zemah Sefarti and Rabbi Abraham Tayeb, the well-known "Baba Sidi."

A number of Jewish works were written by the distinguished rabbis of Tunis. The Baba Sidi's grandson, Rabbi Abraham, wrote a commentary on the Talmud and the major commentators Alfasi, Rashi, and Maimonides, called "Chayyei Avraham." His son wrote "Derekh Hayyim." Rabbi Isaac Tayeb also wrote a number of works. Rabbi Uzziel Alhayk was the author of Mishkenot HaRo'im, an encyclopedic rabbinic code that dealt with the internal and public issues faced by Tunisian Jews during the 17th and 18th centuries. Starting in the 17th century Tunis became an important center of Jewish learning, particularly for Talmud and the Kabbalah.

During the 17th century until the beginning of the 19th century, the Jews of Tunis chiefly worked as manufacturers of wool or silk shawls. More than half of the shawls they produced were actually tallitot; during this period Polish Jews could very well have put on a tallit that was originally produced in Tunis.

The population density of the Jewish quarter increased during the 18th century, and the rising cost of housing caused many Jews to leave the city. Modernization, however, brought many Jews from small villages to the city; the Jewish community of Tunis was the first to embrace European emancipation and modernization, especially after the French conquered Tunisia in 1881. In 1878 the first Alliance Israelite Universelle school was founded in the city; this school offered religious studies along with Hebrew, French, and general subjects and served to further promote French influence within the community. On the other end of the modernity spectrum, Talmud Torah and other traditional yeshivahs continued to act as bulwarks against the exposure of the community's youth to the influence of French culture. In 1908 there were 400 children enrolled in the Alliance school, with 800 in the Katab (the traditional local cheder where pupils were taught only in Hebrew and Arabic). The influence of Eastern European maskilim (proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment) was also felt within the city. There were a number of maskilic newspapers and books from Eastern Europe that were published in Tunis in Judeo-Arabic.

After the French established a protectorate in Tunisia, they established a new institution, L'Assemblee des Notables, to lead the Jewish community. The chief rabbi of Tunis would represent all of the Jews of the community, and the French government paid his salary. Later, in 1921, the French decided instead to create the Conseil de la Communaute Israelite. Members of this council were elected; any man who paid his taxes to the community was eligible to vote. Zionist groups, the La Justice party (which sought to promote French influence within the community), and other ideologies sought to exert their influence over the community through the council.

Zionism was a particularly active ideology within Tunisia, in spite of the fact that French authorities forbade any political Zionist activism (cultural Zionist activities were allowed). The first Zionist organization established in the community was Agudat Zion, in 1910. Agudat Zion would publish a Zionist newspaper, "Kol Zion," contribute to Keren Kayemet, and send a representative to the Tenth Zionist Congress. After World War I, Tunisian Zionists established the Tunisian Zionist Federation as an umbrella organization for the city's Zionist activities. Though the Federation was not a strong organization, it nonetheless dealt with the various organizational requirements necessary in helping to spread Zionist ideology to the Jews of Tunisia. The Alliance Israelite Universelle proved to be an opponent of Zionism, instead wanting to see an integration of the Jews into French society. While the Zionists called on alliance schools to teach Jewish history and modern Hebrew, the Alliance emphasized a deep attachment to French culture. In 1921 elections were held for the community assembly. Sixty delegates were elected, among them 14 Zionists. The assembly also elected a board of 12 members with a proportional representation between the Livornoses and the Tunisians.

A number of Zionist youth movements arose during the twenties and thirties. In addition to the Beitar movement, which was the largest of the Zionist youth groups, there was also the Eclaireurs Israelites de France (EIF), the Union Universelle de Jeunese Juive (UUJJ), and HaShomer HaZair.

At the beginning of the 20th century there were 24,000 Jews living in Tunis. By the eve of the World War II their number had increased to nearly 30,000 (30% of the total population).

THE HOLOCAUST

The anti-Jewish legislation imposed by the Vichy government during World War II included the Jews of Tunisia. Jews were removed from public services, forbidden to work in professions such as medicine and law, and many were forced out of their businesses.

The Germans invaded Tunisia on November 8, 1942 and the country remained under German and Italian control until 1943. During the occupation, the Germans established a Judenrat-like committee in Tunis led by Paul Ghez. The Jewish community went through aerial bombardments, both from Allied and German forces. Approximately 4,000-5,000 young Jews were sent to forced labor near the front line, and they were interned in about 30 military camps located along the battlefields. Jewish property was confiscated, buildings such as the Alliance school and the Great Synagogue were closed down and repurposed, and the community was forced to pay a 53 million franc fine. Ultimately the failure of the French government to protect them led the Jews of Tunis, and Tunisia, to feel alienated from France and French culture.

POSTWAR

After the Allies liberated Tunisia, waves of emigration began. The first took place in 1947-48, in spite of the fact that Jews could not legally immigrate to Mandate Palestine. With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 came more waves of emigration from Tunis, chiefly arranged through the Jewish Agency and Aliyat HaNoar. In 1946 the Jewish community in Tunis numbered 34,200; by 1953 about 15,000 Jews had emigrated from Tunisia.

On March 20, 1956, Tunisia achieved independence. The newly independent country favored allowing its Jews to fully integrate into Tunisian society. All Tunisians, including the Jews, were allowed to vote in elections for the Constituent Assembly, ten Jewish judges were appointed to the country's courts to decide cases dealing with Jewish litigants, and an Interim Committee for the Management of the Affairs of the Jewish Community was established. At the same time, however, in Tunis the Jewish Quarter was destroyed, and the old Jewish cemetery was turned into a public park and the remains were transferred elsewhere. Later, in 1961, Yom Kippur was declared an official holiday, thereby allowing Jews to take the day off from work. Emigration to Israel temporarily decreased.

Nonetheless, the difficult economic situation, and increasing tensions stemming from the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Jewish community of Tunis, and of Tunisia, redoubled their efforts to leave the country. Anti-Jewish riots took place in Tunis in 1967, after the Six Day War. It was at this time that Tunisia underwent a period of Arabization, a development that negatively impacted the Jewish community. In 1971 Rabbi Mazliach Mazuz, who established the Kisei Rachamim yeshiva in Tunis, was murdered on his way home from his morning prayers.

The Jewish population of Tunis continued to decrease. In 1979 there were 3,000 Jews left of the city, most of whom were elderly and had moved from other communities whose Jewish communities were gone, as well as a few rich families who could not, or would not, leave their property behind.

By 2005 there were 1,500 Jews in Tunisia, most of whom lived in Tunis and Djerba.

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Graduates of Alliance school, Tunis Tunisia 1953
Eighth-grade Graduates of Alliance school,
Tunis Tunisia 1953
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Georgette Thuthan)
Image Purchase: For more details about image purchasing Click here, make sure you have the photo ID number (as appear above)

Tunis

Tunis

In Arabic:  تونس

Capital of Tunisia and its largest city. Located in the northeast of Tunisia.

Jews probably lived in Punic Carthage (which was destroyed in 146 BCE), though there is no hard evidence that can positively prove their presence there. Nonetheless, the Septuagint and the Aramaic Targum of the prophets identifies the "Tarshish" mentioned in the Bible as "Carthage." The province of Africa under Roman rule did include a number of Jewish communities for which there is ample archeological and textual evidence. Jews of the Roman province in Africa during the first centuries CE enjoyed a level of tolerance and freedom that allowed them to both practice their religion, and flourish economically. The Jews of Carthage were particularly wealthy and engaged in maritime trade or agriculture.

Things began to change, however, during the fourth century when Christianity began to dominate religious and political life. Jews were subject to various discriminatory laws that impacted their economic and religious lives. Later, with the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the 8th century, the Jews coexisted peacefully with their Muslim neighbors, and both communities maintained friendly intellectual, social, and business relationships with each other. A major intellectual center of North African Jewry emerged in the city of Kairouan in the northeast of Tunisia. Kairouan had a number of famous yeshivot, led by prominent scholars who maintained close relationships with the geonim of the academies of Sura, Pumbedita, and Palestine. Though Tunis had been chosen in 698 to replace the fallen capital of Carthage, it would not become as important as Kairouan for many years.

In 1159 the Almohad Dynasty invaded Tunisia and conquered Tunis. They killed the inhabitants of the town who refused to convert to Islam. Many Jews converted, while others fled. The situation of the Jews improved considerably, however, under the Hefsid Dynasty (1228-1574). Tunis became the capital city, and many Jews who had been forced to convert returned to Judaism. The synagogues, which had been closed under the Almohads, were reopened and the Jews no longer had to live in fear. Though the community did not enjoy the same level of wealth that it had before the reigns of the Almohads, it was nonetheless able to reestablish profitable business enterprises and some individual members were appointed to important positions within the empire. At the same time, it is important to note that Jews under Hafsid rule were legally classified as "dhimmi," tolerated and protected as "people of the Book," but seen as inferior to Muslims. This meant that the Jews, along with other dhimmi, were required to pay special taxes, and had to wear distinctive badges or clothing that would distinguish them from Muslims. The Jews of Tunis wore special clothing and displayed a piece of yellow cloth on their heads or necks as late as 1470.

In spite of the restrictions imposed on them, the Jews of Tunis were allowed full property rights and could buy and sell property without any special restrictions. The Jewish community was also officially recognized by the government and enjoyed administrative and cultural autonomy. The communities were led by "gedolei ha-kahal," essentially the wealthiest businessmen, and were not elected by the community. These gedolei hakahal were responsible for managing charitable funds, while other community leaders administered the synagogues and religious funds.

During the period of Ottoman rule (1574-1881), the city of Tunis became the cultural and economic center for the Jews of Tunisia and North African Jews more generally. During this period the Jews of Tunis worked as traders, artisans, craftsmen, goldsmiths, jewelers, tailors, shoemakers, and carpenters. They were also appointed to various government positions.

Tunisian Jewry began to flourish economically in the 16th century with the arrival of Jews from Livorno, Italy. The Jews of Livorno turned the "Shuq-el-Grana" into the economic center of the town, and opened three synagogues and two payer houses. Most of what was produced there was sent to Livorno or Marseilles. There was, however, tension between the Jews who were native to Tunisia and those who arrived more recently from Livorno. Ultimately the two communities split in 1710, and the "Grana" (those Jews who had arrived from Livorno) established an independent community, including a cemetery, slaughterhouses, rabbinical court, dayyanim, and chief rabbi. This state of affairs lasted officially until 1899, when the authorities called for the two communities to merge; however, in reality the communities maintained distinctions and distances between them, prompting the authorities to once again intervene and decree that the communities merge in 1944.

The leadership structure of the Tunisian Jewish community remained unchanged for centuries. The community was led by a qa'id, who had considerable authority over the community and was mainly responsible for collecting taxes. The qa'id was usually a member of the native Tunisian community, as opposed to the Livorno community, giving the former considerable power over the community. Additionally, rabbinic leaders tended to be from native Tunisian families, with the exception of Rabbi Isaac Lombroso who was nonetheless a student of prominent rabbis from the native Tunisian community, most notably Rabbi Zemah Sefarti and Rabbi Abraham Tayeb, the well-known "Baba Sidi."

A number of Jewish works were written by the distinguished rabbis of Tunis. The Baba Sidi's grandson, Rabbi Abraham, wrote a commentary on the Talmud and the major commentators Alfasi, Rashi, and Maimonides, called "Chayyei Avraham." His son wrote "Derekh Hayyim." Rabbi Isaac Tayeb also wrote a number of works. Rabbi Uzziel Alhayk was the author of Mishkenot HaRo'im, an encyclopedic rabbinic code that dealt with the internal and public issues faced by Tunisian Jews during the 17th and 18th centuries. Starting in the 17th century Tunis became an important center of Jewish learning, particularly for Talmud and the Kabbalah.

During the 17th century until the beginning of the 19th century, the Jews of Tunis chiefly worked as manufacturers of wool or silk shawls. More than half of the shawls they produced were actually tallitot; during this period Polish Jews could very well have put on a tallit that was originally produced in Tunis.

The population density of the Jewish quarter increased during the 18th century, and the rising cost of housing caused many Jews to leave the city. Modernization, however, brought many Jews from small villages to the city; the Jewish community of Tunis was the first to embrace European emancipation and modernization, especially after the French conquered Tunisia in 1881. In 1878 the first Alliance Israelite Universelle school was founded in the city; this school offered religious studies along with Hebrew, French, and general subjects and served to further promote French influence within the community. On the other end of the modernity spectrum, Talmud Torah and other traditional yeshivahs continued to act as bulwarks against the exposure of the community's youth to the influence of French culture. In 1908 there were 400 children enrolled in the Alliance school, with 800 in the Katab (the traditional local cheder where pupils were taught only in Hebrew and Arabic). The influence of Eastern European maskilim (proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment) was also felt within the city. There were a number of maskilic newspapers and books from Eastern Europe that were published in Tunis in Judeo-Arabic.

After the French established a protectorate in Tunisia, they established a new institution, L'Assemblee des Notables, to lead the Jewish community. The chief rabbi of Tunis would represent all of the Jews of the community, and the French government paid his salary. Later, in 1921, the French decided instead to create the Conseil de la Communaute Israelite. Members of this council were elected; any man who paid his taxes to the community was eligible to vote. Zionist groups, the La Justice party (which sought to promote French influence within the community), and other ideologies sought to exert their influence over the community through the council.

Zionism was a particularly active ideology within Tunisia, in spite of the fact that French authorities forbade any political Zionist activism (cultural Zionist activities were allowed). The first Zionist organization established in the community was Agudat Zion, in 1910. Agudat Zion would publish a Zionist newspaper, "Kol Zion," contribute to Keren Kayemet, and send a representative to the Tenth Zionist Congress. After World War I, Tunisian Zionists established the Tunisian Zionist Federation as an umbrella organization for the city's Zionist activities. Though the Federation was not a strong organization, it nonetheless dealt with the various organizational requirements necessary in helping to spread Zionist ideology to the Jews of Tunisia. The Alliance Israelite Universelle proved to be an opponent of Zionism, instead wanting to see an integration of the Jews into French society. While the Zionists called on alliance schools to teach Jewish history and modern Hebrew, the Alliance emphasized a deep attachment to French culture. In 1921 elections were held for the community assembly. Sixty delegates were elected, among them 14 Zionists. The assembly also elected a board of 12 members with a proportional representation between the Livornoses and the Tunisians.

A number of Zionist youth movements arose during the twenties and thirties. In addition to the Beitar movement, which was the largest of the Zionist youth groups, there was also the Eclaireurs Israelites de France (EIF), the Union Universelle de Jeunese Juive (UUJJ), and HaShomer HaZair.

At the beginning of the 20th century there were 24,000 Jews living in Tunis. By the eve of the World War II their number had increased to nearly 30,000 (30% of the total population).

THE HOLOCAUST

The anti-Jewish legislation imposed by the Vichy government during World War II included the Jews of Tunisia. Jews were removed from public services, forbidden to work in professions such as medicine and law, and many were forced out of their businesses.

The Germans invaded Tunisia on November 8, 1942 and the country remained under German and Italian control until 1943. During the occupation, the Germans established a Judenrat-like committee in Tunis led by Paul Ghez. The Jewish community went through aerial bombardments, both from Allied and German forces. Approximately 4,000-5,000 young Jews were sent to forced labor near the front line, and they were interned in about 30 military camps located along the battlefields. Jewish property was confiscated, buildings such as the Alliance school and the Great Synagogue were closed down and repurposed, and the community was forced to pay a 53 million franc fine. Ultimately the failure of the French government to protect them led the Jews of Tunis, and Tunisia, to feel alienated from France and French culture.

POSTWAR

After the Allies liberated Tunisia, waves of emigration began. The first took place in 1947-48, in spite of the fact that Jews could not legally immigrate to Mandate Palestine. With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 came more waves of emigration from Tunis, chiefly arranged through the Jewish Agency and Aliyat HaNoar. In 1946 the Jewish community in Tunis numbered 34,200; by 1953 about 15,000 Jews had emigrated from Tunisia.

On March 20, 1956, Tunisia achieved independence. The newly independent country favored allowing its Jews to fully integrate into Tunisian society. All Tunisians, including the Jews, were allowed to vote in elections for the Constituent Assembly, ten Jewish judges were appointed to the country's courts to decide cases dealing with Jewish litigants, and an Interim Committee for the Management of the Affairs of the Jewish Community was established. At the same time, however, in Tunis the Jewish Quarter was destroyed, and the old Jewish cemetery was turned into a public park and the remains were transferred elsewhere. Later, in 1961, Yom Kippur was declared an official holiday, thereby allowing Jews to take the day off from work. Emigration to Israel temporarily decreased.

Nonetheless, the difficult economic situation, and increasing tensions stemming from the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Jewish community of Tunis, and of Tunisia, redoubled their efforts to leave the country. Anti-Jewish riots took place in Tunis in 1967, after the Six Day War. It was at this time that Tunisia underwent a period of Arabization, a development that negatively impacted the Jewish community. In 1971 Rabbi Mazliach Mazuz, who established the Kisei Rachamim yeshiva in Tunis, was murdered on his way home from his morning prayers.

The Jewish population of Tunis continued to decrease. In 1979 there were 3,000 Jews left of the city, most of whom were elderly and had moved from other communities whose Jewish communities were gone, as well as a few rich families who could not, or would not, leave their property behind.

By 2005 there were 1,500 Jews in Tunisia, most of whom lived in Tunis and Djerba.