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Memorial plaque in memory of Esther Raccah, Synagogue in Tunisia, 2007


Memorial lamp plaque in memory of Esther Raccah, Synagogue in Tunisia, 2007

Photo: Dr. Sonia Fellous
The Oster Visual Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People, Courtesy of Dr. Sonia Fellous

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In Arabic: تونس‎
Republic of Tunisia

A country country in the Maghreb region of North Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea and Sahara Desert.

21st Century

Estimated Jewish population in 2018: 1,000 out of 11,500,000 (0.009%)

Communauté Juive de Tunisie (CJT)
Phone: 216 71 832469
Fax: 216 71 832364


The Jewish Community of Tunis

Robert Attal and Claude Sitbon

The article was originally published in From Carthage to Jerusalem – The Jewish Community of Tunis, (exhibition catalogue), Beit Hatfutsot, Tel Aviv, 1986

The Jewish community of Tunisia is one of the oldest in the Diaspora. The Tunisian Jewish writer, Albert Memmi, testifies to the richness of Tunisia's history and culture: "When I learned a little history, I felt dizzy; Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Berbers, Arabs, Spaniards, Turks, Italians, French, and of course some that I forgot and others I mixed up. You walk five hundred meters and you've gone from
one culture to another."

The Sources

The earliest date of Jewish settlement in the eastern Maghreb is not known for sure. Jews may have come there first in the tenth century B.C.E. when the fleets of King Solomon and King Hiram of Tyre joined on sailings to Tarshish; perhaps the beginnings of the Jewish community were after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E., when many Jews were exiled and settled in Babylonia, Egypt and other countries. On the other hand, it may have started with the immigration movement after the conquest of Judea by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.CE.; or, it could have originated as far back as the third century B.C.E., when Jews moved to those areas of North Africa that had previously been known as the empire of Carthage. Whatever the case, most scholars assign the Jewish presence in Tunisia to a very early date.

After the Roman conquest of Carthage in 146 B.C.E., the Jewish population in that African province increased with the addition of Jews from Rome and Judea following Titus' conquest of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., and from Cyrenaica after the suppression of the Jewish rebellion of 115-117 C.E. Moreover, conversions of the native peoples, the Berbers, among whom the Jews successfully proselytized, also enlarged their ranks.

We learn of the Jewish presence in Africa in the Roman period from the writings of Tertullian and St. Augustine, as well as from remains found in the cemetery of Carthage and the synagogue of Naro. Furthermore, the Talmud mentions Rav Abba and Rav Hanina from Carthage. For some time, the Jews of Roman Africa were allowed to practice their religion. Discriminatory measures were introduced against the Jews in the third century, when Christianity became the state religion, Jews were dismissed from all public offices, severe punishments were imposed for conversion to Judaism, and the construction of new synagogues was forbidden.

These measures were annulled in the fifth century, during the Vandal rule. In the sixth century, however, Byzantine authorities not only restored the old discriminatory laws but also made them harsher. The Jewish religion was banned, synagogues were turned into churches and the Jews were forced to accept baptism. Consequently, many Jews left the large cities and moved to the mountain areas and to the edge of the desert, far away from the authorities.

After the Arab Conquest

The Arab invasion of the seventh century was stubbornly resisted by the Berbers: Berber tribes that had converted to Judaism also took an active role in the struggle against the invasion, led by Kahina, queen of the mountains of Aures in Algeria. The Arab conquerors finally gained control of the country. They forced the local pagan population to convert to Islam but allowed the "people of the Book," Jews and Christians, to continue to practice their faith, though they did impose a head tax on them (Juzya). They were granted the special status of protected people (dhimmi), even if it was lower than that of the Moslems.

During the rule of the Aghlabid, Fatimid and Zirid dynasties, between the eighth and twelfth centuries, the condition of the Jews improved. Those who had lived in Tunisia for centuries were joined by others from different parts of the Moslem empire. There were Jews in the capital, Kairouan, and in other cities such as Sousse, Mahdia and Gabes (in writings of that time, "hara al-yahud" — the Jewish quarter — and the "souk al-yahud" — the Jewish market — are mentioned). The Jews played an important role in the economy,, and especially in the commercial relations between Ifriqiya and Spain, Sicily, Egypt and India. Jewish spiritual and cultural life flourished at this time, inspired by Houshiel b. Elhanan; the study of Talmud received great impetus; Isaac ben Solomon Israeli, the ninth-century physician and philosopher who was born in Cairo but lived in Kairouan, was famous for his medical essays, whose authority remaine' undiminished over a long period of time, and for his neo-Platonic philosophical tracts. His student, the linguist and philosopher Dunash Ibn Tamin, wrote an important commentary on the Kabbalistic "Sefer Yetzirah." The scholai Nissim ben Jakob, left us a collection of moral tales and legends, "Hibbur Yafe me'haYeshua", considered the first work of prose in medieval Jewish literature. In the middle of the ninth century, life in Ifriqiya was upset by the invasion of the tribes of Banu-Hillal, from southern Egypt. In 1057, they conquered Kairouan, plundered it and drove out most of the residents, Jews as well as Moslems, to the ports of Mahdia, Sousse and Tunis. According to tradition, the Jewish quarter of Tunis — the Hara.— was founded during the rule of Sidi Mahrez at which time the city apparently underwent major development. In the mid-twelfth century, the ruler of Morocco, Abd el-Moumen, accepted the teachings of the Almohads and desired to enforce them on the whole of the Maghreb; in 1160, he conquered Ifriqiya and forced the Jews and Christians to convert to Islam. However, except for some ran exceptions, the Jews kept their faith, publicly accepting Islam but practicing Judaism in the secrecy of their own homes.

The Almohad rulers required that all the Jews of the Maghreb wear an identifying sign (shikla) and special clothing. A supplement to the elegy by the poet Avraham ibn-Ezra notes the difficult trials undergone by the Jewish communities of Tunis, Sousse, Mahdia, Sfax, and Djerba. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Hafsid dynasty ruled the country and established Tunis as the capital. Jews and Christians were once again granted special protected status. They were allowed to carry on a completely free religious life and the Jewish community enjoyed relative autonomy in the areas of religion and welfare. The restrictions imposed on the Jews in the previous period were also annulled, and some Jews even served in official functions, for example, as chief tax collector. Talmud study was resumed and progressed thanks to ties with scholars and rabbis in Algeria, who were consulted by Tunisian Jews in matters of Halakha. One of the Tunisian scholars was Jacob ben Hayyim Ibn Adonijah, who edited the first edition of the Jerusalem Talmud, which was printed by Bomberg in Venice in 1523, and edited and wrote commentaries on an edition of "Mikraot Gdolot" (the Bible), which is used to this day. At the end of the fifteenth century, many Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire ano the Moslem Maghreb. Only a few of them got as far as Tunisia, however, and hence they were quickly absorbed into the local Jewish population.
In the sixteenth century, the Turks fought the Spaniards for control of North Africa. Like everyone else, the Jews suffered from the battles between warring powers. When Tunisia was conquered by the Spaniards in 1535, many Jews were captured and sold into slavery throughout the Christian world. Nevertheless, during the forty years of Spanish rule the Jews were not systematically persecuted.

Under Ottoman Rule

After the Turkish victory over the Spaniards in 1574, Tunisia became a province of the Ottoman Empire. During the rule of the first Deys (rulers of Algeria) and Beys (rulers of Tunisia), the province moved slowly towards a de facto autonomy. At that time, the Jews played an important role in foreign trade. Because of their commercial relations with Europe, they were even able to ransom Christians captured by pirates. The Jews also continued to work in various arts and crafts: they were goldsmiths and jewelers, tailors, launderers, shoemakers and carpenters. Since the rulers trusted the Jews, they frequently called on them to serve in various governmental functions; thus, for example, the Jews were in charge of minting money.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, life for Tunisian Jews took a turn for the worse and they were subjected to prohibitions and discriminations. They were required to wear a black fez to distinguish them from the Moslems, whose hats were red, and they were forced into humiliating public works. At the end of the eighteenth century, Hamuda Bey denied them the right to buy or own real estate. Nevertheless, as in the past, they were allowed to maintain their community organization and practice their faith. Spanish and Portuguese Jews who lived in Livorno, Italy, maintained commercial relations with Tunisia and later even moved there and established roots. In the seventeenth century, a growing number of "Livornese" joined the Jewish community of Tunisia. In 1741, the Jews of the capital split into two separate communities: on the one hand, "Grana" — those from Livorno; and, on the other, "Touansa," the veteran Tunisians. The origin of the schism was in differences in custom, culture and economic status. The Touansa were essentially of the poorer strata and the Grana were primarily of the educated families and prosperous merchants. The two communities decided to establish separate institutions — synagogues, schools, slaughterhouses, rabbinical courts, charities and cemeteries. The schism did not spread to the other Jewish communities in the country. In several communities, but especially in Tunis, Talmud study was encouraged and, in the eighteenth century, it gained great momentum. At the end of the century, the emissary from Eretz-lsrael, Hayyim Yoseph David Azulai (HIDA), visited Tunisia and in his diaries praised the erudition of the rabbis of Tunis. A popular expression described Tunis as "the great city of writers and sages." The names of rabbis and sages, like Isaac Lombroso (d. 1752), Mass'oud Elfassi (d. 1774), and Uzziel Elhaik (d. 1810), are connected with some hundred rabbinical works published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In the nineteenth century, Tunisia opened increasingly to European influences. The ruler Ahmed Bey (1837-1855) introduced reforms which wrought far-reaching changes in the administration and army. An agreement between him and the government of Tuscany, signed in 1846, granted the Italian Jews in Tunisia the right to retain their original citizenship indefinitely. This possibility encouraged many Jews of Livorno to move to Tunisia. Unlike their compatriots, the Livornese who had immigrated there in the eighteenth century, these Jews were protected by the Tuscan consul. But the vast majority of Tunisian Jews remained subjects of the Bey, who had conferred a protected status upon them. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the situation of the Jews grew worse. A drunken Jewish drayman, Samuel Batto Sfez, quarreled with a Moslem who accused him of insulting the faith of Muhammed. This was enough to incite an inflamed mob against the Jews. Afterward, he was tried in a Moslem court and executed on June 24,1857. The harshness of the punishment shocked the Jewish community. The French and English consuls in Tunis used the event to demand that Muhammad Bey initiate the same liberal reforms which had been introduced in other parts of the Ottoman Empire. Increasingly strong pressures caused the Bey to enact a Charter on September 10, 1857 granting broad rights to all people, natives and foreigners, Moslems, Jews and Christians alike. On April 26, 1861 his successor, Muhammad al-Sadiq Bey, added a Constitution to the Charter, thus making the country a parliamentary kingdom. The new laws ended all discriminatory measures against the Jews and granted them the same rights and duties as the Moslems.

It was not long before the reforms introduced by the Beys began to constitute a burden on the national treasury. To pay the ever-increasing expenses, the rulers were forced to raise taxes, thus angering the masses. In 1864, after rebellion broke out, the regime had to suspend enforcement of the Constitution and curb the policy of reforms. But the earlier discriminatory laws against the Jews were not restored. Tunisia's growing debts served as a pretext for the increasing intervention of France, England and Italy, which began in the 1870s. Tunisian Jews who had established commercial ties with the European powers used them to further their own interests. They obtained letters of protection from those powers enabling them to retain their Tunisian citizenship but to come under the consular jurisdiction of the protecting country, like the citizens of that country residing in Tunisia. Thus they avoided the arbitrariness that was a regular feature of the local government.

The European influence was also felt on the cultural level. Middle-class Jewish families began to send their children to study at Christian schools established by missionaries. In 1878, the organization Alliance Israelite Universelle opened the first school in which Jewish children of all classes could receive both a Jewish and a general education. Thus a process of cultural change began among the Jews that would expand during the French Protectorate, established on May 12, 1881 by the Treaty of Bardo.

The French Protectorate

The Jews of Tunisia welcomed the French Protectorate. They were convinced that their situation would improve under the active protection of the first nation that had granted equal rights to the Jews. Indeed, many benefits soon resulted from the change. The development of the colonial economy made their businesses flourish, and additional Alliance Israelite Universelle schools were established in which children pursued religious studies and Hebrew as well as French and general studies. More and more Jewish youth began to attend the state schools that were now open to them in major centers throughout the country. The integration of the younger people into the framework of the general educational system led to a gradual diffusion of new cultural values into the Jewish community in the areas of language, dress, housing, customs and life style. Successful Jewish families left the Hara (the Jewish quarter in Tunis) and moved to the new "European" districts. A higher stratum developed, which included young people who had attended universities in France. The influence of the French life style increased even though, up to 1914, fewer than a hundred Tunisian Jews had used the right granted them by a French law of 1910 to receive, under certain conditions, French citizenship.
Jews were exempt from military service and thus did not serve in the army during World War I, except for those who had volunteered. In riots that broke out in all the large cities of Tunisia in 1917, Jews were attacked by Tunisian soldiers who beat them, plundered their shops and looted their houses while the police did nothing to stop them.

Beginning in the 1860s, a varied, popular, secular literature developed in Tunisia. More than 1200 publications appeared in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew script) including works translated from Arabic, Bible stories, elegies and poems, and translations from French literature. In addition, more than 60 newspapers were published that expressed the emerging cultural variety, from Zionist newspapers to comic papers. In the process of modernization that spread rapidly through the entire country, Hebrew printing presses were established which made it possible to publish prayer books and Talmudic essays written in Hebrew by Tunisian rabbis.

Zionism began to develop in Tunisia in the early years of the twentieth century. A Tunisian representative participated in the 10th Zionist Congress in Basel in 1911, and during World War I, many Zionist organizations were active in all of the large cities. Agudat Zion, Yoshevet Zion, Terahem Zion, Bnei Zion and others worked among the masses and spread the idea of Zionism. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised the Zionists a national home in Eretz Israel, gave Zionist newspapers and organizations founded before 1914 a new momentum. In 1920 all the organizations united under the Zionist Federation, a body recognized by the regime. From then on, the Jews of Tunisia participated in the activities of the World Zionist movement. Activities in the Yishuv had an impact on Tunisian Jewry: teachers and representatives from Eretz Israel worked in Tunisia, and Tunisian Jews reciprocated by buying the Zionist Shekel, by fund-raising and by contributing to the Jewish National Fund. This activity also led to the establishment of new organizations; in 1929, the HaShomer Hatzair movement was founded and in 1933, the Betar movement. The profound social changes evident at the end of the nineteenth century continued during the period between the two World Wars. Because of a rise in the standard of living and an improvement in medical hygiene, the death rate decreased and the Jewish population grew from 48,000 in 1921 to 60,000 in 1936. In addition, the influence of French culture grew even stronger. Many Jews abandoned the Jewish quarter and moved to new districts and suburbs. Only the poor were left behind. The influence of Western culture was also expressed in new patterns of family life and in the weakening of traditional frameworks. The quantity of publications in Judeo-Arabic decreased, as French gained ground as the language of the educated. Newspapers in French expressed the various trends of thought that were beginning to emerge among the Jews, and novels, novellas and poems were published in French by Jewish writers. A law of 1923 made it easier to obtain French citizenship, and many Tunisian Jews took advantage of it. This trend was opposed by the conservatives, who feared that Judaism was losing its special character; by Zionists, who stood for the cultivation of Jewish nationalism and by the Socialists, who believed that the Jews should integrate with the local society. Improvement in the legal status of the Jews of Tunisia also contributed to opposition to French citizenship. A regulation of August 1921 established a Community Council for the Jewish community in Tunis. This Council was to be selected by all Jews, and the "Livornese" and the "Tunisians" were to have proportional representation. In other cities, the Jewish community was still led by a committee of leaders appointed by the authorities. Whatever the arrangement, the Jewish community organizations were charged with providing for all their own religious needs and with giving aid to the needy; rabbinical courts were active within them. Furthermore, the Jews were also represented in the various civilian organizations that had begun to function, such as economic bureaus and various commissions.

After the defeat of France by the Nazis in June 1940 and the establishment of the collaborationist Vichy government, the Jews of Tunisia, those with Tunisian citizenship as well as those with French citizenship, suffered from the discriminatory laws and oppression to which the Jews of France were subjected. They were fired from government jobs, forbidden to work as lawyers, doctors, and in various other professions, and their businesses were confiscated.
On November 8,1942, German troops invaded Tunisia and conquered the country. The German high command took about 100 Jewish leaders as hostages, and by threatening to execute them forced the Jews to hand over 3000 men, who were sent to forced labor camps. In addition to the food shortage and damage caused by Allied bombing, hardships experienced by the entire population, the Jews were also subjected to the burden of confiscation and collective punishment. Anyone who violated a German "order" was executed without a trial or was deported to a concentration camp in Europe. It was only the Allied victory that prevented the Nazis from extending the "Final Solution" to the Jews of Tunisia. Shortly after the liberation by the Allied armies on May 7, 1943, the Jews of Tunisia were once again accorded full rights.

A 1946 census numbered the Jewish population at 70,000; in addition, there were 30-35,000 Jews in Tunisia with French, Italian or other foreign citizenship. In 1946, the number of Jews in Tunisia reached its peak of more than 100,000.

As in the past, the Jews had an advantageous position in commerce, and many of them were now leaders of enterprises of various kinds. Young people who attended university were no longer satisfied with the usual professions of educated Jews, like medicine, law and pharmacy, and many trained in new professions like architecture, engineering, and technology. Others chose public service, including the teaching profession. With the growth in the number of businessmen and craftsmen, the middle classes expanded. The number of employees in business, banking and clerical work also increased. The industrialization of the country led to the development of a Jewish working class. There were still poor families in the Hara, but the Jewish Community Council of Tunis, which was established again by law on March 13,1947, and the Jewish communities in the provincial towns, which were helped by charitable institutions like the Joint, OSE and local organizations, were active on behalf of the Jewish poor. Jewish communities in the provincial towns retained their traditional way of life, but education and the influence of Western culture in general, and French culture in particular, contributed to a change. Yet, assimilation into French culture was not the only path of emancipation. The actions of the Yishuv in Eretz Israel encouraged widespread activities on the part of the Zionist organizations. The Jewish Agency, assisted by devoted local activists, prepared people for Aliyah and encouraged Youth Aliyah in all the cities of Tunisia. Zionist organizations of all trends — religious, revisionist and socialist — amalgamated within the Zionist Federation of Tunisia, united thousands of people, and the circulation of Zionist newspapers like La Voix Juive or La Gazette D'lsrael increased.

Beginning in 1945, young people began leaving Tunisia secretly for Eretz Israel. Since the State of Israel was established, there has been a large wave of immigration from Tunisia — about 60,000 in all. Many of these new immigrants came from traditional communities and from the poorer strata. They settled in the cities, the moshavim, the development towns and the kibbutzim and contributed to the settlement of the country, to the new society and the political movements of Israel. Many of those from the more prosperous classes, who had a marked sympathy for the more affluent Western culture, cast their lot with France or with integration into the Tunisian nation. In Tunisia itself, the years 1952-56 were a time of political unrest and economic recession, and the Jews were the first to be affected. The national party "Neo-Destour" (The New Constitution), led by Habib Bourguiba, which fought for independence, tried to win the support of the Jews. In June 1955, after France recognized Tunisia's right to manage its own affairs, Bourguiba was released from a French prison and returned to Tunisia as victor. Among those who greeted him were Jews, friends from the past as well as representatives of the Jewish community organizations.

After Independence

Since Tunisia declared its independence on March 20, 1956, its leaders have worked to integrate the Jews into the Tunisian nation. On March 25, 1956, Tunisia held elections for the first time and the Jews of Tunisia voted as equal citizens along with their Moslem countrymen. In the first Tunisian government, a Jewish advocate, Albert Bessis, served as minister. Many Jews worked to strengthen the national independence of Tunisia.

In July 1957, the monarchy was abolished and Bourguiba was chosen President of the Republic. Governmental reforms affected the Jewish community as well. In September 1957, judicial authority was transferred from the rabbinical court to the government court. In addition, eleven Jewish judges were appointed, setting a precedent in Tunisia. Improvements were marred by serious incidents which occurred in 1958. The ancient Jewish cemetery of Tunis was confiscated for use as a public park. Only the remains of a number of important rabbis were exhumed and re-interred in the new cemetery of the city, in a funeral procession in which masses of Jews took part. In July 1958 the elected Community Council was disbanded by an order of the Minister of Justice. He appointed eight Jews to serve on a "temporary commission for the management of the affairs of the Jewish community." This put an end to the extensive activities of the leaders of the Jewish community. On July 11, 1959, the Constitution of the young Tunisian republic was declared. It decreed Tunisia a "Moslem country" and a loyal member of the Arab nation. The actual policy was generally liberal, but accumulated incidents created a sense of oppression, which influenced many Jews who had previously desired to take part in building the nation to emigrate.

Five years after the declaration of independence, in 1961, a crisis erupted at the naval base of Bizerte, which led to bloody incidents between French forces and Tunisian demonstrators. Even though Tunisia was considered the safest of all the Arab countries for Jews, the Bizerte crisis showed how precarious that safety is. Among the Moslem population, these incidents ignited a sudden blaze of anti-Semitism. As a result of this, and of the uncertainty in the economic situation in the 1960s, many Jews left Tunisia, most of them immigrating to France.

The situation grew even worse in 1967, in the wake of the Six-Day War. Jewish shops were plundered, a Matza factory and the Great Synagogue of Tunis were burned, and Torah scrolls were torn to shreds on the streets. Such events spread panic among the Jews and led to another wave of emigration. In 1971, a rabbi was killed in the very heart of Tunis. With each new incident, the government tried to calm down matters and to emphasize its desire to protect the lives and ensure the safety of all its citizens. But in many areas, the Jews were again subjected to obvious discrimination, de facto if not de jure, which led to the awareness that they would never be considered full-fledged citizens. In the end, the changes introduced since the liberation from French rule and the establishment of an independent state have led most of the Jews of Tunisia to leave the country. The Jewish population of Tunisia has decreased from year to year, and during the 1986 the Jewish community numbered only 3,000, most of whom lived in Tunis or in Djerba. Those who left Tunisia immigrated either to Israel or to France. Divided between these two countries, where they have made new lives for themselves, the Jews of Tunisia continue to be tied to their home country by the bonds of 2000 years of history.