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The Jewish Community of Kairouan

Kairouan

Arabic: Qeirwan, al-Qayrawan - القيروان‎‎ 

A city in Tunisia

Kairouan is the capital of the Kairouan Governate. It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Kairouan was founded in 670 by Uqba ibn Nafi, the Arab conqueror of North Africa. For about four centuries it was the government center and the capital of the Aghlabid, Fatimid, and Zirid dynasties, and the meeting place for commerce between the east and west. The first Jews to arrive in Kairouan came from present-day Libya, and were among the city’s founders; a second wave of Jewish settlement took place at the end of the 7th century. The community quickly prospered, and by the middle ages it had become the leading Jewish economic and cultural center in North Africa.

During the community’s golden age, which lasted between the late 8th century through the early 11th century, it became a center of Jewish scholarship, and maintained close ties with the major Babylonian academies of Pumbedita and Sura; towards the 11th century, however, with the arrival of Rabbi Chushi’el b. Elhanan, the Talmudic academies of Kairouan began to become more independent. A number of exilarchs (leaders of Babylon’s Diaspora Jewish community) made their way to Kairouan after being expelled from their native countries, including Natronai b. Chavivai (c. 775) from Babylonia and Mar Ukba (c. 920), who had been forced to leave Baghdad.

There were also other prominent Jews who made their home in Kairouan, including the medical writer and philosopher Isaac Israeli, who settled in Kairouan from Egypt. Beginning in 904 Israeli was the private physician of Ziyadat-Allah III, the last Aghlabid sovereign; he later held the same position in the service of Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi, the founder of the Fatimid dynasty in Tunisia. Israeli’s students included the astronomer and physician Dunash ibn Tamim, who was born in Kairouan at the beginning of the 10th century and spent his entire life as the private physician of the Fatimid caliphs.

The Banu Hilal conquest of Kairouan in 1057 was devastating, both for the Jewish community, and for the city as a whole. The Jewish population gradually declined until 1270, when it became forbidden for non-Muslims to live in the city; any remaining Jews were forced to convert to Islam or leave Kairouan.

A small number of Jews returned to Kairouan after 1881, with the establishment of Tunisia as a French protectorate. A number of Jewish shopkeepers came to settle in the city, and two synagogues were opened. By 1936 there were 348 Jews living in Kairouan.

This new community, however, proved to be short-lived. During the German occupation of Tunisia that took place over the course of World War II (1939-1945) many Jews fled the city. A number subsequently returned after the war, and in 1946 Kairouan’s Jewish population was 275. Most, however, eventually moved to other cities within Tunisia, or emigrated to other countries entirely. By the 1960s there were no more Jews living in Kairouan.

Place Type:
City
ID Number:
246606
Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People
Nearby places:

Related items:
Betrothal ceremony of Joseph, the son of Samuel Ha-Nagid of Spain,
With The daughter of Rabbi Nissim of Kairouan, Attended with distinguished guests from Spain, North Africa and Babylonia.
Kairouan, 11th century.
Diorama.
(Beit Hatfutsot, The Oster Visual Documentation Center ,
permanent Exhibition)
Street scene, Kairouan Tunisia 1984
Photo: Donna Wosk, USA
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Donna Wosk, USA)
Kairouan embroidery, made in wool, depicting two lions,
in ancient Coptic style (detail), that was used in Egypt
in the 10th century, North Africa.
Artist: Sheila Lintel, 1977.
(Beit Hatfutsot, Permanent Exhibition)
Sweet Shop. Kairouan, Tunisia, 1984
Photo: Donna Wosk. USA
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Donna Wosk. USA)
Page from the Medical Book
of Isaac Israeli of Kairouan (born 850 AD)
Manuscript
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Andre Nahum, Sarcelles)
Entrance to a building,
Kairouan, Tunisia, 1984
Photo: Donna Wosk, USA
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Donna Wosk, USA)
Woven table cloth,
Kairouan, Tunisia, 1980 (?)
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Nili Hason, Tel Aviv)
Street market in Kairouan, Tunisia, 1984
Photo: Donna Wosk, USA
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Donna Wosk, USA)

Bizerte

Bizerte [Fr], Biserta [Ital], Benzert, Bizerta, Arabic: بنزرت‎‎ Banzart

Bizerte is a port located on the Mediterranean coast in northern Tunisia.

Its origins date back to the 11th century BCE, when the Phoenicians, as traders, widened the natural canal connecting the town with the coast. Known during the Greek and Roman periods as Hippo Diarrhytus or Hippo Zaritus, Bizerta served as an important port on the coast of north Africa.  

 

Early history of Jewish community

There is some evidence of Jewish settlement in Bizerte during the Phoenician, Greek and Roman periods, when the Jews gained their livelihood from fishing, trading and agriculture.  With the dissemination of Christianity throughout the Roman, and later Byzantine, Empire, the Jews were at the forefront of the struggle against the incursion of the new religion into North Africa.

During the Byzantine period up to the time of the Arab invasion in 698 CE, Arab sources state that Bizerte was headed by Jewish governors, one of whom led the army fighting against the invaders. After the Byzantine rulers were overthrown, however, the Jews were demoted to the status of "dhimmi" or second class citizens who could not hold official positions. The Muslim authorities deliberately changed market day to Shabbat, in contrast to the Jewish governors who had always prevented such a move. During or prior to the 12th century pogroms instigated by the Almohad rulers, many Jews of Bizerte probably migrated to other larger communities such as Kairouan.

In 1534 the town was captured by the Spanish who expelled all Jews who remained. 40 years later, with the Ottoman conquest in 1572, the Jews were allowed to return to Bizerte.

 

17th – 19th Century

The next records from Bizerte relate to Italian Jews from Livorno who were descendants of Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. Trading documents dating from the early 17th century were signed between Bizerte Jews and French and Spanish merchants.  But evidence of an organized community is found more than a century later, in the diaries of the traveler Rabbi Haim Yoseph David Azulai (1724-1806). In the year 1774, Rabbi Haim (known as Hahida), visited Bizerte on his way from Eretz Yisrael to Livorno in Italy, and documents the welcome he received from the head of the community, Samuel Sidbon. He states that a merchant ship from the Tunisian fleet was sent by Samuel to carry Rabbi Haim to Livorno, which reflects the economic status of the leader of the Bizerte community. The Livorno Jews established the first synagogue in Bizerte. The size of the community, however, was described by Rabbi Haim as small. Further evidence from the 18th century exists in the halachic responsa of Rabbi Masoud-Raphael Alfasi, in a question regarding burial rights in Bizerte. Another scholar, Yitzhak Karshani wrote a 7 volume torah commentary in 1780, which hints at the existence of a place of scholarship in Bizerte.

In the early 19th century a Maltese traveler found approximately 500 Jews in Bizerte, where the community centered round the synagogue. There were four rabbis, including the chief rabbi, two who taught the children, and one who was responsible for the synagogue. The community maintained close contact with the Jews of Tunis, the capital, by means of regular animal caravans.

In 1837, a survivor of the earthquake in Tiberias arrived in Bizerte, possibly en route for Morooco. His name was Yisrael Imman, and instead of travelling further, he remained in Bizerte as rabbi and teacher until his death in 1897. His daughter was mother of Yisrael Arky who served as community leader at the turn of the century. Another well know personality during the latter years of the 19th century was Rabbi Meir Shlomo Pariente, descended  from the Livornese Jews, and author of the book Words of  Wisdom (אמרי שפר), published in 1924.

In the latter half of the century the traveler Binyamin the Second writes of 100 Jewish families in Bizerte. The Livornese were the wealthier class as they dealt in international trade. Most of the community earned their living from small local trade with the Muslim population, as well as from crafts. In years of drought the drop in crop yields resulted in poverty for both Jews and Muslims. 

In 1881 Tunisia was taken over by France as a protectorate, a process which brought European influence to Bizerte. A Christian community of Maltese, French and Italians grew and developed in the town. Since the Jews adapted themselves easily to western influence, their economic status improved considerably compared to the Muslims.

 

1881- World War II

With the establishment of  the French government in Tunisia, the Jewish population of Bizerte grew. The port was developed by the French authorities, resulting in improved trading opportunities for Jewish merchants. In 1909 there were approximately 1,000 Jews in the town.

Under French rule there were three major changes in the life of the Jewish community. Firstly, the development of a European neighbourhood outside the old city of Bizerte, where most of the Jews lived until the turn of the century, resulted in the migration of the wealthier Jews from the old city to the new areas. A further development was the strengthening of the social and economic bond with the Jewish community in Tunis the capital. During this period, the Bizerte community for all intents and purposes became a suburb of Tunis. Transportation between the two locations improved, which expanded the opportunities for employment. Jews from Bizerte could travel to work in Tunis, or vice versa. In 1904 the local ruler (Bei) gave the Rabbi of Tunis the authority to appoint the religious leaders of Bizerte, which further cemented the connection between the two communities.

The third important development related to modernization. In 1898 Bizerte became Tunisia's most important military port under French control, which resulted in the establishment of military industries and the consequent increase in demand for labor. Jewish workshops opened dealing in metalwork, painting, ironworking, textiles, shoemaking and sewing. In addition, both retail and wholesale trading increased, which opened further opportunities for the Jews of Bizerte.  

 Between 1881 and 1921 the Jewish population of Bizerte reached 1,522 persons, making then some 12% of the town's total population. From 1923 the French authorities offered the option of French citizenship, which in turn expanded the educational opportunities in academic subjects. Jews began to work in many professions such as law, and many were recruited into the civil service. By 1936, 12% of Jewish employees worked in professional fields. In that year the number of Jews had decreased somewhat, to 1,342 persons, mainly as a result of migration to Tunis.

Community institutions included the synagogue, where religious classes (Talmud torah) were held in the afternoon with the Rabbis Shlomo Pariente and Raphael Cohen. The community committee was founded in 1909 by order of the Bey (local ruler), and its main function was related to charity. The community had a cemetery which was established in the 18th century.  Zionist activity was initiated in 1919, the UUJJ Union Universelle Jeunesse Juive, Jewish scouts movement started activities in 1924.  Four years later, in 1928 the Bizerte branch of the Jewish National Fund was established. The French authorities did not allow the Jews to the collect money for settlement in Israel, nor did they allow the Arabs to send donations to their compatriots. 

There was no Jewish school in Bizerte so the children studied in French schools. It is not clear why no Alliance school was established in the town, despite the requests by the community.  During the 1920's the first adult classes in spoken Hebrew were organized in the synagogue by Rabbi Shlomo Pariente. At first other rabbis demanded that men and women should study in separate groups, but as time went on the opposition decreased and classes were organized twice or three times a week. Occasionally, well- known teachers from Tunis would come to teach in Bizerte.

One of the community's cultural activities was the drama group, which was founded in1926. There was also a musical band which performed until the outbreak of WWII, for Jewish communities in Nabeul, Beja and Tunis. The drama group co-operated with the local Arab group.

Tension between the Jews and Arabs in Bizerta intensified as a result of French rule, as the Jews tended to show support for the European way of life which led to improvement in their socio-economic status compared to the Arabs. Nationalist Arabs founded their own political party which opposed the French, and during the 1930's organized demonstrations and uprisings which had negative repercussions for the Jewish population.

 

World War II 1939 – 1961

With the outbreak of war in 1939 the Axis (Germany and Italy) air force bombed the French military port of Bizerte. The Jewish community supported the French and prayed for their success. In 1940, after France surrendered to the Germans, the Vichy regime was established in Tunisia, with its accompanying anti-Jewish legislation. Implementation of the regulations came into force in Bizerta in September 1941, leading to antisemitic articles in the press, anti-Jewish attitudes in the school, as well as insulting behavior of the Arabs towards the Jews. Many Jews lost their jobs, and their choice of profession was limited. Several Jews joined the French Resistance.

In October 1942 the Allies landed on the Algerian coast. A month later German plans landed in Tunisia, and after German and Italian warships docked in the port, Bizerte fell to the invaders without firing a single shot.  During the 6 months of German occupation (November 1942-May 1943) Bizerte was suffered massive bombing damage from Allied aircraft. In addition to the casualties and injuries incurred, many homes were damaged and the synagogue completely destroyed. A large percentage of inhabitants fled the town, including most of the Jews who escaped to Tunis or other small towns. Bizerta became a ghost town and the Jewish community ceased to function.

The Germans took over the French military base and turned into the largest forced labor camp in Tunisia. The Jews were transported from Tunis, and were subject to extremely difficult work conditions under harsh German supervision. The six months of German occupation resulted in death and injury to camp inmates, both as a result of German cruelty as well as constant Allied bombing.  On May 7th the Allied forces landed on the Tunisian coast, but the camp had been evacuated by the Germans three days earlier.

After war approximately 1,000 Jews returned to a Bizerte in ruins. Some remained in Tunis while others found better opportunities in other towns. With help from the American Joint Distribution Committee and French OZE (Children's aid fund), the community managed to return to some kind of routine. The synagogue was rebuilt only in 1954, close the original site.  Zionist activity resumed in 1944. Bizerte served a port for Aliya Bet activities in efforts to transport Holocaust survivors from Europe to Israel.  After the establishment of the State of Israel many members of the youth movements left for their new home.  The Jews remaining in Bizerte consisted of two groups; one which was Zionist, and the other more inclined towards French culture. Between 1946-1956, the year of Tunisian independence from France, only 15% of the Jews left Bizerte, half for Israel and the others for France. Another 10% left in 1956.

After Tunisia was granted independence Bizerte remained as the only French controlled town with the large naval base. Many of the remaining Jews worked for the French authorities and therefore did not feel the need to leave. It was the crisis of July 1961 that eventually led to the final exodus from Bizerte. In that year the Tunisians demanded that France evacuate Bizerte, and the result was a battle between the French and Tunisians. The French marines captured the port and the new city, but it was clear that they would not remain in Bizerte for long. The Jews who remained were in danger of attacks from the locals who suspected that they supported the French. Those Jews who held French passports were assured of French protection, while the remaining 300 Jews were at risk. The Jewish Agency succeeded in smuggling them out of Bizerte at night with the help of the marines.

After September 1961 no Jews remained in Bizerte. Today the synagogue has been turned into a municipal library.

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The Jewish Community of Kairouan

Kairouan

Arabic: Qeirwan, al-Qayrawan - القيروان‎‎ 

A city in Tunisia

Kairouan is the capital of the Kairouan Governate. It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Kairouan was founded in 670 by Uqba ibn Nafi, the Arab conqueror of North Africa. For about four centuries it was the government center and the capital of the Aghlabid, Fatimid, and Zirid dynasties, and the meeting place for commerce between the east and west. The first Jews to arrive in Kairouan came from present-day Libya, and were among the city’s founders; a second wave of Jewish settlement took place at the end of the 7th century. The community quickly prospered, and by the middle ages it had become the leading Jewish economic and cultural center in North Africa.

During the community’s golden age, which lasted between the late 8th century through the early 11th century, it became a center of Jewish scholarship, and maintained close ties with the major Babylonian academies of Pumbedita and Sura; towards the 11th century, however, with the arrival of Rabbi Chushi’el b. Elhanan, the Talmudic academies of Kairouan began to become more independent. A number of exilarchs (leaders of Babylon’s Diaspora Jewish community) made their way to Kairouan after being expelled from their native countries, including Natronai b. Chavivai (c. 775) from Babylonia and Mar Ukba (c. 920), who had been forced to leave Baghdad.

There were also other prominent Jews who made their home in Kairouan, including the medical writer and philosopher Isaac Israeli, who settled in Kairouan from Egypt. Beginning in 904 Israeli was the private physician of Ziyadat-Allah III, the last Aghlabid sovereign; he later held the same position in the service of Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi, the founder of the Fatimid dynasty in Tunisia. Israeli’s students included the astronomer and physician Dunash ibn Tamim, who was born in Kairouan at the beginning of the 10th century and spent his entire life as the private physician of the Fatimid caliphs.

The Banu Hilal conquest of Kairouan in 1057 was devastating, both for the Jewish community, and for the city as a whole. The Jewish population gradually declined until 1270, when it became forbidden for non-Muslims to live in the city; any remaining Jews were forced to convert to Islam or leave Kairouan.

A small number of Jews returned to Kairouan after 1881, with the establishment of Tunisia as a French protectorate. A number of Jewish shopkeepers came to settle in the city, and two synagogues were opened. By 1936 there were 348 Jews living in Kairouan.

This new community, however, proved to be short-lived. During the German occupation of Tunisia that took place over the course of World War II (1939-1945) many Jews fled the city. A number subsequently returned after the war, and in 1946 Kairouan’s Jewish population was 275. Most, however, eventually moved to other cities within Tunisia, or emigrated to other countries entirely. By the 1960s there were no more Jews living in Kairouan.

Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People
Shmuel Ha-Nagid's Son Betrothal Ceremony. Kairouan,11th century
Betrothal ceremony of Joseph, the son of Samuel Ha-Nagid of Spain,
With The daughter of Rabbi Nissim of Kairouan, Attended with distinguished guests from Spain, North Africa and Babylonia.
Kairouan, 11th century.
Diorama.
(Beit Hatfutsot, The Oster Visual Documentation Center ,
permanent Exhibition)
Street scene, Kairouan Tunisia 1984
Street scene, Kairouan Tunisia 1984
Photo: Donna Wosk, USA
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Donna Wosk, USA)
Kairouan Embroidery in Style of Coptic Period, North Africa
Kairouan embroidery, made in wool, depicting two lions,
in ancient Coptic style (detail), that was used in Egypt
in the 10th century, North Africa.
Artist: Sheila Lintel, 1977.
(Beit Hatfutsot, Permanent Exhibition)
Sweet Shop. Kairouan, Tunisia, 1984
Sweet Shop. Kairouan, Tunisia, 1984
Photo: Donna Wosk. USA
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Donna Wosk. USA)
Page from the Medical Book of Isaac Israeli of Kairouan (bborn 850 AD). Manuscript
Page from the Medical Book
of Isaac Israeli of Kairouan (born 850 AD)
Manuscript
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Andre Nahum, Sarcelles)
Entrance to a building, Kairouan, Tunisia, 1984
Entrance to a building,
Kairouan, Tunisia, 1984
Photo: Donna Wosk, USA
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Donna Wosk, USA)
Woven Table Cloth, Kairouan, Tunisia, 1980 (?)
Woven table cloth,
Kairouan, Tunisia, 1980 (?)
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Nili Hason, Tel Aviv)
Street market in Kairouan, Tunisia, 1984
Street market in Kairouan, Tunisia, 1984
Photo: Donna Wosk, USA
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Donna Wosk, USA)

Bizerte

Bizerte

Bizerte [Fr], Biserta [Ital], Benzert, Bizerta, Arabic: بنزرت‎‎ Banzart

Bizerte is a port located on the Mediterranean coast in northern Tunisia.

Its origins date back to the 11th century BCE, when the Phoenicians, as traders, widened the natural canal connecting the town with the coast. Known during the Greek and Roman periods as Hippo Diarrhytus or Hippo Zaritus, Bizerta served as an important port on the coast of north Africa.  

 

Early history of Jewish community

There is some evidence of Jewish settlement in Bizerte during the Phoenician, Greek and Roman periods, when the Jews gained their livelihood from fishing, trading and agriculture.  With the dissemination of Christianity throughout the Roman, and later Byzantine, Empire, the Jews were at the forefront of the struggle against the incursion of the new religion into North Africa.

During the Byzantine period up to the time of the Arab invasion in 698 CE, Arab sources state that Bizerte was headed by Jewish governors, one of whom led the army fighting against the invaders. After the Byzantine rulers were overthrown, however, the Jews were demoted to the status of "dhimmi" or second class citizens who could not hold official positions. The Muslim authorities deliberately changed market day to Shabbat, in contrast to the Jewish governors who had always prevented such a move. During or prior to the 12th century pogroms instigated by the Almohad rulers, many Jews of Bizerte probably migrated to other larger communities such as Kairouan.

In 1534 the town was captured by the Spanish who expelled all Jews who remained. 40 years later, with the Ottoman conquest in 1572, the Jews were allowed to return to Bizerte.

 

17th – 19th Century

The next records from Bizerte relate to Italian Jews from Livorno who were descendants of Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. Trading documents dating from the early 17th century were signed between Bizerte Jews and French and Spanish merchants.  But evidence of an organized community is found more than a century later, in the diaries of the traveler Rabbi Haim Yoseph David Azulai (1724-1806). In the year 1774, Rabbi Haim (known as Hahida), visited Bizerte on his way from Eretz Yisrael to Livorno in Italy, and documents the welcome he received from the head of the community, Samuel Sidbon. He states that a merchant ship from the Tunisian fleet was sent by Samuel to carry Rabbi Haim to Livorno, which reflects the economic status of the leader of the Bizerte community. The Livorno Jews established the first synagogue in Bizerte. The size of the community, however, was described by Rabbi Haim as small. Further evidence from the 18th century exists in the halachic responsa of Rabbi Masoud-Raphael Alfasi, in a question regarding burial rights in Bizerte. Another scholar, Yitzhak Karshani wrote a 7 volume torah commentary in 1780, which hints at the existence of a place of scholarship in Bizerte.

In the early 19th century a Maltese traveler found approximately 500 Jews in Bizerte, where the community centered round the synagogue. There were four rabbis, including the chief rabbi, two who taught the children, and one who was responsible for the synagogue. The community maintained close contact with the Jews of Tunis, the capital, by means of regular animal caravans.

In 1837, a survivor of the earthquake in Tiberias arrived in Bizerte, possibly en route for Morooco. His name was Yisrael Imman, and instead of travelling further, he remained in Bizerte as rabbi and teacher until his death in 1897. His daughter was mother of Yisrael Arky who served as community leader at the turn of the century. Another well know personality during the latter years of the 19th century was Rabbi Meir Shlomo Pariente, descended  from the Livornese Jews, and author of the book Words of  Wisdom (אמרי שפר), published in 1924.

In the latter half of the century the traveler Binyamin the Second writes of 100 Jewish families in Bizerte. The Livornese were the wealthier class as they dealt in international trade. Most of the community earned their living from small local trade with the Muslim population, as well as from crafts. In years of drought the drop in crop yields resulted in poverty for both Jews and Muslims. 

In 1881 Tunisia was taken over by France as a protectorate, a process which brought European influence to Bizerte. A Christian community of Maltese, French and Italians grew and developed in the town. Since the Jews adapted themselves easily to western influence, their economic status improved considerably compared to the Muslims.

 

1881- World War II

With the establishment of  the French government in Tunisia, the Jewish population of Bizerte grew. The port was developed by the French authorities, resulting in improved trading opportunities for Jewish merchants. In 1909 there were approximately 1,000 Jews in the town.

Under French rule there were three major changes in the life of the Jewish community. Firstly, the development of a European neighbourhood outside the old city of Bizerte, where most of the Jews lived until the turn of the century, resulted in the migration of the wealthier Jews from the old city to the new areas. A further development was the strengthening of the social and economic bond with the Jewish community in Tunis the capital. During this period, the Bizerte community for all intents and purposes became a suburb of Tunis. Transportation between the two locations improved, which expanded the opportunities for employment. Jews from Bizerte could travel to work in Tunis, or vice versa. In 1904 the local ruler (Bei) gave the Rabbi of Tunis the authority to appoint the religious leaders of Bizerte, which further cemented the connection between the two communities.

The third important development related to modernization. In 1898 Bizerte became Tunisia's most important military port under French control, which resulted in the establishment of military industries and the consequent increase in demand for labor. Jewish workshops opened dealing in metalwork, painting, ironworking, textiles, shoemaking and sewing. In addition, both retail and wholesale trading increased, which opened further opportunities for the Jews of Bizerte.  

 Between 1881 and 1921 the Jewish population of Bizerte reached 1,522 persons, making then some 12% of the town's total population. From 1923 the French authorities offered the option of French citizenship, which in turn expanded the educational opportunities in academic subjects. Jews began to work in many professions such as law, and many were recruited into the civil service. By 1936, 12% of Jewish employees worked in professional fields. In that year the number of Jews had decreased somewhat, to 1,342 persons, mainly as a result of migration to Tunis.

Community institutions included the synagogue, where religious classes (Talmud torah) were held in the afternoon with the Rabbis Shlomo Pariente and Raphael Cohen. The community committee was founded in 1909 by order of the Bey (local ruler), and its main function was related to charity. The community had a cemetery which was established in the 18th century.  Zionist activity was initiated in 1919, the UUJJ Union Universelle Jeunesse Juive, Jewish scouts movement started activities in 1924.  Four years later, in 1928 the Bizerte branch of the Jewish National Fund was established. The French authorities did not allow the Jews to the collect money for settlement in Israel, nor did they allow the Arabs to send donations to their compatriots. 

There was no Jewish school in Bizerte so the children studied in French schools. It is not clear why no Alliance school was established in the town, despite the requests by the community.  During the 1920's the first adult classes in spoken Hebrew were organized in the synagogue by Rabbi Shlomo Pariente. At first other rabbis demanded that men and women should study in separate groups, but as time went on the opposition decreased and classes were organized twice or three times a week. Occasionally, well- known teachers from Tunis would come to teach in Bizerte.

One of the community's cultural activities was the drama group, which was founded in1926. There was also a musical band which performed until the outbreak of WWII, for Jewish communities in Nabeul, Beja and Tunis. The drama group co-operated with the local Arab group.

Tension between the Jews and Arabs in Bizerta intensified as a result of French rule, as the Jews tended to show support for the European way of life which led to improvement in their socio-economic status compared to the Arabs. Nationalist Arabs founded their own political party which opposed the French, and during the 1930's organized demonstrations and uprisings which had negative repercussions for the Jewish population.

 

World War II 1939 – 1961

With the outbreak of war in 1939 the Axis (Germany and Italy) air force bombed the French military port of Bizerte. The Jewish community supported the French and prayed for their success. In 1940, after France surrendered to the Germans, the Vichy regime was established in Tunisia, with its accompanying anti-Jewish legislation. Implementation of the regulations came into force in Bizerta in September 1941, leading to antisemitic articles in the press, anti-Jewish attitudes in the school, as well as insulting behavior of the Arabs towards the Jews. Many Jews lost their jobs, and their choice of profession was limited. Several Jews joined the French Resistance.

In October 1942 the Allies landed on the Algerian coast. A month later German plans landed in Tunisia, and after German and Italian warships docked in the port, Bizerte fell to the invaders without firing a single shot.  During the 6 months of German occupation (November 1942-May 1943) Bizerte was suffered massive bombing damage from Allied aircraft. In addition to the casualties and injuries incurred, many homes were damaged and the synagogue completely destroyed. A large percentage of inhabitants fled the town, including most of the Jews who escaped to Tunis or other small towns. Bizerta became a ghost town and the Jewish community ceased to function.

The Germans took over the French military base and turned into the largest forced labor camp in Tunisia. The Jews were transported from Tunis, and were subject to extremely difficult work conditions under harsh German supervision. The six months of German occupation resulted in death and injury to camp inmates, both as a result of German cruelty as well as constant Allied bombing.  On May 7th the Allied forces landed on the Tunisian coast, but the camp had been evacuated by the Germans three days earlier.

After war approximately 1,000 Jews returned to a Bizerte in ruins. Some remained in Tunis while others found better opportunities in other towns. With help from the American Joint Distribution Committee and French OZE (Children's aid fund), the community managed to return to some kind of routine. The synagogue was rebuilt only in 1954, close the original site.  Zionist activity resumed in 1944. Bizerte served a port for Aliya Bet activities in efforts to transport Holocaust survivors from Europe to Israel.  After the establishment of the State of Israel many members of the youth movements left for their new home.  The Jews remaining in Bizerte consisted of two groups; one which was Zionist, and the other more inclined towards French culture. Between 1946-1956, the year of Tunisian independence from France, only 15% of the Jews left Bizerte, half for Israel and the others for France. Another 10% left in 1956.

After Tunisia was granted independence Bizerte remained as the only French controlled town with the large naval base. Many of the remaining Jews worked for the French authorities and therefore did not feel the need to leave. It was the crisis of July 1961 that eventually led to the final exodus from Bizerte. In that year the Tunisians demanded that France evacuate Bizerte, and the result was a battle between the French and Tunisians. The French marines captured the port and the new city, but it was clear that they would not remain in Bizerte for long. The Jews who remained were in danger of attacks from the locals who suspected that they supported the French. Those Jews who held French passports were assured of French protection, while the remaining 300 Jews were at risk. The Jewish Agency succeeded in smuggling them out of Bizerte at night with the help of the marines.

After September 1961 no Jews remained in Bizerte. Today the synagogue has been turned into a municipal library.