Tunisia

Highest Jewish population: c. 105,000 in 1940s


The Jewish community of Tunisia is one of the oldest in North Africa. Documentation of a Jewish presence in the area dates back to at least the 2nd century CE. Following the Arab conquest of Tunisia in 788CE, the Jews of Tunisia were subject to harsh financial and social penalties. This treatment continued throughout the Middle Ages, with extremely high rates of taxation the price for the freedom to practice their religion. These taxes were so high that many Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition in the 14th and 15th centuries opted to avoid the area.


Despite this, Tunisian Jewry experienced a cultural boom in this period, with religious learning and Jewish craftmanship at a high. The Ottoman Empire seized control of the country in 1574 and taxation on the Jewish community decreased. As a result of this, Marrano Jews who had been living in Italy moved to Tunisia and began to openly practice Judaism once again. These new Jewish immigrants retained their Italian citizenship and introduced Italian liturgy and customs to the local Tunisian community, creating a cultural split within Tunisian Jewry.


From 1835 to 1881 Tunisia came under increasing influence from France and other European powers. In 1881 the country became a French Protectorate, although it continued to be governed on a day-to-day basis by the absolutist Tunisian monarchy. In 1887 naturalisation laws were passed, allowing all Tunisian citizens the opportunity to apply for French citizenship. Jews of all nationalities joined French state schools and French began to replace Judeo-Arabic and Italian as the primary language. By the 1930s, just over 6,000 Jews had qualified for French citizenship and Jewish communities throughout Tunisia had experienced relative stability, with comparatively few antisemitic riots breaking out.


In 1940 the French Vichy government introduced a series of antisemitic, Nazi-inspired laws. However, the French governor of Tunisa, Admiral Jean-Pierre Estéva, disagreed with the new legislation. Together with the Tunisian monarch Ahmed II Bey and his successor Moncef Bey, Estéva delayed the introduction of Vichy laws in Tunisia for several months. When they were implemented, they were done so in various phases to try and minimise the financial hardships the laws would inevitably bring. In addition to this, the Italian government blocked attempts at the imposition of Vichy law on Jewish Italian citizens of Tunisia, at the time numbering nearly 5000. Nevertheless, by 1941 Jews had been barred from public education and service, as well as from medicine, the law, journalism, banking, and many other professions including finance, antique-dealing, insurance, and real-estate. 


In the winter of 1942 Germany occupied Tunisia and they immediately took action against the country’s Jews. Leaders of the community were arrested, and the community was forced to pay 88 million francs to the German government. Over 5,000 Jews were sent to 32 forced labour camps in Northern Tunisia and in April 1943, 40 Tunisian Jews were sent to death camps in Europe. Allied forces retook Tunisia in May 1943, preventing further deportations to European camps.


In 1948 the State of Israel was established and between 1948 and 1956 nearly 40,000 Jews left Tunisia for Israel or France. In 1954 Yom Kippur was declared a national holiday and many Jews joined the Neo-Destour political party, which campaigned for independence. In 1956, Tunisia gained its independence. However, despite two Jewish men gaining seats in government, Jewish neighbourhoods were demolished in the name of ‘urbanisation’, the Jewish Community Council and Beth-Din (Jewish law courts) were abolished, and in 1960, postal connections with Israel were suspended.


In 1961 fighting between remaining French troops and Tunisian forces in the town of Bizerte broke out. Hundreds of Tunisians were killed in the fighting and national anger turned on the Jews, prompting a further 15,000 to leave Tunisia. By 1963, businesses belonging to foreign nationals and Jews were nationalised and 10,000 more Jews left the country, many with no more than 12 francs each. In 1967, when the Six-Day War broke out, Jewish businesses were looted, and the Great Synagogue of Tunis was sacked. The community was later compensated for the damage; however the events prompted another wave of emigration.


By the early 2000s there were 1,500 Jews living in Tunisia. In 2002 Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for a bomb at the Djerba synagogue, killing 21 people and wounding over 30 more. Following the Tunisian Revolution in 2011 the Israeli government offered to help fund the emigration of Tunisian Jews as a result of increasing antisemitism and economic hardship. 


In 2014 a new secular constitution was put in place protecting freedom of religion and explicitly protecting minorities from discrimination. Today there are around 1,000 Jews living in Tunisia, predominantly in Tunis and Djerba. There are currently a small number of Jewish schools in Tunisia, as well as Jewish care homes and a Jewish museum, although security concerns have meant that all kosher restaurants have closed.

 

Interviewees