There is evidence of a Jewish community in Tunisa dating to 400CE, however anecdotal evidence suggests their may have been a Jewish presence in the country before this. With the Arab conquest of Tunisia in 788CE, Jews were given second-class citizenship and forced to pay the high taxes of non-Muslims. From 1146 Jews were forced to emigrate or convert to Islam and all new converts were forced to wear yellow hats as the sincerity of their new religion was doubted. Throughout the 13th and 14th century the fate of the Jews in Tunisia fluctuated with each ruler and dynasty, however for the most part they were allowed to practice their religion in exchange for a high rate of taxation.
Taxation and conditions for Jews were so punitive in 15th century that few Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition chose to settle in Tunisia. By the end of the 16th century the situation had begun to improve and many Murano Jews who had been living in Italy converted back to Judaism and moved to Tunisia. They introduced their Italian liturgy and customs to the local Tunisian community. Throughout the 18th century the cultural and economic divide between these two Jewish communities in Tunisia grew.
In 1881 Tunisia became a French Protectorate and in 1885 all Tunisians, including Jews, were given equal rights and the opportunity to become French citizens. French began to replace Judeo-Arabic and the divide between Tunisia’s native and Italian Jewish communities began to close.
In 1940 the Jewish population of Tunisia was 100,000. In the same year, Nazi-inspired Vichy policies were introduced in Tunisia. Jews were removed from public service, education and were forced to register their religion. Soon after this, Jewish property was confiscated and more than 5,000 Jews were sent to labour camps. In addition to this, 160 Tunisian Jews were sent to extermination camps in mainland Europe.
Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956 and immediately many urban Jewish areas were destroyed, whilst the Jewish Community Council was banned. As a result of these measures, many Jews decided to leave Tunisia. In 1961 war between France and Tunisia briefly broke out, known as the Bizerte Crisis. Several hundred Tunisians were killed in the fighting and the country’s Jews were accused of being unpatriotic. In 1967 when the Six-Day War broke out, the Jewish community experienced significant antisemitism and a further 7,000 Jews left the country.
In the 1985 the Tunisian government acted decisively to protect its remaining Jews from violent backlash following the Israeli bombing of Palestinian headquarters in Tunis. Today the Jewish population in Tunisia numbers around 1,500. The majority of this community live in Djerba, the site of Tunisia’s oldest synagogue and a Jewish pilgrimage destination.