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Case study: The Tunisian Jewish minority in the face of oppression

The end of one of the oldest Jewish Minority in Tunisia 1881-1967


Oppression of each group/minority has its own distinctive character and its own specifity. The testimony of the Jews in Arab countries has gone practically unheard - the more than one million forgotten. This work describes the Jewish minority experience in its search for dignity, equality and national identity, and the kind of Jewish identity that has arisen out of the modern conditions of Tunisian Jewry. It explores how a community with more than 100,000 members disappeared after a Jewish presence exceeding 2000 years, within 10 years after Tunisia’s independence in 1956.

In the minority, the Tunisian Jew lived under a threat, intermittently hit by catastrophes. He was essentially oppressed, and was always an outsider, being recasted in different terms during different historical periods.

This study presents an analysis of the political, cultural, and socioeconomic transformations that "othered" Tunisian Jews in different ways, and that by the 1960s, led to the Jewish exodus to Israel or France.



Rule of Islam - 1200 years

Islamic Antisemitism

* Subordinate Status. Between the 7th century Arab conquest of Tunisia and the 19th century, Tunisian Jews came under Islamic jurisdiction, and were classified as dhimmi (protected people). They were viewed as strangers because of Judaism. Subjects of the Bey, they suffered discriminatory measures i.e., a poll tax; must wear a distinctive dress.


* Religious Communal Identity. They were allowed to practice their faith, with rabbis as leaders of their autonomous communal institutions.


* Oriental Jews. Quite embedded in Arab culture, Tunisian Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic (a mixture of Hebrew, Arabic & Aramaic written in Hebrew letters). Most of them were poor, and lived in ghettos/hara. They were artisans, i.e., tailors and peddlers. In 1878, the Alliance Israelite Universelle founded its first school offering a combined French and Jewish education. French influence expanded during the French Protectorate from 1881.



Colonialism - 75 years

  French Integration

* Dignity, equality, naturalization. The Jews welcomed the French Protectorate, ‘as a guarantee of survival;’ they wanted to live without ‘having to tremble for one’s life and the future of one’s children,’ because they had been ‘dominated, humiliated, and periodically massacred ...; for centuries the Muslim Arabs have scornfully, cruelly, and systematically prevented them from carrying it out,’ as stated by Tunisian Jewish writer Albert Memmi in his 1975 collection of essays ‘Jews and Arabs.’ The colonial rule by secular and democratic France introduced the concepts of equality, modernization, emancipation and economic progress in Tunisia, and raised the Jews from their condition of inferiority as dhimmi. A 1923 law made it easier to Jews to become French citizens; by 1956 a 1/3 were French.



* Occidental Jewish Identity. The Jews benefited from the new rule. Integration into French schools and universities led to social mobility and rapid occidentalism: new cultural values, westernized clothing and new habits in occupation, housing and life style. French became their mother tongue, and they wrote novels in French. Many became traditional rather than observant Jews. A new Jewish identity emerged resembling the Occidental colonizers.

* Between the French and the Arabs. The French assimilated Jews found access to new jobs in the colonial economy as clerks, teachers, industrials and doctors. They came to occupy a position of intermediaries between the French colonizers and the colonized Arabs.

* Religious Communal Identity. The Jews distinguished themselves from the Arabs and the Europeans by their religion and their Jewish tradition. They were able to reproduce their autonomous institutions, such as the rabbinical councils, preserving intact their religious and communal identity. They had a strong sense of belonging to a community bound together by their faith, culture, history, traditions, and a sense of continuity with the Jewish past.


* National Identity. Zionism - ‘Next year in Jerusalem’


Many Jews choose another path of emancipation than French emancipation, and concretized ‘Next year in Jerusalem:’ the return to Zion. The 1st Zionist club Agudat Tsion was founded in Tunis in 1910. Between the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and 1954, more than 20,000 Jews made aliya (emigration to Israel).



European Antisemitism

Middle East expert Professor Rafi Yisraeli discussed the different sources of antisemitism: ‘1st there is the Islamic line. Islam is imbued with anti-Jewish views ... The 2nd source of Arab antisemitism is European antisemitism, exported to the Arab world.’ In Tunisia, it was transplanted by French colonizers, as shown by the below postcard ‘Israel et sa chere moitie,’ based on ‘The Jewish woman is fat,’ stated by a reader of Drumond. From French, Jews heard Sale Juif! from Arabs: yehudi, ya kelb (Jew, dog).


WWII - In 1940, France was defeated by Germany. Beginning in November 1940, when Tunisia was ruled by the Vichy authorities, Jews were subject to anti-Jewish racist laws. From November 1942 until May 1943, the country was occupied by German forces (Tunisia was the only North African country to be officially occupied). During the Nazi occupation, Jews suffered deportations to Germany, forced labor, execution and plunder. "The Holocaust left an enduring impact on the lives of Tunisian Jews."



  Arab Nationalism 1956 -

Arab Antisemitism

* Jews sans France. Tunisia independent, 1956. The constitution decreed Tunisia a loyal member of the Arab nation, and a Muslim country. Tunisian citizenship, unofficially, classified as an alien, everyone who is not a Muslim. Islam & Arabic at center of nation-building ‘othered’ Jews as a threat to national identity, because they were French assimilated. 1957: rabbinical court abolished; 1958: Jewish community councils dissolved; Jewish cemetery turned into public park.; Old Great Synagogue in Hara was destroyed. Tunisian Jews felt insecure and unsafe.



* Exodus

Irrevocably attached to French culture and values, it became clear to many Jews, that they could not envision their future in the Tunisian terms which segregated, as well as discriminated against them. Their assimilation to French culture did not allow a return to what proceed it and, therefore, led to a mass exodus to France & Israel in 1956, 1961 & 1967. No large exodus was possible before French colonization and the foundation of the state of Israel. Mass exodus was the result of very oppressive conditions and the attraction of the countries of immigration, France and Israel.


* Antisemitism + Anti-Zionism Tunisian Jews' sense of difficult differences increased during the 1960s, when the Bizerte crisis and the 6-Days War excarbeted Muslim Arab nationalism.

The Bizerte liberation in 1961 - After Tunisia’s independence in 1956, Bizerte remained a French naval base, and Tunisia wanted to liberate it in 1961. The Bizerte crisis ignited a sudden blaze of antisemitism. Arrest of 30 Jewish merchants; Israeli emissaries and local Zionists were subjected to arrests and interrogation. Jews accused of being unpatriotic. The Jews were also subjected to obvious de facto discrimination and legal inducement and restrictions on business. Immigration became an unavoidable necessity; they left.

The Israeli-Arab Six-Day War - Tensions culminated with anti-Jewish riots during the 1967 Six-Days War between Israel and the Arab countries surrounding it. Jewish shops were plundered and destroyed; Tunis Great Synagogue was damaged, and the Torah scroll was burnt. Following Tunisia’s clear alignment with Arab countries around Israel, the Jews felt unsafe and vulnerable to the threats posed by militant Islamists. Coexistence became difficult. Departure became an inexorable requirement. Another wave of immigration followed the Six-Day War’s riots, indicating that the Tunisian Jewish community would soon disappear. In 1968, about 7000 Jews lived in Tunisia.

The military defeat in 1967 and the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian conflict fused to embitter Arab attitudes toward Jews in general. Arab antisemitism, Arab nationalism, intensification of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric in the Arab world prompted the destruction of two other synagogues, one in Djerba in 1979, and the other in Zarzis, in 1983. Today, about 1300 Jews live in Tunisia.



In Tunisia between 1881-1967, antisemitism, French colonialism, Arab nationalism and the creation of Tunisia as a Muslim Arab state converged to to create not only a shift of Jewish identity and Jewish condition, but also to bring about a mass exodus of the Jews from the country, and their resettlement in France and Israel. Within less than a generation, the Jewish community that had been rooted in Tunisia for more than 2,000 years, disappeared. Half of its members went to France, the other half to Israel. These 2 destinations reflect a Jewish community and identity with 2 conceptions of Judaism - a nation or a religion.

Like in Tunisia, independence and Arab nationalism in Algeria and Morocco were accompanied by the liquidation of their respective Jewish communities. The Jews of the Maghrib "abandoned their homes, businesses, and possessions and became penniless refugees with no thought of return." North Africa’s Jewish communities that, until the early 1960s, contained one of the largest Jewish population in the world, disappeared. Irrevocably attached to French culture and values, feeling unsafe, They were torn from their home and the land in which, their ancestors had been the earliest inhabitants.


Edith Shaked

Edith Shaked shaked@u.arizona.edu

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