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   "Tunisian Jewry, along with the other Maghrebi Jewish communities, has been relegated to "a backwater of Jewish history"-mainly because of the comparatively meager supply of source material readily accessible until recently to Jewish historians, and also because, generally, the Arab historians understandably dwelt upon the Islamic chronicles, touching only peripherally the infidel communities. [192] Painstaking research by present-day scholars has closed the historical gap. The Jews of Tunisia "existed continuously for about 2300 years," numbering among them important intellectual and religious leaders, and, sporadically, prominent international traders.
An apparently paradoxical role as detested dhimmi was allotted to the Jews at the same time: it is important to understand the special "otherness" of the Jew even in what some historians have judged to be the periods of "splendour" for the Jews in Arab lands.

For example, perhaps the definitive historian on the North African Jews, H. Z. Hirschberg, notes that in fifteenth-century Tunis, several Jews held "positions of honor." To a Western-oriented reader, the "position of honor" would indicate freedom from persecution. Yet an authenticated and respected document of that period, written by a visiting Flemish nobleman, describes Tunisian Jews as "despised and hated." After noting the privileged positions of local Christians, the nobleman wrote:

The Jews, on the other hand, have no freedom. They must all pay a heavy ... tax. They wear special clothes, different from those of the Moors. If they did not do so, they would be stoned, and they therefore put a yellow cloth on their heads or necks; their women dare not even wear shoes. They are much despised and hated, more than even the Latin Christians.... [193]
When confronting the fact that the Flemish nobleman's observations contradicted his findings, the historian explained that the "special yellow headgear of the Jews" was a mark of "native-born [Jewish] residents and not foreign traders.... The contempt shown to the wearers of the yellow headgear, and their fear of transgressing the discriminatory regulations, likewise indicate that the reference is to people not enjoying the protection of a European state."[194] Those foreign Jewish traders wore a "round cape" to distinguish them.[195]
Yet the historian notes that even "wearers of round capes" were subject to similar "humiliations." The point is that, through the careful, even hair-splitting research that establishes fact, academic disputes can result in the spreading of erroneous assumptions, which have had important political consequences in the Middle East refugee matter. While one scholar might argue that the Arab Muslims' massacres of Jews were "not necessarily specifically anti-Semitic," and another might conclude, from a superficial look at the incomplete source material readily available, that Jews in Arab countries were "better off than Jews in Europe," their statements, out of context, are misleading, and when quoted often enough, can serve as a conduit to the misconception that "harmony" and "equality" existed for Jews in Arab lands. Such obviously was not the case.

From the seventh-century Arab conquest down through the Almohad atrocities, Tunisia fared little better than its neighbors.[196] The "complete expulsion" of Jews from Kairouan, near Tunis, occurred after years of hardship, in the thirteenth century, when Kairouan was anointed as a holy city of Islam.[197] In the sixteenth century, the "hated and despised" Jews of Tunis were periodically attacked by violence, and they were subjected to "vehement anti-Jewish policy" during the various political struggles of the period.[198]

An Arab historian offered insight into the enormous uncertainty of Jewish life in Tunisia at that time: in 1515, the "fanatically religious" founder of the Saad Dynasty in Morocco incited the Muslims to anti-Jewish hostilities as he was "passing through Tunis on a pilgrimage to Mecca" by delivering inflammatory speeches against the Jews. He even extorted "contributions" from the objects of his capricious chastisement.[199]

Tunisian Jews were somewhat better off than either their Algerian or Moroccan brothers at times throughout the last few centuries,[200] but the separate Jewish Quarter, or hara, of Tunisia was not much less squalid and miserable than were other North African ghettos before French rule began. Jews were permitted to live as dhimmis, and as such, they led an uncertain existence at the alternating inclinations of their overlords. The smaller community of Jewish elite in Tunisia was allowed by more moderate sovereigns to engage in commerce and, from earliest times, eminent scholars and rabbis emerged from the Tunisian ghettos.

Yet, a historian reminds us,

The success that Tunisia's Jews achieved in the various trades and professions should not ... obscure the fact that there also existed ... a large group of Jews of the lowest social status-the Jew of the hara. This urban proletariat was only slightly less unfortunate than that of the Moroccan mellah and there were many thousands of people who were permanently unemployed, the . . . misfits .... [201]
An Italian observer described the hara of the mid-nineteenth century: "the ...hara appears as a labyrinth of muddy narrow alleys lined with ancient tumble-down buildings, at times frighteningly so, with middens of filth at the entry to the house. It lodges thousands of persons who live a life of hardship...."[202]
When Muhammad Bey ascended the throne in 1855, he abolished the special dhimma tax for Jews, the first real attempt at legal reform of the contemptible infidel status.[203] The reaction in the Muslim community was hostile and immediate: the old dhimma law-whereby the word of a Jew was unacceptable in defense of a Muslim's charge of blasphemy against Islam - was invoked against a Jew. The Bey refused to intervene, and the Jew was decapitated.[204]

The Muslim society had been unprepared for the Bey's attempt at uprooting its traditional persecution, and the revolution of 1864 sufficiently intimidated the Bey so that he was compelled to revoke the new liberal laws. Some ravages in the aftermath of that 1864 revolt are described among eyewitness reports.[205] One witness wrote:

Another disaster to report! Muslim fanaticism ... unleashed against our brethren on the island of Djerba.... Arab tribes ... turned upon ... the Jewish Quarters, which they sacked, destroying everything .... [On] Yom Kippur ... synagogues profaned and defiled. The Scrolls ... torn in pieces and burnt ... men injured and trampled ... all the women and girls raped .... My pen refuses to set down the terrifying ... atrocities ... in all [their] horror .... The governor of the island refused to intervene to re-establish order; ... the pillage did not cease for 5 days and nights ....[206]
Another complained of the Tunisian ruler's deviations:
The Sovereign of Tunis found nothing better to do to pass the ... Ramadan than to take by force -- on the pretext that he had become a Muslim -- a Jewish youth ... not yet 15! He had the victim shut up in the men's seraglio and obstinately refuses to give him up to his parents .... [207]
An outraged writer bitterly assailed the government's "protection":
Eighteen Jews have already fallen in a few months to the knives of fanatical [Muslim] murderers; and His Highness's Government, far from punishing the guilty, protects and apparently encourages them.
The Government's conduct toward us is macchiavellian beyond words. We are not directly persecuted but such is the scornful treatment we receive, when we ask for justice from the Bey or his ministers, that open persecution would be a hundred times better. Acknowledged persecution however, would expose the executioner and his victim to the world, and the Tunisian Government wishes to appear impartial whilst masking killers surreptitiously. * ... We do not seek an eye for an eye, blood for blood, but that the guilty should be . . . legally condemned.[208]

[* "The nineteenth-century complaint about the "government's wish to appear impartial" to the world while "masking" its persecution illustrates the sophisticated aptitude for image making that was practiced more than a hundred years ago. The "invitation" from the Arab world to its Jews (see Chapter 2 above) is one modem example of the continued tradition.]
A Jew from Tunis protested assassinations in a neighboring community:

Nabel is a town of fanatics, and we must unfortunately record six other murders of our co-religionists, the perpetrators of which have not been punished .... [209]
The violence spread in 1869 to the city of Tunis, where Muslims butchered many Jews in the defenseless ghetto. The French Protectorate was established in Tunisia in 1881, and life improved considerably for many Tunisian Jews. In 1910 they were allowed to become French citizens, though they were not fully accepted in Muslim and French societies.[210]
The subsequent Nazi occupation and Vichy regime did not improve conditions; the Great Synagogue in Tunis was put into use as a Nazi stable. When Tunisia became independent in 1956, a Jew was included in the Bourguiba cabinet, while at the same time, paradoxically, an authoritative report published in 1956 stressed that "the Jew in Tunisia has lost his position of middle man in the distributive industry-with commerce becoming more and more the privilege of a Moslem caste ... [211]

The Jews of Tunisia soon began to flee from the extremism that the "Arabization" policy of the government had fostered. Of 105,000 Jews in 1948, 50,000 emigrated tot Israel and roughly the same number have gone to France and elsewhere."


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