September 2007

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The Torah Ark at the synagogue in La Goulette, a suburb of Tunis. Photo Bonnie Squires.
News and Opinion

The Jews of Tunisia

-- Bonnie Squires

(Tunis, Tunisia) -- Tunisia has had a Jewish minority since Roman times. In 1948, the Jewish population was an estimated 105,000, but by 1967 most Tunisian Jews had left the country for France and Israel, and the population shrunk to 20,000. As of 2004, an estimated 1,500 still remain, particularly on the island of Djerba, which is noted for its synagogue, and comprises the country's largest indigenous religious minority.

Earlier this year, I had another opportunity to visit Tunisia. It is a beautiful small country at the top of the African continent, a short flight from Rome, with a population of approximately 10 million people. If you are planning a trip to Tunisia, I recommend you arrange to meet with the Tunisian ambassador to the United States a few months before your departure. You have no idea how many doors open magically after a meeting with such an important representative of the foreign government.

I had planned to be in Washington D.C. for the inauguration of the 110th United States Congress, January 3, 2007. Since I would be in the neighborhood anyway, I e-mailed the press office of the Tunisian Embassy to try to arrange such a meeting. This was to be my fourth trip to Tunisia, and on this visit I wanted to meet with some officials, as well as leaders of the Jewish community. We were bringing friends with us this time, and this would be their initiation into Tunisian society.

Mr. Taoufik Chebbi, the press officer, invited me to the Tunisian Embassy. After a short introduction and pleasantries, I was summoned to meet Ambassador Mohamed Nejib Hachana in his office. While I expected a two-minute shaking of hands and exchanging of business cards, Ambassador Hachane instead invited me to take a seat, and we had a lively 1 1/2-hour discussion of American politics, along with my impressions of Tunisia from my earlier trips. I was impressed with his command of the English language and with his knowledge of the American system. At the end of the meeting, he presented me with a huge box in the shape of a large green felt-covered book, filled with Tunisian dates.

Chebbi became my e-mail and phone buddy after that. He arranged for my friend and me to spend time at the Tunisian External Communication Agency in Tunis upon our arrival, and to be pointed toward people of interest to us. What we did not know ahead of time was that he would also send a Fulbright scholar, Dr. Sadok Bouhlila, from the agency to greet us at the airport and usher us through customs. What a treat! Getting through customs a lot easier when a high official is escorting you. It makes one feel like visiting royalty.

The next morning, we went to the communication agency office and met with Bouhlila and his colleague, Dr. Bochra Malki, who would lay out an itinerary for us during our stay in Tunisia. We also met with the director general of the external communication agency, Mr. Oussama Romdhani, who had completed graduate studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. It seemed we were meeting only with the very brightest, most accomplished members of Tunisian society.

We explained to them that would we like to meet with the president of the La Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba. No problem, they said. Faxes and phone calls with names and addresses of contacts for us followed us to every city. Would I like to interview the director of the largest and oldest women's union in Tunisia? Done. And I was able to conduct the interview with Madame Aziza Hatira in French, which gave me better insight into the history of the women's movement in the country.

A brief historical background about Tunisia?s Jewry. A tradition among the descendants of the first Jewish settlers were that their ancestors settled in that part of North Africa long before the destruction of the First Temple in the 6th century before the common era. After the dissolution of the Jewish state, a great number of Jews were sent by Titus to Mauritania, and many of them settled in Tunis. These settlers were engaged in agriculture, cattle-raising, and trade. They were divided into clans, or tribes, governed by their respective heads, and had to pay the Romans a capitation tax of two shekels.

Under the dominion of the Romans and (after 429 C.E.) of the fairly tolerant Vandals, the Jewish inhabitants of Tunis increased and prospered to such a degree that African church councils deemed it necessary to enact restrictive laws against them. After the overthrow of the Vandals by Belisarius in 534, Justinian I issued his edict of persecution, in which the Jews were classed with the Arians and heathens.

In the seventh century, the Jewish population was largely augmented by Spanish immigrants, who, fleeing from the persecutions of the Visigothic King Sisebut and his successors, escaped to Mauritania and settled in the Byzantine cities. These settlers, according to the Arabic historians, mingled with the Berber population and converted many powerful tribes, which continued to profess Judaism until the reign of the founder of the Idrisid Dynasty. Al-Kairuwani relates that at the time of the conquest of Hippo Zaritus (Bizerta) in 698 the governor of that district was a Jew. When Tunis came under the dominion of the Arabs, or of the Arabian caliphate of Baghdad, another influx of Arab Jews into Tunis took place. Like all other Jews in Islamic countries, those of Tunis were subject to the ordinance of Umar ibn al-Khattab.

From the moment Tunisia won its independence from France, in 1956, women were emancipated, allowed to vote, to own property, and have the rights which other Arab countries do not offer. In fact, Tunisia has a larger percentage of women in their Parliament than America does in Congress.

Jews and Muslims have always lived side by side in Tunisia. All speak Arabic as their daily language, and the educated people speak fluent French as well. And more and more, with the younger people having to study English in school, you will hear people greeting you in English, especially in hotels, shops and restaurants.

Tunisia is the most modern and most Western of all the Arab countries; you will not see the women clad in burkas -- a typical American expectation based on what they have seen of Iraq and Saudi Arabia on television.

In fact, blue jeans and T-shirts are often the uniform dressing style of the younger generation. And equal pay for equal work has always been the creed in Tunisia, according to Mr. Tijani Maknine, director of the Tunisian National Tourism Office training department programs for all those who work in the hospitality industry.

Beach, sun and historic sites are the major products Tunisia has to offer, and the country has them all in abundance. The only drawback, according to Maknine, is that there are no direct airline flights from any American cities to Tunis. This has nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with economics. Right now, you have to fly to a European city -- London, Paris, Munich, or Rome --and change planes to get into Tunis. If there were more American tourists, you can bet that many airlines would be scheduling direct flights, even if only for the tourist season, as some airlines do now for flights. It is suggested that 19th century relations between the United States and Tunisia possibly led up to the modern day situation, in part.

Tunisia, a French protectorate ruled by the pro-Nazi Vichy government during the Holocaust, was the only European territory in North Africa to come under direct Nazi occupation during World War II. The French territories of Morocco and Algeria were governed by Vichy France. When the Nazis arrived in Vichy Tunisia in November, 1942, the territory was home to some 100,000 Jews. According to Yad Vashem, the Nazis imposed anti-Semitic policies including forcing Jews to wear the Star of David badges, fines, and confiscation of property. More than 5,000 Jews were sent to forced labor camps, where 46 are known to have died, and an additional 160 Tunisian Jews in France were sent to European death camps. In the Jewish Holocaust Museum, there is an exhibit "Shoah," curated by Yad Vashem and located at Block 27 at the Auschwitz Museum. The Jews from pro-Nazi Vichy Tunisia who were murdered in the Shoah can be found in the Book of Names in the last room of the museum.

After independence in the 1950s, Tunisia's Jewish Community Council was abolished by the government and many Jewish areas and buildings were destroyed for urban renewal. By 1967, the country's Jewish population was fleeing, and over 40,000 had left for Israel, leaving 20,000. During the Six Day War, Jews were attacked in riots, and, despite government apologies, 7,000 Jews immigrated to France.

In 1985, Yasir Arafat's offices in Tunis were bombed by Israeli Air Force in retaliation for the murder of three Israelis in Cyprus, an attack that killed more than 70 people and leveled the entire PLO complex. As of 2004 the Jewish community in Tunis supports three primary schools, two secondary schools, a yeshiva, and the Chief Rabbi. There is also a Jewish primary school and synagogue in the coastal city of Zarzis. The Jewish community also supports two homes for the aged, several kosher restaurants and four other rabbis. Most Tunisian Jews observe the laws of kashrut.

The most famous synagogue in Tunisia is the El Ghriba Synagogue in the village of Hara Sghira on Djerba. The current building was constructed in late 19th or early 20th century, but the site is believed to have had a synagogue on it for the past 1,900 years. Tunisian Jews have for centuries made an annual pilgrimage to the synagogue on Lag B?Omer. On April 11, 2002, a truck full of explosives was detonated close to the synagogue, killing 21 people (of whom 14 were German tourists and two Frenchmen), and wounding over 30, in the Ghriba Synagogue Attack. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.

Today, with only 1,500 to 2,000 Jews left in Tunisia, there are few lively centers of Judaism: one in Tunis, and the other on the island of Djerba. The latter has an ancient synagogue, perhaps from 1,900 to 2,000 years old, which is a treat to visit, especially if you are lucky enough to catch services, as we did. We were also fortunate in attending Havdalah services at the synagogue in La Goulette, a suburb of Tunis, where we met and became friendly with the volunteer Hazzan, Roland Saada, and his wife Evelyne. They invited us to join with them and their friends a few nights later at their home for a Shavuot feast, with tajine, brique, couscous, and other delicious Tunisian delicacies.

Each year for Lag B'Omer there is a pilgrimage of close to 1,000 Jews, many of whom are living in France now, to Djerba and the synagogue there for the holiday. The tourism agency has decided to aim their limited advertising dollars at the American Jewish community in the near future because they have a lot of historic Jewish sites, in addition to gorgeous beaches and perfect weather, to offer tourists.

Before leaving for Tunisia in mid-May, I discovered that there was one Jewish member of the Tunisian Parliament, Sen. Joseph Roger Bismuth, and I had tracked down a cell phone number for him. He graciously invited us to meet with him in his office, and we spent two hours discussing business, agriculture, and Jewish life in Tunisia. Bismuth and a friend had been responsible for renovating and reopening the synagogue in La Goulette.

After only a few days of immersion into Tunisian culture, our friends were already talking about the next time we come back here, and we have many new friends and contacts to visit again.

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