The Jews in Islam - Tunisia

  • Presentation at the 19th International Congress of Historical Sciences, University of Oslo, Norway, 6-13 Aug. 2000

  • Edith Haddad Shaked. On the State of Being (Jewish) Between "Orient" and "Occident". In Jewish Locations: Traversing Racialized Landscapes, Lisa Tessman and Bat-Ami Bar On, eds., Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 185-199. pdf (with permission of the publisher.)

    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, 1881-1956 - 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 and 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.


    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.”1 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.



    Antisemitism - What's in a Hyphen? by Shmuel Almog

    ... If you use the hyphenated form, you consider the words 'Semitism', 'Semite', 'Semitic' as meaningful. They supposedly convey an image of a real substance, of a real group of people--the Semites, who are said to be a race. This is a misnomer: firstly, because 'semitic' or 'aryan' were originally language groups, not people; but mainly because in antisemitic parlance, 'Semites' really stands for Jews,  just that. ...
    If you do assume for a moment that Semites are a special race, consider also the implication that this so-called race comprises both Jews and Arabs. One often talks of the kinship between these two, who are now at loggerheads with each other. Be that as it may, antisemites talking against 'Semites' do not generally refer to Arabs; they mean Jews. So did the Nazis who killed the Jews and invited cooperation from the Arabs.
    It is obvious then that 'anti-Semitism' is a non-term, because it is not directed against so-called 'Semitism'. If there is any substance to the term, it is only to denote a specifically anti-Jewish movement. Antisemitism is a generic term which signifies a singular attitude to a particular group of people. As the late philosopher Zvi Diesendruck pointed out, "There has never been coined a standing term for the merely negative attitude" to any other people in history. Only antisemitism; only against Jews. ... (This article appeared in the SICSA Report: Newsletter of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism)

    Arab Jew or Jewish Arab

    These are false terms and false notions, according to Tunisia born expert on Maghrebien Jews, Professor Jacob Taieb, Sorbonne University, France. Tunisia born historian, Professor Paul Sebag, stated that “these terms were never used in Tunisia, and they do not do not correspond/coincident to the religious and socio-historical context/reality of the Jews in Tunisia/the Arab world.” Nowadays, one distinguishes between a Moslem Arab and a Christian Arab, and I think this caused some to invent, to facilitate matters, the terms: Arab Jew or Jewish Arab = Juif Arab or Arabe juif. The historical fact is, that the Arab component of the North African society was introduced during the conquest of the seventh century, after the establishment of North African Jewish communities.

    In Arab countries, there are Jews among the Arabs, like in European and other countries, there are Jews among the French, Italian, Polish, German, American ... people. In North Africa, some Jews are arabophone, speaking a Judeo-Arabic language, and others are francophone, speaking French; and in some areas there are “arabized” Jews who dress quite like Arabs. The fact is that even when the Jewish community was culturally quite embedded in its Muslim Arab environment, Jews were always considered members of a socio-religious community minority, different and distinct from the Arab population, because of their Jewish cultural tradition, their common past, and the Judeo-arabic language - all of them separated them from the Arabs. And the Arabs saw the Jews, even the ones who spoke only Judeo-Arabic, as members of a socio-linguistic religious cultural community, different from theirs.

    “For the generation born under the protectorate, the French language replaced Judeo-Arabic as the Tunisian Jews' mother tongue, causing, maybe, Memmi's daughter to ponder her own and her parents' identity when asking, "are you Arab father? Your mother speaks Arabic. And I, am I Arab, or French, or Jewish?"

    That question of Memmi's daughter is important and meaningful, because it enlightens us ‘on the state of being Jewish.’ When she formulated her question to her father, reflecting upon the status of her own identity, she used very specific terms for the purpose of identification, "am I Arab, or French, or Jewish?" She only used the terms ‘French,’ and ‘Arab,’ and she differentiates the term ‘Jewish’ from them. By also not specifying Catholic French or Moslem Arabs, she clearly states the facts that the words ‘French’ and ‘Arabs’ were the terms setting the Jews apart. And indeed, the undeniable reality for all in Tunisia, has been that there were the ‘French’ -les Francais, the ‘Arabs’2 -les Arabes, and the ‘Jews’ -les Juifs, with Jewish people saying, ‘you know, Jean-Paul Lumbroso (a common Italian last name of Jews from Livorno), he is with a French, and Brigitte Cohen, she goes out with an Arab.’

    The Jews of Tunisia distinguished themselves from the ‘Arabs’ and the ‘French’ by the differences of their religion and their Jewish cultural tradition, but they have also used the Judeo-Arab language to separate themselves from the ‘Arabs.’ In fact, before and after the French Protectorate, they have always regarded themselves, and were regarded by the ‘Arabs’ as being separate and distinct, and as a linguistic, religious, and cultural distinctive community. It was and has been a clear, and undeniable mutual self-identification of ‘we, the Jews’/’they, the Arabs,’ and ‘we, the Arabs’/they, the Jews, the others’ a state of matter clearly reflected and implemented in an history of discrimination and persecution under Arab rule, and painfully described in Jews and Arabs, a revealing title, by Memmi: “having to tremble for one’s life and the future of one’s children, ... being denied any existence or one’s own ... for centuries ... .” The memory of that unforgettable shared past of oppression and suffering reinforced the self-perception of all the Jews of Tunisia, native ‘Twansa,’ Spanish, Grana/’Livornese’, and foreign-born Jews, and gave shape to their separate Jewish cultural identity. And their identity was a religious communal identity with a strong sense of belonging to a community, bound together by by their Jewish faith, culture, history, traditions, and a sense of continuity with the Jewish past.

    The Jews in Tunisia were able to maintain and reproduce their autonomous administrative, cultural and religious institutions, preserving intact their religious and communal identity. ... a cohesive, well-organized and structured Jewish community, who remained a separate entity from the Arabs and the French.”3



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    1 Andre N. Chouraqui, Between East and West: A History of the Jews of North Africa, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1968), p. 283

    2 ... claim Arab ancestry, speak Arabic, profess Islam ... a mixture of Berber and Arab stock ... The Arab component o the society was introduced during the conquest o the seventh century.” Tunisia: a country study, The American University, Washington, D.C. Foreign Area Studies. Edited by Harold D. Nelson, 1988

    3 Bar On, Bat-Ami, and Edith Shaked. “On the State of Being [Jewish] Between ‘Orient’ and ‘Occident.’ (Jewish Identity and Community in Tunisia - the end of one of the oldest Jewish minorities in Tunisia, 1881-1967). In Jewish Locations, Lisa Tessman and Bat-Ami Bar On, eds., Rowman & Littlefield (article to be published soon).