Jewish History

The first remnants of Jewish life in Tunisia date back to the 4th century. In the 400’s, Jews were increasing in size and prospering greatly to such a degree that the African Church Council enacted strict restrictions on the Jews in order to minimize their influence. In 534, the Jews were considered heathens and faced persecution. Throughout their history, Tunisian Jews encounter eras of good treatment interspersed with eras of anti-Semitism and discrimination.

When the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 sent Jews fleeing Spain to surrounding countries, only a few Jews immigrated to Tunisia because of the harsh conditions experienced by the Tunisian Jews at that time. In 1855 Mohammed Bey executed a Jew named Batto Sfoz. Two years of diplomatic negotiations took place with the French government who ultimately responded by granting Jews equal rights. Not only was this a victory for the Jewish people, but also the Tunisian government became weary of interfering with the Jews.

The French protectorate of Tunisa was established by treaty in 1881 and the situation of Tunisian Jews once again improved. Many Tunisian Jews welcomed the opportunity to become French citizens and identified strongly with French and European culture. This situation shifted dramatically in 1940 as France’s Anti-Semitic Vichy regime came to power.

In 1940, as Tunisa was subjected Vichy policy discriminatory, anti-Jewish legislation was implemented. By 1942, the Nazi’s were occupying Tunisia arresting Jewish leaders and sending many Jews to North African Nazi camps. According to Robert Satloff, “From November 1942 to May 1943, the Germans and their local collaborators implemented a forced-labor regime, confiscations of property, hostage-takings, mass extortion, deportations, and executions.” At least 160 Tunisian Jews were deported to European death camps.

The Tunisians gained independence in 1956 and immediately abolished the Jewish Community Council and destroyed many Jewish areas for “urban renewal.” As a result, many Jews felt forced to leave Tunisia. Following the Biserte war in 1961 and the Six Day War in 1967, Jews experienced significant anti-Semitism and were accused of being unpatriotic, which caused an additional 7,000 to leave Tunisia for France or Israel.

In the 1980’s Tunisia’s government took heavy measures to protect its dwindling Jewish population. Following Israel’s October 1, 1985 bombing of the PLO headquarters in Tunis, the government acted decisively to protect Jews from a backlash. The famous El Ghriba synagogue in the island of Djerba has served as a pilgrimage site for nearly 2,000 years and was attacked by al-Qaeda in 2002, leaving 17 dead.

Today the Tunisian Jewish population is approximately 1,000, comprising the largest indigenous religious minority in Tunisia.