Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Based in what is now Tunisia for centuries and numbering some 100,000 at their peak, there are currently only 1,500 to 2,000 Jews remaining in Tunisia, one third of whom live in the capital and the remainder in Djerba.
There were approximately 20,000 Jews at the end of the nineteenth century, of whom an estimated 18,000 had ancestry in Tunisia stretching back to the Roman era, with a smaller group (1,000-2,000) composed of more recent arrivals from Spain and Italy. Those living on the island of Djerba in Southern Tunisia may have arrived as early as 586 BCE, according to Jewish oral tradition after the destruction by the Babylonians of the temple in Jerusalem.
In 1857 reforms to grant civil and religious equality to all subjects were introduced by Mohammed Bey, prompted also by European economic interests. Before the French occupation in 1881, however, Jews in Tunisia had lived for centuries with dhimmī status. This provided a level of protection they did not experience in Europe, as well as rights they did not have in Morocco and Algeria, although accompanied by a measure of inferior status.
During the French colonial period, starting from 1910, Jews could become naturalized French citizens, though they lost this preferential status in 1940 following the occupation of northern France by Nazi Germany and the installation of the collaborationist Vichy Regime in the south. The Jewish community in Tunisia was in fact affected by a series of discriminatory laws issued by Vichy France, such as a ban on the practice of certain professions. This legislation had to be submitted to the bey for signing, which allowed governors such as Moncef Bey to slow down their implementation. However, this did not prevent anti-Semitic sentiment from spreading and the community was occasionally attacked. The worst period was during 1942-1943, when Tunisia was under Italo-German occupation and the Jewish population was condemned to forced labour.
By the late 1940s, the Jewish community had reached a peak of around 100,000. Their situation improved after World War II and in the years preceding independence. When autonomy was granted in 1954, the Jewish nationalist Albert Bessis was appointed Minister of Urban Planning and Housing and was followed by the Jewish André Barrouch upon independence in 1956. However, these appointments were perceived by many Tunisian Jews as a strategic move to appear inclusive and gain access to an old Jewish cemetery in downtown Tunis. Both figures remained in power for a few months only. Meanwhile, this period also saw the beginning of a rapid decline in the Jewish population as many Tunisian Jews decided to emigrate, in three main waves: after the creation of Israel in 1948, following independence in 1956 and in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war in 1967.
After independence, President Habib Bourguiba used Islam as a way of consolidating Tunisian national identity. While Bourguiba was mindful of the Jewish minority and of distinguishing it from Zionism, which he vigorously denounced, state control over religion was nevertheless extended over minorities as well, including the Jewish community. As the majority of Tunisian Jews were French-speaking, many feared this process of Arabization would undermine their identity. In the ensuing decades, then, the number of Tunisian Jews declined steadily, falling to a fraction of its former size.
While the Jewish community enjoys a range of protections and do not generally face direct persecution on account of their beliefs, more subtle and indirect forms of discrimination may take place. Despite the fact that discrimination on the basis of religion in the recruitment of public servants is banned by law, many Tunisian Jews in practice are not represented in certain areas of employment. There are a number of reasons for this, from a lack of self-confidence at an individual level, resistance from other members of their community and the persistence of prejudice from some officials (as well as the larger population) towards them. As a result, many believe that they cannot in practice take part in the army or hold other senior official positions. Moreover, Tunisians assuming certain functions, such as a judge or lawyer, must swear on the Qur’an as part of their induction ceremony. The very few Tunisian Jews and other non-Muslims who managed to overcome the considerable obstacles to studying law must then take this oath if they wish to continue working in this profession.
According to the current Constitution, Tunisian Jews, as well as other non-Muslim citizens, are not allowed to become President of the Republic. Article 74 states, ‘Every male and female voter who holds Tunisian nationality since birth, whose religion is Islam shall have the right to stand for election to the position of President of the Republic.’ At the time the new Constitution was being drafted, during 2012-13, none of the members of the Constitutional Assembly involved in this process were Jewish: one community member had presented himself for inclusion but was not elected. More recently, a Jewish candidate ran in the May 2018 municipal elections in Monastir with the Muslim party Ennahda. In November 2018, Prime Minister Youssef Chahad appointed the Jewish businessman René Trabelsi as Minister of Tourism – a significant moment for the Tunisian Jews, since only two previous community members have been appointed to cabinet positions since independence.
There have been periodic incidents of hostility towards the Jewish community, including an attack in 2002 outside a synagogue in Djerba, claimed by al-Qaeda, that left 21 people dead, the majority German tourists. A call to kill Tunisian Jews was issued by a Salafi leader in 2012, provoking the reaction of an outspoken representative of the Tunisian Jewish Community, Roger Bismuth, who filed a complaint before the public prosecutor at the Tunis Court of First Instance.
In August 2018 a debate was also sparked in local media and online because Ilan Raccah, a Jewish man who had been jailed since July 2018, was denied kosher food following pressure on the prison by certain conservative groups who accused Raccah of being an Israeli spy and the prison of treating him with favouritism. A friend of Ilan was subsequently beaten in Tunis by a group of people who also alleged he too was an Israeli spy – a not unusual accusation for Tunisian Jews due to a widespread perception that all Jews are associated in some way with Israel.
Nevertheless, contrary to other religious minorities, the Jewish community is recognised by the Tunisian state due to its longstanding presence, something that can be exemplified by the fact that the Chief Rabbi is paid directly by the state. The authorities also provide security for all synagogues. In 2019, significant attention and governmental representation was given at the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the El Ghriba on the island of Djerba (thousands of years old and recognised as one of the main Jewish sites).
Updated November 2021