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World Jewish Congress, March 2018

The Jewish community of Tunisia is one of the oldest in the Diaspora, dating back at least to the second century of the Common Era. According to some traditions, there has been a Jewish presence in Tunisia since the days of the Punic Empire and even earlier. More than 100,000 Jews have emigrated from Tunisia over the course of the last century and less than 1,500 live there today. Thousands of Jews from around the world flock to the Tunisian island of Djerba every year for the Lag B’Omer festival. The Tunisian Affiliate of the World Jewish Congress is the CJT - Communauté Juive de Tunisie.

CJT - Communauté Juive de Tunisie
15, rue du Cap Vert
1002 Tunis Belvédère
Phone : 00 216 71 832469   Fax : 00 216 71 832364   E-mail :

President: Joseph Roger Bismuth


The first documented evidence of a Jewish presence in Tunisia dates back to the second century when a community existed in the Latin territory of Carthage under Roman rule. Latin Carthage contained a significant Jewish presence, and several sages mentioned in the Talmud lived in this area from the 2nd to the 4th centuries.

During the Byzantine period, conditions began to deteriorate, and in 535, when Christianity became the official state religion, discriminatory measures were introduced which barred Jews from holding public office and prohibited Jewish religious practices. Many synagogues were converted into churches and the construction of new synagogues was forbidden. Large numbers of Jews migrated from the cities to live amongst the Berbers in the mountains and desert. With the Arab conquest of Tunisia in the 7th century, conditions improved despite the imposition of the Jizya head tax on Jewish and Christian by the new Islamic rulers.

Conditions began to worsen once again with the Spanish invasions of the 16th century and the concomitant hegira of the Jewish residents of the North African coast. However, with the subsequent conquest of the region by the Ottoman Empire, things against began to improve. However, this period also saw internal divisions split the community between the Touransa, composed by native Tunisians, and the Grana, Jews who followed the Spanish and Italian rites.

During the 19th century, with the advent of French rule, the community was gradually emancipated. However, beginning in November 1940, when the country was ruled by the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy authorities, Jews were subject to new anti-Semitic laws. From November 1942 until May 1943, the country was occupied by German forces. During that time, the condition of the Jews deteriorated further. Many members of the community had their property seized and were deported to labor camps.

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Tunisia as French Colony Protectorate was present at the 1936 inaugural World Jewish Congress Plenary in Geneva and in 1948 the WJC helped to bring about unification of Tunisian Jewry through the Federation of Jewish Communities of Tunisia.

Life became more precarious for the Tunisian Jewry in 1956, when the country gained its independence and undertook a process of “Arabization.” The rabbinical courts were abolished in 1957, followed the next year by the dissolution of Jewish community councils. The Jewish quarter of Tunis was demolished by the government, which justified its actions by citing the need to engage in “urban development.” The World Jewish Congress played a critical diplomatic role during the 1950s and 1960s in enabling Tunisian Jews to emigrate to France, Israel and elsewhere.

The Arab-Israeli conflict was also a source of hardship for Tunisian Jewry. Anti-Jewish rioting followed the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967. During the violence the Great Synagogue of Tunis was put to the torch. While the community was compensated for the damage, these events increased the steady stream of emigration.

The political atmosphere in Tunisia has become increasing uncomfortable for Jews in recent years. In April 2002, a truck exploded outside the external wall of the Ghriba synagogue of Djerba, killing 17 people, including 11 German tourists. During the Arab Spring in 2010, protesters held demonstrations outside of one of Tunisia's ancient synagogues, where they chanted “Death to the Jews.” Since 2013, over 100 Jewish gravestones have been desecrated and in May 2014 the Beith-El synagogue was vandalized.


Tunisia was occupied by the Germans between November 1942 and May 1943, making it one of the only French North African territories to directly experience the Nazi terror. While the German forces were accompanied by SS units to implement the Final Solution, the Jews of Tunisia were saved because the Nazis did not have time to implement the same policies as in continental Europe. However, the Nazis did force the Jewish community to supply them with forced laborers, and almost 5,000 Jews in total were imprisoned in 32 labor camps. The two biggest and most dangerous of these were the Bizerte and Mateur camps, where prisoners died from disease, labor and punishment by the Nazi guards, as well as from Allied bombings. Jewish property, including homes, offices and stores, were also confiscated by the Nazis.


Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated that there were between 1,100 and 1,300 Jews in Tunisia as of 2015, while the European Jewish Congress estimates the number as 1,700. The largest communities are currently in Tunis and on the island of Djerba. A smaller number of Jews also live in the Sousse-Monastir region on the Gulf of Hammamet.


Each separate community in Tunisia is headed by a government-appointed committee. There are two community-run old age homes and five officiating rabbis: the chief rabbi in Tunis, a rabbi in Djerba, and four others in Tunis and other communities. There are several kosher restaurants, as most Tunisian Jews observe the laws of kashrut. Today the largest communities are in Tunis and in the island of Djerba. The Jewish community also has a small presence in the Tunis suburb of La Goulette. There are also approximately 200 Jews living in the Sousse-Monastir region on the Gulf of Hammamet. In July 2005, CJT’s (Communauté Juive de Tunisie) President Joseph Roger Bismuth was elected to the Chamber of Advisors, Tunisia’s upper house of parliament.


Tunisian Jews have many unique and colorful rituals and celebrations, including the annual pilgrimage to Djerba which takes place on Lag Ba’Omer and attracts Jews from all around the world. In Tunis and Djerba there are yeshivot and the salaries of Chief Rabbis of Tunis and the Rabbi of Djerba are covered by the Tunisian government. The rabbinical Tribunal (court) was closed in 1957 and never reopened. Tunisian Jews speak their own Arabic dialect and have their own cuisine. The Bardo Museum in Tunis contains a section dealing exclusively with Judaica.


In Tunis, the Jewish community runs three primary schools and two secondary schools, while Djerba has a kindergarten, two primary schools and two secondary schools. There is also a Jewish primary school and synagogue in the coastal city of Zarzis.


Many tourists come to Tunisia mostly to visit Djerba's El Ghirba Synagogue in the village of Hara Sghira. Although the present building was erected in 1929, it is believed there has been a synagogue in continuous use on this site for 1,900 years. In May 2017, the Minister of Culture announced plans to seek UNESCO World Heritage status for the whole island of Djerba in order to mark its “cultural and religious uniqueness.”


Israel and Tunisia have maintained limited ties since the 1950s. As a result of the thaw in Arab-Israeli relations following the signing of the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, Israel opened an interest office in Tunisia in April 1996, and Tunisia reciprocated six weeks later in May 1996. After the renewal of conflict with the Palestinians in 2000, Tunisia broke off diplomatic ties with Israel. Nevertheless, some commercial relations and tourism continue, as well as contacts in other fields.


The future of one of the Arab world's oldest and last remaining Jewish communities is under threat, and it's not because of Islamic State militants.

Radio Free Europe, Daniella Cheslow, June 2016   

Djerba, Tunisia --Cracked tombstones litter the perimeter of the cemetery behind the Great Synagogue that anchors this tiny Tunisian Jewish community, but it was not vandals who broke them.

Hundreds of Jews who moved away over the past five decades have taken their relatives' remains with them, leaving only these slabs of Hebrew-inscribed marble behind.

"There are bones that are 80, 90 years old. When you lift them up, they can break," said Yossif Sabbagh. The 42-year-old local helps exhume about a dozen bodies each year for transport to Israel, where the majority of Tunisian-born Jews have moved, and where they want their ancestors to move, too.

Images of fish are often painted on Jewish homes in Djerba to ward off the evil eye.

The flight of the dead seems to portend a bleak future for the Jews of Djerba, who trace arrival on this island to more than two millennia ago, after the sacking of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C. More Jews arrived after the Spanish Inquisition and from Morocco, Algeria, and Libya.

They were once the traditional, observant branch of a vibrant Jewish community that numbered 100,000 across Tunisia. But the 1,100 Jews in Djerba are nearly all that are left after most others fled persecution between the 1940s and '60s.

Those who remained have been rewarded with new growth thanks in part to an emphasis on large families and patriarchal values. But the community now faces another challenge: Jewish women chafe at their restrictions and men suffer from the battered Tunisian economy. Moving to Israel, where as Jews they are entitled to automatic citizenship, could resolve both issues but could also bring an end to one of the last Jewish societies in the Arab world.


In late May, crowds filled the ornate white-and-blue tiled Ghriba synagogue in Hara Sghira, the smaller of two Jewish enclaves in Djerba, as part of the annual pilgrimage that has long attracted outsiders to the island.

Pilgrims lit candles in the sanctuary and placed eggs covered with handwritten wishes in a cave dug into the synagogue's floor. Across a cobbled street, revelers sang songs, ate couscous with fish, and drank fig brandy and beer in a sunny courtyard strung with red Tunisian flags.

The event marking the Lag BaOmer feast, which honors the second-century Jewish mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, was clearly a point of Tunisian pride.

The event had been cancelled in 2011 amid the tumult of the Tunisian revolution that ousted dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, a protector of the country's Jewish population.

It was restored under the country's current government, which prizes the community as a symbol of stability. But three major terrorist attacks since the beginning of 2015, along with an infiltration by the extremist group Islamic State just an hour’s drive south of Djerba, raised security concerns and harmed tourism.

Participants and observers at this year's event appeared unfazed, however.

On the first day of the pilgrimage, Abdelfattah Mourou, deputy speaker of parliament and vice president of the moderate Islamic Ennahda party, embraced Tunisia's chief rabbi and Djerba resident, Haim Bittan, outside the Ghriba synagogue.

"Tunisia protects its Jews," Mourou said. "What leads to radicalism is having only one culture. Having many cultures allows us to accept one another."


Visitors to the pilgrimage walked through a metal detector and passed checkpoints overseen by special forces and a military truck mounted with a heavy automatic weapon. A helicopter patrolled from above. Security has been tight since a 2002 truck bombing killed 21 people, mostly tourists, at the synagogue.

This didn't prevent the Israeli government, in the weeks before the Ghriba festival, from issuing a travel advisory admonishing its citizens to avoid Tunisia, however.

Perez Trabelsi, the 74-year-old president of the Ghriba festival, says Israel has issued the same warning each year since the revolution.

"There's really no danger," he said. "We have the freedom to leave but we are not going anywhere."

Still, Trabelsi moved his father's grave to Israel three years ago. His six children live in Paris. Since the Tunisian revolution about 30 Jews have left Djerba, Rabbi Bittan said, and many more are considering moving to Israel -- but not because of fear.


The Ghriba synagogue is built over foundations that locals say include stone from the sacked First Temple. In many ways, Jerusalem remains a cornerstone in the minds of Djerba's Jews.

Shiran Trabelsi, 23, teaches fourth grade in Hara Kebira, the larger of the two Jewish enclaves. She remembers visiting her grandparents in the Israeli seaside city of Ashkelon in 2006.

"I was in a different world," she said. "Over there there's trees and everything is blossoming and green and clean. When I got back here, I felt like there's no color in the city."

Trabelsi said the Jews of Djerba should move to Israel en masse -- although she conceded she would not move without her parents or a future husband.

Rabbi Bittan says that women should only work within the community, an injunction intended to reduce their exposure to the outside world. This rule restricts them to teaching, childcare, cutting hair, and tailoring clothes.

Kindergarten teacher Yiska Mamou, 24, said she studied economics in public school but, like most Jews in Djerba, did not go on to higher education. She, too, wants to move to Israel, because after work "there's nothing to do here but go home and clean."

It's a lament echoed by many young Jewish women, whose presence is key to the community's survival -- it is growing, thanks to at least 30 births a year -- but who pine for Israel's relative openness.

Young men, too, dream of moving, but with an eye on economic security.


Like many Jewish men in Djerba, Yoni Haddad is involved in the jewelry trade. The community is known for its silver filigree and elaborate, gold-plated wedding headdresses and necklaces that are popular with Muslim brides. It is a craft that has been handed down from generation to generation.

But on a recent visit, only a few Russian-speaking visitors walked the modest market in Houmt Souk, a working-class city that dwarfs nearby Hara Kebira.

Jewish and Muslim shopkeepers alike have suffered heavy losses as tourists abandoned Tunisia for fear of security after IS-affiliated gunmen attacked a beach hotel in Sousse to the north in the summer of 2015, killing 38 people, mostly British tourists.

Haddad said he has relatives in Jerusalem, but is hesitant to leave his house and business in Djerba. Should business get bad enough, however, he would consider relocating -- "of course, to Israel. It's the last stop."

Yigal Palmor, spokesman of the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that promotes immigration to Israel, said "there is very little future for any Jewish community in any Arab country unless things change dramatically. Even if they are tolerated, I don't believe they have a real future there."

He noted that the Jewish community in Morocco -- the only one in the Arab world that is larger than Tunisia's -- is mostly elderly; the Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian communities have dwindled to a few dozen; and Jews are gone entirely from Libya and Algeria.

For now, Djerba's Jews are grooming their young for a split identity.


On a Thursday afternoon, Elinor Haddad, 16, mopped the kitchen of her family home in preparation for the weekend. Her older brother had returned the day before from a sponsored trip to Israel, and Elinor wore a bracelet he brought back. She would not be making the same trip, she said, because Rabbi Bittan ruled against girls traveling alone. But Israel has come to her.

To avoid assimilation into Tunisian society, Haddad's girls-only high school teaches an Israeli curriculum. Haddad speaks fluent Hebrew along with Arabic. Israeli mores have seeped into home life as well. Friday night dinner at Haddad's house would be the traditional Tunisian Jewish meal of couscous, but Thursday's lunch was chicken schnitzel -- a common Israeli meal, imported by European Jewish immigrants.

On Thursday night, Elinor giggled with friends in the Ghriba synagogue's anteroom while pilgrims passed by. Ordinarily, Elinor said, she sits with friends behind closed doors. The pilgrimage is a chance to see and be seen, she said.

"If I had the opportunity to move to Israel I would go," Haddad said. "But it's ok here too."

At the cemetery, Yossif Sabbagh said he had also considered moving to Israel, but hesitated because of the higher cost of living. When his father died, Sabbagh and his siblings flew the body to Israel and buried him in Jerusalem.

But for the older tombs, he said, "I think the bones should stay in their graves."

Cracked tombstones litter the cemetery of the Rabbi Eliazer synagogue in Hara Kebira.


The Jews of Tunisia  (Wikipedia)            

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee



Tunisia has a Jewish history extending over 2,300 years.  It was the seat of the Carthaginian civilisation for 700 years and was followed by a long period of Roman rule. Josephus, testified to the transportation of 30,000 Jews to Tunisia by the Emperor Titus. The rise of Christianity saw Judaism eventually eradicated and synagogues converted into churches.

The Arabs restored the Jews to some equality and allowed them to flourish in trade and commerce. Later, with harsh rule they were given the choice of conversion or death, though many were sold into slavery.  In the 13th century they were allowed to practise as Jews.

In 1574 it became part of the Ottoman Empire and the Jews integrated themselves into its economic life. The community divided into two. The 'native' community, known in the Judaeo-Arab dialect as the Touansa (the Tunisians) and the ‘immigrant’ community, predominantly from Italy, known as the Gornim, from the Italian city of Ligorno (today's Livorno). The Touansa also referred to the Gornim as the Grana. Both lived in the Hara-al-Yahud.

The Congress of Berlin in 1878 saw French influence extended in Tunisia following their acquisition of Algeria though the population were not given  French nationality

German forces occupied Tunisia and brought under their control 90,000 Jews. 5,000 young Jews were taken into forced labour camps and the community taxed.  They were evacuated after six-months.

After 1945, the Jewish population of Tunisia had reached 105,000 (65,000 in Tunis) with full sovereignty in March 1956.

From the mid-1950’s Jewish emigration to Israel and France accelerated with 25 000 leaving between 1948 and 1955.  Today only about 2,000 Jews live there.



The Last Jews Of Tunisia


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