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08 June 2011

The Jewish History of Tunisia

The history of the Jewish people in the land of modern day Tunisia goes back to Roman times. Many of those who descend from the first Jewish settlers believe their ancestors came before the destruction of the First Temple in the 6th Century BCE. In 1883 the remains of an ancient synagogue were discovered in Hammam-Lif. That synagogue dates back to between the 3rd and 5th century CE. These early Jews were mostly engaged in agriculture, cattle raising, and trade.
Under the rule of the Romans and then the Vandals, the Jewish community of Tunis grew in size and really began to prosper as a group. Then in 534, the Vandals were overthrown by Belisarius. This led Justinian I to issue an edict of persecution against the Jews which classed them with the Arians and the heathens.
During the seventh century Jews from many lands made there way into Tunis. First were the Jews fleeing Spain and then Arab Jews who were fleeing Baghdad arrived at the very end of the century. Over the next 500 or so years the Jews went from time of persecution to time of freedom. In 1236, the country fell under the rule of the Hafsite dynasty, which became a time of improved conditions for the Jews. At first the Jews were considered foreigners, and were not allowed to settle in the city of Tunis and built their homes in places such as Mehdia, Kalaa, and the Island of Djerba. However, later they were given permission to settle in a special part of Tunis, an area that came to be known as the Hira quarter.
In 1270, Saint Louis of France was defeated as he led a crusade against Tunis on behalf of France. This led to the cities of Kairwan and Hammat being declared Holy, and Jews were required to leave them or embrace Islam. From that date until 1857 when Tunis was defeated by France, Jews were not allowed to stay the night in those cities and had to have special permissions to even visit those places.
Beginning in the 18th century, the conditions for Jews began to improve as the influence of European countries. In 1881 France invaded Tunisia. This led to Tunisia becoming a French protectorate. Jews, became much safer and began to thrive, many even becoming French citizens. Later, during the time of World War II, Tunisia became the only Arab Country to come under Nazi occupation. When the Nazis arrived in 1942, there were over 100,000 Jews. The Nazis imposed rules to control the Jews, such as being forced to wear the yellow badge, fines and confiscation of their property.
Today, most Jews have left, however there are communities in Tunis and on the island of Djerba, which both number around 1000. While the numbers are fewer, there is still great history in Tunisia, in fact the oldest synagogue in Africa, is the El Ghriba synagogue in the village of Hara Sghirba on the Island of Djerba.

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