Just off the southeastern coast of the Tunisian mainland in the Gulf of Gabes lies a small island called Djerba. Ancient Greek geographers knew it as “The Land of the Lotus Eaters.”
Romans were the first to settle on the island, which was later conquered by Arabs in 655 CE. Between the 12th and 15th century, the Sicilians, Normans, and Hafsids vied for control over Djerba. After the Spanish staged several failed attempts to seize the island in the 16th century, it came under Ottoman rule until the French colonized Tunisia in the late 19th century.
Djerba is well-known for its date and olive orchards, fishing, and traditional handicrafts. The island has crystal clear waters and golden beaches, making it one of Tunisia’s premier tourist destinations. While all of these things make North Africa’s largest island unique, there is yet another characteristic that stands out. For centuries, Djerba has been home to one of North Africa’s largest Jewish communities.
The MENA Region’s Largest Jewish Enclave
Djerba’s Jewish community is believed to be one of the oldest in the world. Differing oral histories assert that Jews from the Levant may have settled on the island between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago, but the community’s exact origin is unknown. What is certain is that Jews have lived on Djerba since ancient times, building the legendary Ghriba synagogue in 585 BCE. More Jewish immigrants came to Djerba in the Renaissance period, fleeing persecution in Italy and Spain.
The island’s Jewish residents live between the neighborhoods of “Hara Kebira” (“Big Quarter”) and “Hara Seghira” (“Small Quarter”). Hara Kebira is described as an insular, self-contained, and modest neighborhood with low-lying houses and narrow unpaved streets. Djerban Jews and Muslims have proudly lived and worked side by side for centuries.
“Tunisia has been home to Judaism and [Islam] for thousands of years, and will be home to them for thousands more, we do not need to use the word tolerance because it implies that there is a grudge that needs to be forgiven. We coexist as brothers with no differences,” the principal of a Jewish school on the island told CGTN Africa.
Nevertheless, the exodus of Tunisia’s Jewish population in the 20th century tells another story. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa once had sizable Jewish populations. Over half a century ago, there were more than 850,000 Jews living across the Arab world. Today, there are only an estimated 4,000 to 4,500 Jews left, according to U.S.-based advocacy group Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. Tunisia and Morocco are home to the two largest communities. There are currently 2,000 Jews in Tunisia, the majority of whom live in Djerba, which has lead some to call the island’s Jews the “last Arab Jews.”
The Struggle with Anti-Semitism and Belonging
In 1881, Tunisia became a French protectorate. During French colonial rule, Tunisia’s Jewish community enjoyed more rights than their Muslim counterparts. For example, whereas the French gave Tunisian Jews the status of “Ward of France” on their passports, they refused to do the same for Tunisian Muslims. Then, in 1940, France fell to the Nazi forces, and its North African colonies, including Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, came under Vichy rule.
Tunisia was the only Arab country to come under direct German occupation in 1942. As in Europe, the occupying Nazi forces passed anti-Jewish legislation in Tunisia. In addition to confiscating their property, the Nazis forced thousands of Tunisian Jews to wear Star of David badges and sent thousands to forced labor camps. Even after the war ended, it is estimated that there were still over 100,000 Jews living in Tunisia.
After independence in 1956, Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, emphasized that the country was not only Muslim: “We must give guarantees, and declare before the whole world that the Tunisian state respects religions, and guarantees that people will be able to exercise freedom of religious belief as long as this does not interfere with public order.”
Despite Bourguiba’s efforts to promote religious tolerance, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War led to a rise in anti-Jewish sentiment in Tunisia. Rioting in the country led to the destruction of countless Jewish shops and damage to the capital’s Great Synagogue. Fear of poverty and discrimination—along with Zionist propaganda—drove approximately half of Tunisia’s 100,000 Jews to emigrate to Israel and France in the 1950s.
In recent years, Tunisia’s Jewish community has become a target for militant Islamists. In 2002, an al-Qaeda-affiliated suicide bomber crashed a truck loaded with explosives into Djerba’s Ghriba synagogue, killing, by some estimates, 19 people and wounding more than 30. In response, perceiving the “value in having a stable Jewish population,” the Tunisian government increased security on the island. After the 2011 Arab Revolution, Tunisia’s leadership reassured the country’s Jews that their safety was a priority.
Although anti-Semitic violence seems to be the greatest danger to the Djerban Jewish way of life, some believe that something else could threaten the island’s community in the long-term. The spread of the internet and technology is slowly changing the ancient traditions that have guided every aspect of their lives for millennia. However, like their Muslim counterparts, many young Djerban Jews believe that things need to change in Tunisia in order for them to have a more prosperous future.