My right of return, by a Tunisian Jew

Jean-Pierre Chemla explodes the taboo about the true nature of relations between Arabs and Jews in North Africa.

It is about time we refuted the delusion that many of us have wished to nurture these last hundred years – the myth of coexistence between Jews and Arabs in the Maghreb countries.

I was born in 1952 in a business district of central Tunis.

My earliest memories are of lights, smells and sounds : carts, horses’ hooves on the asphalt, the cries of peddlars of all sorts.

There were ten of us – eight children and our parents – living in a three-room apartment in a business district of central Tunis. Noise was everywhere – not hushed and discreet conversations, but clatter in the kitchen, whistling cooking pots, breaking glass, heated discussions about news, politics and sport. Every square metre buzzed with life, impulsiveness, humour and love. As the youngest of this fabulous brood, I benefited from the enrichment which each of my siblings brought with him.

Our status was privileged compared to that of our immediate antecedents. To live in a sunny apartment overlooking a wide avenue on one side and a large garden on the other – built, unfortunately, over a desecrated Jewish cemetery* – would never have been possible for my grandfather on my father’s side who was made to live in the Hara Hafsia, the Jewish ghetto, whose gates were shut at night to prevent Jews from wandering among the Arab population.

My father, who was a teacher at the Alliance Israelite Universelle, was probably the first white collar worker in his family. Such social promotion allowed his offspring access to higher education and jobs that were a far cry from the only trades open to Jews at the end of the 19th century – butcher, cobbler, grocer, etc.

Of course this improvement in our living conditions had not happened by accident nor because Arab leaders had willed it. Everything suddenly changed in 1881.

At that time, shut away in their Hara in rather wretched conditions, the Jews lived in hovels without light or ventilation. There was no sanitation, they were prey to epidemics, received only a rabbinic education and were ‘dhimmis’ subject to a special tax and to all sorts of humiliations and taunts (Read ‘Dhimmitude’ by Bat Ye’or).

The Jewish presence in these countries, which predated that of the Arabs, was a historical reality that many would not have known about at the time. In any case, if some did, it would have been carefully hidden in order to maintain intercommunal relations to the Arabs’ advantage. The Jews were just 2 percent of the population of Tunisia (100,000 of 5 million).

France had already been in Algeria for 50 years and took advantage of a few incidents at the Algerian-Tunisian frontier in order to intervene and make Tunisia a protectorate. The Bey at the time was forced to sign the Treaty of Bardo to formalise its status.

France was anxious for all its subjects on Tunisian soil to have equal rights and created a new situation which allowed the Jews to emerge, like zombies out of the grave, from their age-old prison.

Very quickly a large number of them tried to draw closer to their saviours, abandoning Judeo-Arabic for French, adopting western dress, changing their first names and even their surnames in order to Frenchify them.

They threw themselves with gusto into a period of economic growth stimulated by the French, under the irritated gaze of their Arab co-citizens, who saw their power being usurped, something they were not used to.

As with any revolutionary change, there were excesses: denial and obliteration of any reference to the hardships of the past. Some flatly refused to express themselves in their mother tongue. Others abandoned religious customs which themselves symbolised centuries of humiliation. These surreal characters became the butt of Tunisian Jewish jokes.

Generally speaking, rather than lose its identity, the Tunisian Jewish community rediscovered and cultivated it during the enchanted interlude between 1881 – 1956, 1956 being the year when the first president, Habib Bourghiba, despite being a friend of the Jews, was not able to prevent them being excluded from Tunisian society.

It would be hard to list them all – top class artists, philosophers, scientists who benefited from the emancipation of this tiny community – but it is a fair bet that their success rate broke world records.

It was therefore during the euphoria of this dream period that the false notion of peaceful coexistence between the Jewish and Arab communities insinuated itself. The Jews were so happy to have gone up in the world that they put all vindictive sentiments behind them.

The Arabs were losing the race by a mile. They abdicated their position and even became underlings. The Jews even started to employ Arab maids – unthinkable 50 years previously.

The rise of Arab nationalism and the creation of the state of Israel, the epitomy of the dhimmi affront to their old masters, created the conditions for the departure of the Jews of Tunisia. I remember those muttered, almost whispered conversations about politics towards the end of the ’50s as our departure drew near, while our father urged us to be careful -‘ Walls have ears,’ he warned us.

1967 and the Six Day War sounded the death knell for the Jewish presence in Tunisia. Riots broke out in Tunis, Jewish residents were murdered and the Great Synagogue was set on fire.

The history of relations between Jews and Arabs in Tunisia is multifaceted. I’m already hearing objections from all those who would produce counter-examples to demonstrate the opposite of what I’m trying to say.

But it is undeniable that one facet has stayed buried in the memory. Up until recently it was ‘historically incorrect’ to consider the negative aspects of these relations which establish, unfortunately, that humiliations, massacres and exclusions of the Jews are not the prerogative of European societies.

It is impossible to comprehend Arab, and by extension Muslim, opposition to Israel without grasping the humiliating dimension that the success of their ancient dhimmis in creating a prosperous and ultra-inventive Jewish state represents.

In the light of this it would be interesting to learn what so-called progressive forces think. By denouncing Israel they are fighting against a struggle waged by ex-slaves for their freedom, people who have escaped the Arab yoke.

It is a curious thing that this genuine people’s liberation movement has not been acclaimed by those political currents usually most keen on them.

For myself, the memory of this house, this avenue, this garden is still with me. I can still mentally trace my way to the Lycee Carnot.

The apricot stones, the silk worms, the honey pastries and others, the bunches of jasmine, I’ve told my children about them over and over again in case the colours sink for ever into oblivion, to preserve a small imprint of the person I am. I only spent the first 11 years of my life in Tunisia but they seem like a hundred and I am essentially the product of that child.

Yet there was never any question of an UNWRA for us. We never kept the key nor the title deeds in order to exploit them many years later.

On the 29th June 1964 we caught the plane for Marseille and chose to look straight ahead of us and build a new future. We are not dehumanised for having done so. To have acted otherwise would have been deadly.

To maintain in the heads of young Palestinians who have not even known ‘the land that belongs to them’ the idea of a right of return is a brazen political swizz. It’s about time that the international community ceased conniving in it.

Today I proclaim, loud and clear, my right of return – to reason and intellectual honesty.

*My brother Gerard has this to add about the Jewish cemetery:

This garden was one of the factors behind our departure. It was a Jewish cemetery bought in the 19th century with the community’s resources outside the town of Tunis. But the modern town spread from the porte de France to the Belvedere, gobbling up the cemetery where famous Sadikkim such as Rabbi Hai Taieb (Lo met) who ‘protected the family when it was passing its school exams thanks to Mother’s prayers.She opened the windows of the end room to appeal to him with arms outstretched.’

When independence came the government decided to expropriate the cemetery (without compensation). It had been agreed that the bodies would be exhumed grave by grave and sent to Israel. I spent many hours at the window witnessing the exhumation. When Rabbi Hai Taieb’s bones were dug up there was a long prayer procession around the cemetery. But as far as the Tunisian authorities were concerned it was taking too long. Suddenly, one fine day, bulldozers broke through the cemetery boundary and overturned the earth, mixing it for all time with our ancestors’ remains.

This was done despite the community’s protests, but we no longer had a say. The community leader, Maitre Haddad, then decided to leave Tunisia. I should like to see a similar situation arise in Israel with a Muslim cemetery. The whole world would be up in arms.

The community was represented by a CRIF-style (Board of Deputies) body but at independence Tunisia refused ‘a state within a state’and banned any civil organisation representing the Jewish community (the Beth Din was allowed to continue but under state control). The first article of the Tunisian constitution clearly stipulates that the Tunisian Republic is Muslim.’ That means that all non-Muslims, even those of Tunisian nationality – 75,000 Jews – would from then on be considered second-class citizens.

Today Arabs claim that it is scandalous for Israel to see itself as a Jewish state and that the land must be shared between Jews and Arabs. What are they on about? We who lived there for millennia, we of Tunisian nationality, whose intellectuals fought for Tunisian independence, we do not have the right to share the land because we are non-Muslims.

I who have lived through independence I did not consider myself part and parcel of the country. I turned to France (of course my French nationality helped me. What a worry for Jews of Tunisian nationality).

I have to say that the many incidents I lived through (fights, actually) drove me further away every day from that country. We had no more rights and if the police turned up to an incident we were always in the wrong. We had become dhimmis again. So goodbye Tunisia and long live France ( – at least until October 2000).

Read original article (in French) here.


  • Beaucoup de mensonges pour justifier des crimes,une stratégie bien ficelée qui découle d'une théorie appelée "sionisme"….

  • Bonjour Jean-Pierre,
    Nous venons de decouvrir, par hazard, ton article intitule “My right of Return” sur Internet. Il capture avec exactitude la periode d’enfance et d’adolescence de Serge jusqu’a son depart de Tunis en 1961. Nous t’encourageons a poursuivre tes recherches et defenses de nos droits bafoues. Bises des USA

  • To Moroccan: There is no need to place the words Arab yoke in quotation marks. There was indeed an Arab yoke. Jews from throughout the Arab world all have blood-curdling stories to tell about what it is like to be a minority in an Arab-dominated country. With regard to the Vichy regime, it is not strange at all for this person to move to France since the Vichy regime, along with Nazism, had already been defeated. Arab bigotry and discrimination, on the other hand, are unfortunately very much alive and well, as proven by your post.

  • It is strange to read someone complain, in a prejudiced way, about the “Arab yoke” in Tunisia while fleeing to a country in which less than a decade before a Nazi French regime, Vichy, deported many of its Jews to death camps in Germany.

    • Dear Anonymous,
      don’t you know Prof. Mohsen Hamli’s book “Anti-semitism in Tunisia 1881-1961 = معاداة السامية في تونس من 1881 إلى 1961” (Tunis: JMS Impression 2010)? You should read it. It might be an eye-opener to you.


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