The last of the Tunisian Mohicans

Bernard Allali is President of Tunisian Jewish Arts and Popular Traditions, an organisation dedicated to preserving the Tunisian Jewish heritage. Here’s an extract from an interview he gave recently to CRIF, the representative body for French Jewry.

Q:The French protectorate came into force after the signing of the Treaty of Bardo in 1881. Did France hasten the westernisation of Tunisian Jewry which began in the second half of the 19th century? What was the Jews’ legal status under the Protectorate and how did it differ from that of their Algerian neighbours?
The Jews of Tunisia welcomed the French with much hope. The French protectorate marked the end of their dhimmi status. They threw themselves into westernisation, which would open the gates to knowledge and freedom. In a few decades, the Jews left the Ghetto and joined the most desirable professions – as doctors, scientists, lawyers, teachers. Most Jews were Tunisian citizens under French protection. Theirs was a very different status from that of the Algerian Jews, who under the Decret Cremieux (1870) became French citizens.

Q: Under the Protectorate, did Jews and Muslims share a number of characteristics (language, habitat, social condition?)
A:The Jews were in Tunisia for millenia. There is proof of their presence in archaeology and epigraphy. The Jewish necropolis of Gammarth and the Naro synagogue at Hammam-If date back to the early centuries of the Christian era. The Arab Muslim conquest came later. The Jews adapted themselves to the new civilisation, creating a language – Tunisian Judeo-Arabic. Under the protectorate they opted for westernisation but were still close (to the Arabs) in language, cuisine and music. But they slowly left the alleys of the ghetto for the European city. Their social conditions became better than that of the Muslims.

Q: Under what circumstances did the Jews leave?
It happened in stages. Israel’s creation sent shockwaves and people thought it was a sign from heaven that the ancient vow ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ should become a reality. The country’s independence and the automatic arabisation of society, administrative and economic hassles, the dissolution of the Rabbinic courts and Jewish community institutions, the turning of the Jewish cemetery into a public park, all this worried and frightened the Jews who began to leave for France and Israel. In 1961 the ‘Bizerte affair’ (war between France and Tunisia over the town’s naval base) caused more Jews to emigrate. Due to the repercussions of the Israeli-Arab conflict leading to the burning of Tunis’s Great synagogue in 1967, a community of 120,000 has dwindled to 2,000 today.

Q:How do you view their departure in restrospect?
The Jews were victims of the pitiless wind of history. Independence was right and inevitable. But it happened at the expense of the Jews. They were pushed into leaving. Half went to France, half to Israel, some to the USA. By and large they have been very successful in the countries in which they settled. They are still trying to keep memories of their homeland alive.

Q: Is the Tunisian Jewish community looking back on its past, exile, arrival in France or Israel and integration?
Unfortunately the younger generations are not interested in their parents’ Tunisian Jewish past – well, not with the same passion or warmth. My generation is the last of the Mohicans of the Tunisian saga. We have turned over a new leaf. All that remains are the summer trips to the country of jasmin and sea breezes.

Q: Do you think Tunisian Jews have an unduly rosy picture of the past, magnifying those periods of peaceful understanding between Jews and Muslims and airbrushing out the darker moments?
Yes, undoubtedly. Many Tunisian Jews only remember the Protectorate years when their life was particularly pleasant. They tend to cast a veil over the difficult years that followed independence. Most importantly, they are ignorant of the centuries of oppression which their ancestors went through.

Q: What’s your dearest wish?
That there should be peace between Israel and the Palestinians and full diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Tunis. Direct charter flights between Tel Aviv and Djerba, resurrected synagogues and the Jewish community as it used to be.

Read article in full(French)

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