A mob set fire to the Great synagogue in Tunis
Forty-six years ago today, six-year-old Alain Madar’s life changed forever when rioters swept through Tunis, setting fire to the Great Synagogue and Jewish shops in reaction to Israel’s Six Day War victory in June 1967. No casualties were recorded but 40 Torah scrolls were urinated on and burnt. There was extensive damage to property, for which Jews were never compensated, although the culprits were arrested. Soon after, 7, 000 traumatised Jews fled Tunisia. (With thanks to Il Blog di Barbara, where Alain Madar’s story appears in Italian.)
“That afternoon, my mother came to fetch me at the Glatigny school to take me home for lunch. As usual I left my satchel at the school, located on the ground floor of the Great Synagogue in Tunis. (..)
“My father came home earlier than usual that afternoon. Protesters had set fire to the British embassy. My sister wanted to go back to school. My father refused to leave the house. He was right.
“Moments later an excited Arab crowd invaded our district.The demonstrators, screaming hatred, looted Jewish stores before setting fire to them. Their cries could be heard right up close to the building. We were terrified. My father pushed a sideboard against the front door of our apartment. He closed the wooden shutters. I could hear glass shatter. Protesters were running underneath our first floor windows. A smell of smoke rose into our apartment.
“The crowds had come from neighbouring Arab quarters and had been stirred up by anti-Jewish agent- provocateurs. They wanted revenge for the Arab defeat by Israel in the Six Day War.
“Tunisian radio announced the Arab victory, but Radio Monte Carlo gave the true version of events. The Police were overwhelmed and the army had to intervene to restore calm.
“That night President Bourguiba gave a televised address calling for order. He called for not one hair on a Jew’s head to be touched (hence the joke: “why do Arab hairdressers avoid styling Jewish customers? Because they can’t touch one hair on their heads.”)
“For several days we did not leave the house and I stayed away from school. When I went down to Verdun Square, all was calm again but the smell of burning was still there. The atmosphere was sad and strange. Few people were out and about. There were armed soldiers in the streets: I felt reassured by them. Walking along I saw shops burnt to a cinder. The Frigidaire shop as it was called. My brother-in-law’s Nathan cake shop. All the stores belonging to Jews had been wrecked.
I saw my neighbours climbing into taxis. I would never see them again in Tunis, nor the man who ran the household appliance store, who left Tunisia for good as many Tunisian Jews did.
“I learned much later that we did not leave Tunisia at that time because our passports had expired. My father put in an application for renewal but the authorities took several months to send back the documents, when matters had calmed down. I returned to school several days later and looked for my satchel. The classroom had been burnt. How happy I was when I found my brown leather satchel safe and sound. But it smelled of burning.”