The bloody massacre of 39 people, mostly tourists, in the Tunisian resort of Sousse has prompted this piece of research into the Jews of Sousse. At its height, in 1951, the community numbered 6, 400 souls. Very few Jews, if any, remain – having migrated to Israel or France. Tunisia’s Jews once numbered 100, 000. Via Harissa.
Sousse is a port and fishing center, near the city of Kairouan (in the center of Tunisia).
The Jews appear to have settled in Sousse in the 7th century, before the Arab conquest. Until
the capture of the city by the Almohades in 1158 (extremely devout
Muslims whose influence extended far beyond
North Africa to Spain), the community flourished economically and
culturally. Many Jews were then engaged in commerce and trade.
Tunisia’s main export – clothing- was largely under the control of Jews in the city. The
Almohades, who ruled the city from 1159, offered the Jews a choice between
conversion to Islam or death, which caused the cultural,
economic and spiritual collapse of the community. Accordingly, many Jews converted while others fled the country or were martyred.
Sousse centre and shoreline
Under the Hafsids (1228-1524), Jews were allowed to return to live in the town. Many converts returned to Judaism. The majority of them settled in a separate area known as the “Jewish
quarter” where they took up their economic activities once more.
In the 15th century, the Jews of the city were spiritually led by Rabbi Isaac B. Sheshet (nicknamed the Ribesh) and Rabbi Simon B. Benati
In the 17th century, the Jews of Livorno (Italy) arrived in Sousse where
they were known under the name “Grana”, from the Arab name of Leghorn-Gorna. Despite the tension between the wealthy, new Grana community and the
local native community (Tounsa), there was no separation between the
two until 1771, when the Grana established their own community
with its own institutions.
From 1899, there was a single chief rabbi for all of Tunisia;the first was Rabbi Nathan Abergil.
At that time, the community was composed of about 100 families, among them famous Dayanim (religious judges) and many Torah scholars, such as Rabbi Shlomo
The French protectorate was established in
1881 and brought to Tunisia a degree of modernization and French cultural integration: the Jewish community was a beneficiary.
The Alliance Israelite ( “Kol Israel Haverim”) opened schools for
boys and girls in the city: they learned French and other
subjects in addition to religious studies.
In 1916, the “Terakhem Zion” association was founded by influential men of the community. They included David Tubiana and Sober Baraness.