While many films about Jews from Arab countries are wistful excursions into nostalgia, this documentary, which was shown on the French channel TV5 Monde recently, is an exception. If you understand French, I do recommend ‘Tunisie, une Memoire juive’ by Fatma Cherif. (with thanks: Ralph)
The Jewish landmarks of Tunis – the splendid modernist synagogues, for example – still exist, a reminder of a once-thriving community of over 100,000, reduced to fewer than 2,000, mainly on the island of Djerba. The film does not shy away from discussing the dhimmi culture of submission resulting in the execution of Batto Sfez, an innocent Jew accused of blaspheming against Islam in 1857.
When Tunisia became a French protectorate, its capital Tunis was a flourishing Jewish city in the early part of the 20th century. The Alliance Israelite Universelle equipped Jewish boys and girls with knowledge and skills to cope with modernity. The Nazi occupation of Tunisia in 1942 marked a terrible period for 2,000 Jews, dragooned into forced labour camps. Jewish doctors gathered X-rays to gain the maximum number of dispensations.
Then came the first wave of Jews departing for Israel. With independence in 1956, hopes that the Jews would replace the departing French were soon dashed. Jews were systematically marginalised, as Arabs were promoted in their place.
Sophie Bessis, whose grandfather Andre was a minister in the Bourguiba government, says that no government representative attended his funeral. She explains that Jews were never made to feel an organic part of the Tunisian nation. Even if they were nominally equal, they would always be considered outsiders.
They were at first identified with the French colonials, and the 1961 Bizerte crisis, resulting in the French withdrawing from their naval base, left the Jewish community without protection. “They were pushed towards the exit, and no Arab intellectuals tried to help them push back,” she says.
The furious Arab reaction to the Six Day War resulted, for the first time, in an anti-Jewish pogrom – windows of Jewish shops were smashed and the Great Synagogue of Tunis damaged. In spite of reassurances by President Bourguiba, the remaining Jews had had enough – they were now considered to represent Israel in an Arab country. They left overnight, leaving everything.
Lucette Valensi touches on the difficulties of adapting to exile in France. Her dreams were about Tunisia. When she exited at her metro station, she expected to step out into the relaxed sunshine of the Place de la Casbah. Instead, she was greeted with the darkness of a Paris winter. Another interviewee describes the scene in the 1960s when two ships crossed outside Tunis, one bearing departing Jews, while the other bore a load of incoming Jews who had failed to adjust to life in France.’You’re mad,’ each load gesticulated to one another.
All in all, the film pulls no punches and gives an accurate representation of the story of Tunisian Jews. It can be criticised, however, for giving the impression that Jews arrived in the country after Islam. The final scene dwells on the Djerba pilgrimage without stating that this last bastion of the Jewish community goes back 2,000 years.