Tag: Jews of Tunisia

This could be the end of Tunisia’s Jewish community

As Kais Saied, Tunisia’s president, arrogates more  power to himself, Robert Zaretsky writing in Haaretz is sceptical of his ability to protect Tunisia’s Jews. (With thanks: Lily)

A tourist visits the Al-Ghriba synagogue (Photo: AP)

While Djerba is several hundred miles south of Tunis, the 1,500 or so Sephardic Jews who live on this island off the Tunisian coast are following events with great care.

They constitute not only the oldest Jewish community in North Africa – historians are uncertain if the community’s ancestors arrived on Djerba after the destruction of the First or Second Temple – but also the second largest.

But while the Moroccan Jewish community is larger, it is also mostly old (and getting older). The Jews of Djerba are, remarkably, young and getting younger. (This demographic upside, unfortunately, results from the communal emphasis on women staying pregnant and home.)

Yet this community represents the last hurrah of Tunisian Jewry. Although the country’s religious minorities, including Jews, have enjoyed full citizenship since its independence in 1956, the great majority of Tunisia’s 100,000 Jews decided that their future lay either in Israel or France (or, indeed, both).

Even the Islamist Ennahdha, which has participated in several governments since Ben Ali’s 2011 ouster, sought to reassure Djerba’s Jews that they belonged to the nation’s cultural mosaic. The party’s vice-president, Abdelfattah Mourou, affirmed that Tunisia “will protect its Jewish population. A monolithic culture always leads to radicalism, while a multicultural society allows us to accept one another.”

But the position of Kais Saied, an arch-conservative Muslim, seems more ambivalent to some critics. Perhaps “ambivalent” is too ambivalent a description.

During an exchange in January caught on video between Saied and a few interlocutors, the president, his voice muffled by a mask and street noise, seems to have attributed public disorder to “Jewish thieves.” At least, this was the understanding of The Jerusalem Post, which published an article whose title turned a questionable translation into an indisputable fact: “Tunisian President sorry for antisemitic remarks, rabbi says.”

In the story that followed, the paper allowed that the remarks by Saied, who was indeed masked and showered in ambient noise, were hard to decipher. Less concerned with such details, the influential Jewish radio station in France, Radio J, affirmed a few months later that Saied had, in fact, made this accusation.

On the basis of this claim, along with a handful of incidents seemingly directed against Jews, the station concluded that Saied rules a country where “antisemitism is omnipresent.”

What are we to think? On the one hand, Kais Saied is a friend of neither Zionism nor Israel. Indeed, he is quite the opposite, a point he made clear during a 2019 presidential debate, declaring that the normalization of ties with Israel was tantamount to “high treason.”

Saied reiterated his rejection of normalization in the wake of the accords with two Gulf states and Morocco, with his foreign ministry insisting it was a stance based on immutable principle.

The lamentable claim of “treason” leads to equally unfortunate consequences: Saied will not allow tourists carrying Israeli passports to attend the annual pilgrimage to Djerba’s ancient La Ghriba synagogue. A quiet agreement to allow Israelis, many of whom are among the 100,000 Jews who left Tunisia in the late 1960s or their descendants, to enter for the event had held for decades.

On the other hand – and there is another hand – Saied insists on the distinction between Judaism and Zionism. In the words he used in a televised election debate in 2019, “We’ll engage with the Jews but not with the Israeli government.”

While this is a distinction without a difference for many, there remain reasonable people who insist a reasonable case can be made for this contrast. Saied also reminded his critics during that debate that, along with the country’s grand mufti and Catholic archbishop, the grand rabbi of Tunis was his guest when he took his oath of office.

He also revealed that his father, Moncef Saied, is one of the Just, for having accompanied the young Gisèle Halimi when she cycled to school to protect her from the Nazis during their during their occupation of Tunisia. Halimi went on to have a brilliant future as one of France’s most courageous and consequential civil rights lawyers.

No one can know the future of Tunisia’s Jews, but there is no reason for despair. At the very least, we should know that details matter. On restoring and safeguarding the future of Tunisia’s democracy, Saied may have somewhat fewer protective instincts.

Read article in full 

What is keeping Jews in Tunisia?

The coronavirus crisis and the unprecedented move by president Kais Saied of relieving the prime minister of his duties, waiving the immunity of the parliament and declaring a state of emergency have turned Tunisia into a dangerous country, writes Eldad Beck in Israel Hayom. Normalisation with Israel has been rejected, Djerba no longer has many tourists, but its Jewish residents are still reluctant to leave. (With thanks: Lily)

A worshipper at the al-Ghriba synagogue in Djerba

The general atmosphere in Tunisia is grim. Some understand that developing ties with Israel would only help Tunisia, that Morocco and Sudan and other countries who normalized ties with Israel are receiving aid. But they are a minority. As long as someone with an influence on the public does not explain the situation accurately – that Israel is defending itself against terrorists – nothing will change. 

“When the Tunisian tennis team decided to play against Israel in the Federation Cup in February 2020, the criticism was overwhelming. When Tunisian singer Noamane Chaari recorded a song with Israeli singer Ziv Yehezkel, last December, people protested.” 

Chaari and Yehezkel collaborated to promote peace between religions, but instead the Tunisian singer began to receive death threats. 

“We thought that with the advent of democracy and freedom of expression after the revolution, there would be a change with regard to Israel as well, as happened in many other Arab countries, but it did not happen. Israelis should not run after Tunisians to seek peace. Tunisians should be the ones chasing after Israelis.”

Unfortunately, it is not only Tunisia’s Jewish community that is dwindling. So does the memory of coexisting. The country’s young generation has never seen Tunisians and Jews on excellent terms, as they were in the 1950s. They also do not know of all the contributions Jews have made to the country.

When I first visited Tunisia, locals expressed hopes that Jews would help rehabilitate the country’s economy. Ben Ali’s presidency was considered the golden age of cooperation between Tunisia, Jews and Israel. But in 2021, almost no one talks longingly of the return of the Jews.

S., a Jew from the south of the country, splits his time between Djerba and France. He remembers the reactions of his Arab friends to the First Lebanon War in 1982. 

“I had a lot of Arab friends then,” he said. “Even though we were careful not to assimilate, I had a lot of non-Jewish friends. But they completely changed, just like that, in a matter of a single day. I think they have an underlying hatred of Jews and Israel. They are taught to do this from a young age. 

“My non-Jewish friends knew very well that I was religious, that I went to synagogue, that I kept kosher. We studied together. We played football together. But as soon as the war started, they said to me, ‘When the opportunity arises, we will kill you first.'”

Q: What is keeping Jews in Tunisia?

“Some have gotten used to living here and do not want it to change. They hear about the problems in France and Israel. The option of moving to France is no longer on the table, everyone here knows that there is no future for the Jewish community there. It is nothing like it used to be. The only possible destination is Israel.

“But people are afraid of change. Some families don’t have the means to make aliyah. Life is very expensive in Israel, and here the standard of living is much lower, Jews can earn a living and make ends meet. Moreover, Jews in Tunisia are religious. In Israel, there are yeshivas, but some still worry that they might lose their Judaism. In the meantime, we pray for the redemption and ultimate aliyah to Israel.”

Read article in full

Tunisians serve up Merguez with everything before 9th Av

Tonight begins the longest fast of the Jewish year, Tisha b’Ab (9th of Av), in memory of the destruction of the two Jewish Temples in Jerusalem. Writing in Harissa, Victor Hayoun reminisces about the customs specific to Tunisian Jewry. To make up for the ban on eating meat in the run-up to the 9th of Av, Jews ate a surfeit of Merguez, the spicy sausage typical of North Africa.

Detail from the Arch of Titus showing the Romans carrying off booty from the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD

We commonly called this period, in Tunisian Judeo-Arabic, “Agein”  or “Ayamet-El-Tkal” [literally: “heavy days”], these were the expressions used by our parents to talk about it. These days were heavy with fear and prohibitions.

We knew it was in memory of a serious event, even of mourning, since we did not eat meat. These are austere days, full of restraint, no festivities, no excess of joy, no cutting your hair, no buying new clothes or anything else new, no undertaking new projects or signing new contracts, no starting to new approaches. In fact, we stopped making progress, we treaded water. It was our way of mourning the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem.

That was not all, there were also the dietary restrictions. We did not eat meat or chicken, except on Shabbat. We were entitled to fish in all its forms: fresh, canned: tuna / sardines / anchovies, dried fish (Bou-Zmeimar) and boutargue (for wealthy people who could pay the price). It was fried in whole fish, cooked in a spicy sauce: H’raiimé, or cooked in a vegetable broth: fish couscous accompanied by fish balls, fried and cooked. We had a great choice. A whole series of possibilities of consumption of fish to “fill” the absence of meat and chicken.

But the Tunisian Jew is all the same a pleasure-lover. He does everything to have fun in all circumstances and also and especially at the table. No prohibition can resist him. If he has found a way to consume rice on Passover, ‘it is really nothing for him to consume meat, or any derivative, during the days leading up to the fast of Ninth of Av, becomes a heavy consumer of Merguez (spicy sausage)during these first eight days of the month of Av (not Shabbat of course). In our childhood, our mother, peace be on her soul, prepared us Merguez before the month of Av, she dried them on a clothesline and then she prepared us Shakshouka with Merguez, Mloukhia with Merguez, beans “Bsal-ou-Loubia” with Merguez and many other dishes cooked with Merguez.

To these dishes of fish and dried meat, We added”Falsou” dishes.”Falso” in Italian which means “false”. These are in fact the “fake” dishes that we called so because the “real” ones were with meat, chicken or fish. In fact, these dishes which did not contain any, were equally delicious dishes such as pasta, cooked vegetables, couscous, or more rarely rice.

Read article in full (French)  »

More about Tisha b’Ab  »

Caught between two stools: the Jews of N Africa during WWII

Excellent review  in Sifriatenou by Jean-Luc Landier of Michel Abitbol’s book, published in 1983, ‘Les Juifs d’Afrique du Nord sous Vichy’. This is a less-than-perfect automated translation  of the French, but it gives a superb overview of the plight of the Jews during WW2 (with thanks: Nelly)

The Jewish community of Algeria adopted early and very quickly the language and the culture of the French colonizer: it was, from the middle of the XIXth century, subject to French civil law, thus abandoning its personal status. His children attended the French school. The authority of the Central Consistory of France was extended to Algeria where rabbis trained at the Jewish Seminary in Paris were dispatched.

But the radical turning point in the evolution of Algerian Judaism was, of course, the adoption of the Crémieux decree (October 24, 1870), which conferred French citizenship en bloc on all the Jews of Algeria, definitively separating their fate from that of Muslims.
The Jewish community in Algeria, which experienced rapid social advancement, especially in the big cities, came up against, shortly after the implementation of the emancipatory decree, the radical hostility of the population of European origin. The participation of Jews in the elections, in accordance with their new rights as citizens, stoked the fierce and enduring hatred of the European community as a whole; it saw in the Jewish vote a step towards granting the same rights to Muslims, a process that could lead to the loss of its privileges.
The anti-Semitic agitation was let loose at the end of the 19th century, fuelled by the Dreyfus affair in France: Max Régis , whose anti-Semitic hatred was his sole program, was elected mayor of Algiers; as was elected  Constantine Morinaud, an anti-Semitic leftist; and Drumont , the author of the anti-Semitic manifesto La France juive , deputy for Algiers

Sheikhs Ben Badis and El Oqbi condemned the violence against Jews in Constantine, Algeria, in 1934

The Jews of Algeria were victims of multiple exclusions (from public markets, professional associations…). Anti-Jewish hatred found its outlet during the 1898 riot that broke out in Algiers.
This anti-Semitism of the Europeans experienced a relative pause during the First World War, in which the Jews of Algeria participated courageously (2,000 killed), but manifested itself again with virulence with the crisis of the 1930s.
At the same time, the latent tensions were exacerbated. between Jews and Muslims, linked to the condition of dhimmi which the Jews, in constant social progression, had escaped since the arrival of the French, and especially since the Crémieux decree.
During the Constantine pogrom of August 1934 , twenty-eight Jews were murdered by the Arab populace, without the French army intervening to protect them. The pogrom attested to the strong resentment of the Muslim masses towards the Jews, still perceived as dhimmis and jealous because of their position as commercial intermediaries with the Muslim peasants.

The anti-Semitic agitation was condemned by the Muslim elite, in particular by Sheikh Ben Badis  and by Tayeb El Oqbi . It was, on the other hand, encouraged by the European press, whose anti-Semitism was based on the desire to preserve the colonial hierarchies. The authorities, informed by police reports influenced by anti-Semitism, did nothing to dispel this noxious atmosphere, exacerbated by Nazi influence.

Sheikh Ibn Badis and El Oqbi, Algerian politicians, notably Abbé Lambert and Émile Morinaud, succeeded with some success in stoking anti-Semitism among the Muslim masses, by referring in particular to the Palestinian question. As for the officials of the Federation of Muslim Elected Officials, Ferhat Abbas and Mohammed Bendjelloul, who remained followers of a reform policy within the French system, they kept their distance from anti-Semitic propaganda, while regretting the indifference of the Jews of Algeria vis-à-vis the fate of the Muslim population.

French anti-Semitism in Morocco and Tunisia, product of colonial dependence

In Morocco , it was the conjunction of French far-right anti-Semitic propaganda , active in the press, and Muslim resentment following the tensions in Palestine, which created an anti-Semitic climate; violent incidents occurred in Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier. Moroccan nationalist leaders, in particular Al Wazzani and Bannuna, were indeed under the influence of Chakib Arslan, a Lebanese journalist who took refuge in Geneva and an ideologue of Pan-Arabism, close to the mufti of Jerusalem, who sought to undermine French authority in Morocco.
In Tunisia , the Italian fascist propaganda also sought to damage the image of France. Italian propaganda took an anti-Semitic course after the 1938 race laws were passed in Italy. On the other hand, Bourguiba’s nationalist movement of Neo Destour remained impervious to anti-Jewish propaganda.

Nazi Germany, moreover, led a sustained propaganda campaign to undermine French positions in North Africa. This action was constant in Morocco, among nationalist circles, through the intermediary of German merchants who were in fact agents of the secret services. Radio Berlin’s Arabic and Kabyle broadcasts attacked France, and identified the Jews as the agents of its power. In these broadcasts, the Third Reich presented itself as an ally of the Arab peoples, especially in Palestine.
In the three Maghreb countries , the reaction of the Jews was comparable : boycott of German and then Italian products; solidarity with persecuted European Jews; defense of the authority of emancipatory France; support for democratic and anti-racist organizations such as LICA or the League of Human Rights.

The self-defense reactions of certain groups of young people, such as Bétar, however, led community leaders to be cautious.
In September 1939 , as soon as France declared war on Germany, many young Moroccan and Tunisian Jews wanted to serve in the French army, which often turned them away. The Jews of Algeria, for their part, were mobilized like all French citizens.

French anti-Semitism (July 1940-November 1942) 

The coming to power of Pétain and the implementation of the National Revolution were greeted with enthusiasm by the Europeans of North Africa.
The enthusiasm for the Marshal was even more unanimous than in metropolitan France, with a large establishment of the Legion of Combatants, the quasi-single party created by Pétain. The press was unleashed against the Jews, in Algeria in particular, where the abolition of the Crémieux decree – a traditional claim of anti-Semites in Algeria – was demanded from the outset by a very large part of European opinion. After the destruction of the French fleet by the British at Mers El Kébir, a climate of suspicion weighed on the Jews of Algeria, suspected of pro-English sympathies.

The statut des juifs was adopted by Pétain’s government on October 4, 1940, without the slightest German request. This strictly French initiative entered into force in Algeria and was also implemented in the protectorates of Tunisia and Morocco after ratification by the sovereigns, the Bey of Tunis and Sultan Mohammed V of Morocco.

On October 7, Vichy put an end to the Crémieux decree , reducing the French Jewish citizens of Algeria to the rank of subjects, seventy years after their full integration into the nation. Jewish officials were dismissed, liberal professions subject to a strict numerus clausus, both in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Rare exceptions were granted to decorated, wounded or maimed veterans.

The application of these measures was very rigorous in Algeria but more flexible in Morocco, under the terms of a dahir from the sultan, and even more liberal in Tunisia.

In Algeria, the rector of the University of Algiers, Hardy, implemented, with the agreement of the governors Abrial and then Weygand, a school and university numerus clausus , going much further than the anti-Semitic measures taken in metropolitan France. Jewish children were thus expelled from primary schools (attendance capped at 14 and then at 7/100) and high schools, and students subject to a rigorous numerus clausus, to the satisfaction of student associations in Algiers.

The second statut des juifs, produced by Vallat, commissioner for Jewish questions, on June 2, 1941, contained new restrictions, and provided for the census of Jews in North Africa, in order to implement “economic Aryanization”, that is, that is, the spoliation of the Jews.
The decree of November 21, 1941, applied in Algeria, aimed to eliminate all “Jewish influence” in the national economy. Provisional administrators were appointed by the governor general for businesses owned by Jews. The mission of the directors, paid by the company, was to prepare for its liquidation, as in metropolitan France.

While many Europeans sought to profit from it, Muslims as a whole refrained from acquiring Jewish businesses. All these measures were taken in a stifling climate, the North African press lashing out against the Jews, and the police indulging in constant harassment and finicky controls, the Jews being suspected of black marketeering.

Identical measures were considered for Tunisia , but their implementation was spread over time by the resident general, Admiral Esteva , whose procrastination, inspired by his Christian faith, irritated Vallat. The beys of Tunis, successively Ahmad Bey and Moncef Bey, expressed their sympathy to their Jewish subjects, but their powers were very limited.

In Tunisia, France was above all anxious to confront the demands of fascist Italy, which opposed the application of discriminatory measures to Jews of Italian nationality.

In Morocco , economic aryanization was left to the initiative of professional groups and unions. The exclusion of Jews was effective in the film industry and also implemented by certain groups of importers. The Jews of Fez were driven out of the European city, and forced to return to the mellah . A persistent public rumor attributed to the sovereign, Sultan Mohammed V was that  he gave a flexible interpretation of the anti-Jewish measures rigorously implemented by Noguès, representative of Vichy.

His Majesty Sultan Mohammed V (1909-1961) 

The interpretation of rigorous historians (M. Abitbol, ​​G. Bensoussan ) leads to a more nuanced conclusion: the Sultan had no autonomy of decision-making and had the obligation to ratify the choices of the resident-general of France; On the other hand, in private, the Sultan repeatedly told Jewish visitors to the palace that they were his subjects like the Muslims, and that no one could touch either their property or their persons.  The Sultan was, in fact, a humiliated sovereign , locked in the heavy constraints of the colonial protectorate, and any gesture on his part, however symbolic, was an affirmation of autonomy.

The other moderating factor in Morocco was paradoxically – and it is little known – the Spanish influence. Francoist Spain, present in northern Morocco and an ally of Germany, put pressure on the resident general to moderate his anti-Semitic exclusion projects.
In accordance with the measures implemented by Vichy in mainland France in October 1940, the French authorities in North Africa proceeded to the administrative internment of foreigners and therefore foreign Jews who had taken refuge there or who were there following the French campaign of May-June 1940. This is how thousands of Jews who volunteered in the Foreign Legion were interned in camps on the Saharan borders after their demobilization, and assigned in particular to the construction of the trans-Saharan railway, an old French colonial project which was presented as one of the great designs of the Vichy regime. In the desert camps, Jewish internees were forced to do forced labor ten to twelve hours a day, in extremely harsh conditions, in heat and privation, under the supervision of non-commissioned officers of the anti-Semitic Legion of German origin. Torture was inflicted in these camps for the slightest violation of the regulations, such as the tombeau punishment: the victim was placed in a pit less than two meters for several days; he was forbidden to move while being beaten by Arab or Senegalese guards. Several died as a result of this abuse.

As for the Algerian Jewish soldiers of the 1939 class, they were demobilized, but not released; following the abolition of the Crémieux decree, they were immediately incorporated into a group of Jewish  workers, in  Bedeau camp , near Sidi Bel Abbès, or in Telergma, in the Constantine region of Algeria, and forced to do pointless forced labor, in miserable living conditions closer to prison than to barracks, subjected to bullying and insults from juniorofficers or guards from SOL, the future Vichy Militia.

The Jews responded to Vichy’s anti-Semitic measures with disbelief and protest at first. How was it possible that the France of Human Rights, whose nationality they held (as far as the Jews of Algeria) were concerned), whose language they had adopted the language, the culture and the values ​​(in the case of the Jews of Tunisia and Morocco ), could thus cast them out , they who had shown her love and fidelity for decades?

The anti-Semitic measures could not possibly be a French initiative, they had necessarily been imposed by the German occupier. This is what the Chief Rabbi of Algeria Maurice Eisenbeth wrote to Xavier Vallat in 1941. He is remembered for his constant  and courageous commitment to easing the persecution of Algerian Judaism. The latter, with the support of Elie Gozlan, secretary general of the Consistory and founder of the Algerian Jewish Committee for Social Studies and with the assistance of Professor Robert Brunschvig, had to create from scratch and set up a network of private schools. in order to take in Jewish children expelled from schools.

By the start of the 1942 school year, a network of seventy primary schools and five secondary schools, serving 20,000 pupils, was in operation. The hundreds of teachers excluded from National Education provided high quality education strictly in accordance with official programs, and despite the incessant harassment of the Vichy administration.

However, Algerian Judaism did not distance itself from mainland  France, despite the strictly French persecutions inflicted on it. Like the metropolis, the general government of Algeria sought to set up a General Union of the Israelites of Algeria, counterpart of the UGIF in France. Here again, Rabbi Eisenbeth was approached by Governor Chatel to take the presidency. It could not easily constitute such an institution, doomed in metropolitan France. It was not until September 1942 that the UGIA could be formed. Fortunately, the Allied landing in November led to the abandonment of this project. 

In Morocco , mutual aid in favor of Jewish refugees fleeing Europe was particularly active. Before the invasion of the southern zone by Germany, until the summer of 1942, hundreds of refugees had indeed been able to embark in Marseilles towards Morocco, in the hope of reaching the United States or Latin America. Once in Morocco, the refugees found that their lot was hardly more enviable than in Vichy France. Those whose papers were in order – very few in number – were taken care of by the local assistance committees until their departure. The majority were interned in  camps. 

Jewish institutions in Morocco, financially supported by American organizations such as the Joint or the Hicem, showed solidarity. It was mainly the work of a Moroccan Jewish lawyer from Casablanca, Hélène Cazes Benattar , who knew how to take countless initiatives in favor of the refugees, braving the harassments of the French administration, providing the refugees with material and medical aid, food, accommodation pending their departure, and, for those interned in labor camps, constant assistance to free them.

In the war (November 1942-October 1943)

 Following the abolition of the Crémieux decree and the adoption of the statute of the Jews, many young Algerian Jews excluded from the Youth Workshops or the University engaged in  sports and fitness in order to combat anti-Semitism , in a sports hall in Algiers called Salle Géo-Gras. This place quickly became the center of one of the first movements of the French Resistance, founded by three young Jews, André Témime, Émile Atlan and Charles Bouchara.

Read article in full (French)

How were Tunisian Jews impacted by WWII?

Tunisia was the only country to come under direct Nazi control during WWII, over the six months from November 1942 to May 1943. Up to 5,000 young Jewish men were marched off the forced labour camps; the yellow star was imposed on Jews in the south of the country. But the situation could have been much worse. Here is a summary of a series of talks given by historian Claude Nataf for Akadem:

Paul Ghez, a Jewish hero

The Vichy Resident-General, Admiral Estéva, was not an antisemite. He was a practising Christian who took advice from Bishop Gounod of Carthage,  no antisemite either. Estéva managed to delay by one month the implementation of the Statut des Juifs, which was applied on 31 October 1940 in Morocco. (Unlike Morocco, however, even converts to Islam in Tunisia were considered Jews.) The anti-Jewish laws drove Jews  – especially those of French nationality – out of the civil service, the professions and public service, banks, insurance and property management. Jews could not pursue debtors. Quotas came into force in secondary schools.  Jewish youth movements were banned and Jews could not join the Scouts, for instance. 

The Vichy authorities abrogated a 1923 law allowing Jews to request French citizenship. Estéva drew criticism from Vichy officials when he insisted it not be retroactive. He was even accused of being a traitor. He managed to allow Jewish doctors to continue to treat the population, and obtained an exemption for 123 defence lawyers – almost all of whom were army veterans.

However, mindful of the economic clout they exercised, the Vichy regime largely exempted the 3,000 Italian Jews (Grana) in Tunisia from these strictures. Strangely enough, Italy itself would attempt to mitigate the persecution of the Grana once the Nazis had occupied Tunisia.

The new Bey of Tunisia, Moncef, declared that Jews and Muslims alike were his children, but the majority of Jews, on the eve of the Nazi occupation, were marginalised and impoverished.

The Nazi commanding the occupation was Walter Rauff, inventor of the mobile gas van which was used to murder 100,000 Jews in eastern Europe. The Ensatzgruppen  he headed in Greece had plans to liquidate the Jews of Egypt and Palestine. But Rauff did not have many SS troops, two thirds of the occupying forces in Tunisia were Italian and only one unit was German, most of the first-rate fighters having been diverted to Hitler’s Russian campaign.

Rauff gave the Jewish community 24 hours to recruit 3,000 Jews for forced labour. But only 150 volunteeers turned up. Rauff took over the Great Synagogue in Tuns and his men wrecked Sifrei Torah.

Enter one of the heroes of the Jewish community, Paul Ghez. Ghez was a lawyer who would serve as head of the  Committee for the Recruitment of Jewish Labour. He had distinguished himself in WWI and had won the Croix de Guerre after volunteering for the French army in WWII.  At this  point I have a single aim,” he declared.  “I will stand erect and not project the spectacle of a trembling Jew.”

Wearing his officer’s uniform throughout the war, he protested that the Germans had no right to humiliate the Jews. If they wanted to shoot 10 of the community’s leaders, he would be the first to die. Rauff backed down and took 100 Jews as hostages instead. His men rounded up 2,000 men on 9 December. Between 9 and 18 December, another 3,700 were recruited from the provinces. It was the Jewish community’s job to feed and clothe the inmates from taxes raised by the community itself.

The question remains: why did the Germans insist on recruiting effete Jews to do forced labour when there was a much better-qualified workforce amongst unemployed Italians? The answer must have been that the persecution and extermination of the Jews was a key war aim.

Some of the camps were run by Italians. When Rauff made it known that he wanted to shoot Jews, the Italian commander of one camp turned a blind eye to escapees. When German soldiers looted from Jewish homes and raped their women, the Jewish community protested. Ghez remonstrated with the Germans. ‘Rape is against military honour’, he said.

The Germans requisitioned radios from the Jews, bicycles, pianos, crockery, cameras. They demanded jewellery. Rauff threatened to shoot his Jewish hostages. Then came extortion – Rauff demanded 20 million Francs in one day. Estéva was asked to intervene. He arranged for the money to be lent to the Jewish community. The story is told that in March 1943, Rauff took three hostages on the island of Djerba and demanded 100 kg of gold. When the rabbi toured the island in his car on that Shabbat collecing the gold, the Jews of Djerba knew something was seriously amiss. .He collected 50 kg, but the Nazis never returned for the rest.

By the end of the occupation, 17 Jews had been deported to concentration camps in Europe, some 42 Jews were victims of acts of sadism and shootings.  Right-wing French were antisemites, but the Catholic church was basically not. The lower class Italians laughed at the Jews’ plight, while some Italian consulates protected Jews. The Bey of Tunisia was philosemitic but powerless;  Muslim leaders acted responsibly. Some aristocrats hid Jews. But nationalists were anti-Jewish; Arabs did help identify Jews in the round-up and rejoiced to see Jews humiliated. In one terrible case, a Muslim denounced the Chemla brothers and their father; these were deported and beheaded in Germany. Many Arabs were influenced by Nazi propaganda and widespread use of the Yellow Star might have provoked Muslims to act against Jews.

It took two months for the Allies to repeal the racial laws but the rift between the Jews and the French would not heal. The Jews could never trust the French again. Some Jews moved closer to Arabs, some became more pro-Zionist and some became anti-nationalist. The Jews of Tunisia  had received a terrible shock – a shock from which they would not recover.

Based on historian Claude Nataf’s Akadem lectures (French) 1 -6, December 2020.


This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.