Tag: Jews of Tunisia

A Tunisian tradition: Jethro’s feast for boys

In the week in which the story of Jethro is read in synagogue, Tunisian Jews have a special celebration – Se’udat Yithro, also known as the Feast of the Boys. Here is an explanation from Harissa, the Tunisian Jews’ blog:
Se’udat Yitro: a child’s banquet
This is the second specifically Tunisian tradition of the winter period, between the Tishri and Passover holidays, The first is The Feast of the Girls (Rosh H’ odesh El-Bnat], the second the boys’ party [Seu’dat Ytro] and finally, the  Bsisa [or Bchicha] of Rosh H’odesh Nissan [Leilat Nishene]. There is something for everyone, the first is for girls, the second is for boys and the last is for everyone. However, for the Jew of Tunisian origin, Se’udat Ytro is above all and above all a very well furnished table and a very good meal with typical Tunisian dishes.
Here is a brief presentation of Se’udat Ytro in the form of answers to questions a small child might ask: 
What is this party called?
Se’udat Yitro or the boys’ party
– What is it ?
It’s a se’uda [meal in Hebrew] that we make at home.
– When do we do it?
Thursday evening of the week of the parsha of Yitro (between 15 and 24 Shvat)
– Who’s celebrating?
All the Jews of Tunisia, old and young, religious and non-religious. Each family makes a Se’uda in their home and often invites their relatives.
For several years, Associations in Israel have been organizing community Seudat Ytro celebrations in public places with Tunisian dishes, a musical accompaniment of songs and Piyutim and sometimes with a Torah lesson or a rabbi’s blessing.
How do we celebrate?
It is a feast in which many condiments of all kinds are served in very small utensils and cutlery, like for a children’s dinette. They say the blessings of the Torah and sing songs and Piyutim.
– Since when does this tradition exist?
To date there is no precise information to answer this question. However, according to various testimonies, this custom has existed for tens or even hundreds of years, but at least since the beginning of the 20th century (see quote from travel researcher Nahum Slouchts from 1906). – What is happening these days?
Today, the tradition is celebrated in Israel and France by Jews from Tunisia. Over time, the custom has undergone slight modifications, however the essentials have remained unchanged.

Land dispute involving a Jew led to colonisation of Tunisia

How did North Africa come to be colonised by the French in the 19th century? The European powers seized the slightest pretext to intervene in local affairs. Some involved Jews.

According to Ron Boublil’s book Silencing the Past, a land dispute in 1880 in Tunisia led to the colonisation of the country by the French.

Silencing the Past: The Arab Spring, Israel and the Jews of Tunisia by [Ron Boublil]

A Tunisian general by the name of Kahyar tried to sell 250,000 acres of agricultural land between Tunis and Sousse to a Marseille company for two million francs. The Bey of Tunis objected, claiming  that the land was the property of the General for personal use and could not be transferred to foreigners. Also objecting was  Youssef Levy, a naturalised English Jew who owned the land adjacent to the property. He wished to buy the land in dispute.

The British sent battleships to uphold Levy’s rights. The French withdrew their support, not wanting to confront the British over this land deal. Levy remained in control of the disputed land until 1882, when it was purchased by the French soon after the Treaty of Bardo, by which Tunisia became a French protectorate.

Some argue that a property deal to a  non-Muslim was what triggered the colonisation of Tunisia. Land in Tunisia was then governed by Koranic law: in theory, it belonged to no one. Only God owned the land and claims to private property  could be made by individuals who proved their connections to the land – ergo, only Muslims. Koranic law allowed those who proved they worked the land and produced ‘the fruits of their labour’ to own land. But in 1887, under pressure on the Bey from the British and the French, the law was changed to allow anyone to own land.

Until the French showed up there were no official deeds, especially in the south of the country where the Berber population did not register land ownership in order to escape heavy taxes. In 1901,  certain tribes were given some rights of use with government permission.

Boublil argues that the pre-colonial land ownership allowed the Beys, the local Ottoman governors,  to exploit the population without giving anything in return: “The corrupt  land and economic system was designed to  guard the fortunes of the elites under the umbrella of Islam.”


How Tunisia got rid of its Jews by stealth

Tunisia got rid of its Jews by pretending it was doing everything in its power to keep them. Andre Nahum explains how Jews fell victim to Arabisation, abuse of property law, economic strangulation and a policy to replace Jewish civil servants with Muslims. This extract covers the period between independence in 1956 and the Bizerte crisis of 1961, but the rest of the article, which appeared in Pardès no 34 (2003) is well worth reading too.

Prime minister Habib Bourguiba: no overt hostility to Jews

At the beginning, the bey Sidi Lamine remained on his throne and Habib Bourguiba was appointed prime minister.

The transition went smoothly and the new regime showed no hostility towards the Jews. Quite the contrary … If there were Cassandras predicting the inevitable emigration of the community, most wanted to hope that a Jewish minority could still live in an Arab country.

As early as 1948, there had certainly been, with the creation of the State of Israel,  emigration to this new country. The Jewish agency, particularly active in North Africa, had managed to persuade a  number of families to make their aliya. Most were the  poorest and most deprived in the community,  and  they were particularly  people from the provinces. Very few  white-collar workers left, only a few die-hard  Zionists. The Jews, for the most part, remained in limbo –  although very attracted by France, its democracy, its language, its culture. The end of the protectorate made them Tunisian citizens, but they could not allow themselves to see the old metropolis as a foreign country. The majority accepted this situation; a few families decided to emigrate, mainly to France. The memory of the dhimmi status  in which their grandparents had lived until the arrival of France in 1881 was too vivid. Moreover, the Israeli-Arab conflict, which had had no impact until then on relations between Jews and Arabs, could change their lives at any time.

When Habib Bourguiba abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the republic, the first articles of the new constitution stated that: “Tunisia is a republic,  Islam is its religion and Arabic the language”. Ipso facto  the Jews were put in a special category.since they were not Muslims and they did not speak classical Arabic which became the official language of the country.

I remember a funny episode in this regard. One fine day, the authorities wisely decided that all Tunisians should have a surname, which was not the case until then: individuals were known as “X ben Y ben Z”. It was stipulated that all citizens had to fill out a form, in Arabic, of course. Like everyone else, I went to the relevant office.  As I could neither read nor write Arabic although I spoke the language perfectly, I had to get an interpreter who willingly agreed to help me for a fee – a few coins since I was “illiterate”. We must give Bourguiba credit for always saving face.

When Bourguiba called legislative and then presidential elections, he insisted that Jewish citizens register on the electoral roll and fulfil their duty when he did not need a single Jewish vote. But he did need the Jews to bridge the gap between the French who were leaving and the Muslims who were not quite ready to take their places.

In the early days of independence, gestures of friendship multiplied towards the community. Everything was done to reassure it. Friendly relations were established between bourgeois Jews and Arabs, which had hardly been the case under the protectorate. We saw Jews attend large Arab receptions and vice versa and we thought that, contrary to what was happening in other Arab countries and in particular in Iraq and in Nasser’s Egypt, it would be possible for Jews to live  normal lives in this Arab Muslim country.

Very soon the new republic abolished the elected Jewish community council under the leadership of  lawyer Charles Haddad and replaced it with a “provisional commission of Israelite worship” appointed by the authorities. Unless I am mistaken, “provisional” became permanent.

It also abolished the rabbinical court which handled the personal status of  Jews. It  may seem the norm in a democracy to place Jewish citizens under the jurisdiction of national courts. The old Jewish cemetery on Avenue de Londres, which reminded us of the very ancient Jewish presence in the city, was transformed into a public park: the rabbis prohibited access to Jews. After the authorities promised to exhume the corpses and send them to Israel, bulldozers were used to level the land. As for the hundreds of gravestones, no one knows what happened to them. A friend of mine told me he saw a few stored in a senior official’s garden, perhaps waiting to be used to pave his garden paths.

From 1956 to 1961 things went more or less well. Bourguiba ruled the country with an iron fist. The all-powerful police ensured the full safety of people and property. But seeing no future for themselves and no longer used to living under a dictatorship  since the French protectorate, many Jews considered leaving, even as the regime interfered  in all sectors of public life. For example,  some leaders of the national doctors’ union displeased the president: tremendous pressure was put on the practitioners to resign from the organization. Every day the radio announced triumphantly the names of the doctors who had abandoned the union.  In the end, only a few members of the board of directors remained until the very last government ultimatum to lower the flag and dissolve this rebel institution.

Since the establishment of the State of Israel, Tunisian Jews have always felt close to it.

They could not show their solidarity in public for obvious reasons and avoided pronouncing the very name Israel for fear of reprisals. But they would regularly listen to “Kol Israel”,  Jerusalem radio,  and keep themselves informed of every incident, however insignificant, taking place there.

With the Muslims there was a kind of modus vivendi and we avoided talking about the problems of the Middle East. Habib Bourguiba, who had courageously distanced himself from fundamentalist Islam by drinking a glass of fruit juice on television in the middle of the month of Ramadan, did not show any hate-filled hostility towards Israel and even advised the PLO during a trip to Jordan to favour a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Economically, Tunisia had adopted a new currency, the dinar, which was theoretically worth ten francs. But, to protect it, very strict exchange controls were imposed and the new currency could not be exported or imported. However, the Jews, made wary by the vagaries of their history, tried to transfer money to France when they could. Legal shipments were made by postal order. These could not exceed fifty francs; to transfer a substantial sum it was necessary to make numerous trips to every post office. All had long queues.

The second possibility was to transfer the money illegally by various means, including smugglers.  Many thought that their departure would be illegal. That’s why we talked about it in a low voice, away from prying ears, and if we were in a public place, we looked carefully to right and left to make sure we weren’t overheard. The government artfully tried to get rid of the Jews by pretending that it was doing everything to keep them. Officially it wanted to retain them. In reality everything concurred to make them leave. Perhaps they already had left, as President Bourguiba once said, “their  bodies in Tunisia and hearts elsewhere”. Perhaps  the Jews who had already decided to go into exile and  the regime were playing a kind of poker.

In 1956, independent Tunisia had very few Muslim cadres,  most civil servants and technicians being French,  and a few Jews. When the French went back home, the Tunisians skilfully played on this situation to  fill the places vacated by the French with Jews for as long as it took to train their Muslim replacements. They were thus able to secure the transition from a French administration to a Tunisian Muslim administration cheaply after a short  ‘Jewish’ period. A friend of mine, a police officer under the protectorate, was thus offered an unexpected promotion in this administration and, when he had trained a young Muslim, his secretary, his company car and his driver were removed and he was made redundant, leading to exile. This policy therefore allowed a smooth transition  But, little by little, each profession was confronted with its own hardships. Jewish judges and lawyers who had previously used French found themselves hamstrung when literary Arabic became the official language of justice. In hospitals, a Jewish doctor who would normally have reached the post of head of department, saw his Muslim pupil promoted above his head.

For Jewish traders, things were different. Since essential goods came from abroad and mainly from France:import licences had to be obtained for each product. The licences granted to Jews became increasingly few and far between and  were given to Muslims who were often completely new to the field. Moreover, Jews only obtained licences  if  they had Muslim partners. This applied to  the wholesale textile trade, a business  I knew well, my family being established in Souk-el-Ouzar, the centre of the trade.

Bullying, bordering on discrimination, overwhelmed the Jewish owners of land and buildings, often leading them to sell them at ridiculously low prices to Muslims.

As with the French, as soon as an apartment appeared unoccupied,  the law allowed it to be taken over by a Muslim Tunisian under the pretext that it was empty.

This is what almost happened to my parents who spent the summer by the sea. They saw our family home requisitioned. It took the energetic intervention of a friend of mine, a Muslim radiologist, to halt this abuse of power. Gradually, the Jews began to lose heart.

What is worse Mr. Ben Salah, Minister of Commerce, managed to convince Bourguiba that the economic future of the country lay in a kind of collectivism, vaguely inspired by Marxist ideals. He established “cooperatives” in all  sectors. I mean all,  in agriculture as well as trade and commerce.

Thereafter  modest Djerba grocers, known until then for their generosity and their individualistic working methods, were  forced  to register in a cooperative. This  made them go through multiple administrative formalities to acquire a bag of semolina or a can of olive oil. This “brilliant” initiative, which traumatized Jews and Arabs alike, put the country on the verge of bankruptcy and caused a number of Jewish traders to emigrate for economic reasons, simply because they could not feed their families.

The community thus began to unravel, but the bulk of the Jews still remained in place, although concerns gained ground when it became more and more evident that we could only be second-class citizens. To the difficulties of the whole population, we had to add our own. And as here below, only Allah is eternal. Ben Salah fell from grace, he was deposed by Habib Bourguiba who with great wisdom sent his minister and his socialism packing and revived the liberal economy, thus saving what could still to be saved.

Read article in full (French)


How Jews escaped Bizerte, one dark and stormy night

It is 60 years since the Bizerte crisis erupted:  the Tunisian government  issued an ultimatum  for the French to withdraw from their important naval base – the last vestige of colonial rule. France evacuated its nationals, but what to do with Jews whose passports had expired, and what would happen to Jewish residents of Tunisian nationality bereft of French protection ? Agnes Bensimon writing in K. magazine tells how a brave French diplomat and the Mossad stepped up to the plate to mount rescue missions. (With thanks: Veronique).

The Bizerte synagogue, opened in 1954: now a public library

The passport issue proved crucial and its handling delicate. Jews of French nationality (about a thousand) left for the metropolis without difficulty, like all nationals. There remained nearly 900 Jews in a trickier situation. Most of them had expired passports.  For weeks, Jean-Jacques Roos, deputy to Consul General Jeannot, used all the resources at his disposal to resolve issues on a case-by-case basis. In his memoirs for example,  he explains how he worked with a young Tunisian woman employed in the most important travel agency in Bizerte, whose owner was Jewish. She went to her office at the Consulate with the expired passports, Roos then granted the visas and laissez-passers, with the indirect agreement of the Quai d´Orsay, so that the passengers could disembark in Marseille. Jean-Jacques Roos attended each departing ship because the Tunisian police checked passports and searched people. Before boarding, families handed over their money, gold or jewellery to him. Two or three times a day he boarded in his capacity as a French diplomat, and returned their property to them – often to their astonishment. Thanks to his actions, at the end of August 1961, there remained “only” 325 Tunisian Jews who were candidates for emigration according to figures communicated to Paris by Xavier Jeannot (Telegram n ° 70 of August 26): ” Of this number, about a hundred would undoubtedly have had travel documents and could leave by normal means. For the other 225, it  was practically impossible to obtain passports or laissez-passer from the Tunisian authorities. ”

The deadline for the departure of the French, September 30, forced the leaders of the misgeret, the Zionist underground  network in North Africa, to decide to begin preparations for a large-scale illegal emigration operation  codenamed ” Operation Solange. ”

On the ground, Maurice Mattouk, a young recruit of the misgeret was then mainly concerned with the aliyah of the local Zionist youth movement. He had already made a name for himself by organizing the night-time return to Tunis of teenagers who had gone to a holiday camp in the region at the time that violent clashes had broken out. He would be fully engaged in the operation to rescue the Jews from his hometown. He  left with the last emigrants on one of the two ferries linking  Bizerte to Bône [7] on October 1, 1961. During September, as the end of the French presence drew nearer, the situation of some 300 remaining Bizertine Jews worsened and threats multiplied from all sides: “Wait until the French are no longer there and you will see how we will deal with you! » writes  Maurice Mattouk in his memoirs . On September 8, 130 passengers boarded the City of Oran ship, armed with Tunisian passports, escorted by French paratroopers.

No less than three operations were mounted by the misgeret before Operation “Solange”. Operation “Har Sinaï” took place on September 13: ten Jews embarked on a French military ship bound for Bône.  The Jewish Agency took  over responsibility for  them  as far as Marseille, thanks to Consul Jeannot who managed to overcome resistance from the captain. Two days later, Operation Jericho permitted 15 men to board an army boat bound for Bône. Of the 130 names left on the list drawn up by Maurice Mattouk. seven families, or 21 people, left on 22 September by boat, this time embarking in Tunis as part of Operation “Moshe”. But eight days before the expiry of the deadline for the departure of the French, 109 people were still waiting to be rescued.

It was in Paris, after a veritable “diplomatic marathon” that the final outcome was worked out. Under the direction of Ephraim Ronel, the head of Zionist networks in North Africa based in Paris, Israel studied in great detail the possibility of chartering a boat from Haifa to bring the emigrants back to Israel, anchoring a little way from Bizerte, unbeknown to the Tunisian authorities.

The boat was already calling at Naples, awaiting instructions when the operation was cancelled after two Israeli navy experts dispatched to the scene declared it impossible. The risks were too great and the still  painful memory of  the Egoz, which sank in January of the same year sank off  Morocco  counselled caution. In his telegram n ° 70 of August 26, 1961, already quoted, Consul General Jeannot described in detail the terms of this operation and specified: “Consulted in this regard, the Admiral (Amman) considered that such an operation was not impossible but risky in bad weather and could not go ahead without  the official approval of the ministry of defence.”For Mossad leader Isser Harel and his right-hand man, the only solution was  to get help from the French government to organize the rescue of the last Jews in Bizerte. Ephraim Ronel turned to Uzi Narkiss, military attaché at the Israeli Embassy in France, to use his contacts for this purpose. But without an order from his direct hierarchy, the latter refused to take action. The Mossad leader then referred the matter to the Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, who gave the go-ahead. (…)

On the Sabbath of September 30, 1961, in the morning, the expiry date for  the withdrawal deadline, the  word was  passed down: “Prepare your bags, this evening we will get you; take the minimum. ” And at nightfall, in private cars belonging to Jewish families and which they  abandoned on the quayside, the last illegal emigrants reached the naval base. They did not have a passport or a pass. They boarded two spartan landing craft. Tarpaulins were installed to shelter the refugees from  squalls and heavy rain. The frightened children wailed. The men prayed under their makeshift shelter. It was the first night of the Sukkot festival. They left behind their country and their home, as the song goes.

The rescue of the Jews of Bizerte heralded the departure of a large number of Jews from Tunisia. Between 1 August and 1 October 1961, 4,200 obtained short-stay visas to leave the Tunisian capital in a hurry and take refuge in France. At the same time, 500 got similar visas for Israel.

David Ben-Gurion and Isser Harel, 1969. (Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel, Uzi Keren)

Read article in full (French)

Bizerte rescue was Uzi Narkiss’s finest hour


Sephardi play explores Nazi stories in North Africa

Josh Azouz’s latest play was reviewed in all the major British newspapers. Although its run at the Almeida Theatre in London has now ended, Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied Tunisia brings a fresh Sephardi perspective to stage drama, writes John Nathan in the Jewish Chronicle:

Josh Azouz, a rare Sephardi British Jewish voice

Whisper it, but it might just be possible that a major new voice has arrived on the British stage. True, at 35 playwright Josh Azouz has been around for a while.  But with his latest work, which goes by the more than faintly familiar title of Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia, even he recognises that he and the play might represent something rather rare in this country’s theatre culture.

“There are very few Sephardi British Jewish voices,’ he observes. “So I am interested to explore those stories. But not only those stories of course,” he quickly adds, as if the theatre gods were looking for a reason to pigeonhole him for all time.
They would have a job.  His latest play audaciously conveys life under the Nazis in north Africa but without the ramrod seriousness with which extreme suffering is normally conveyed. More of this later.  For the moment let us dwell on Azouz’s knack for finding subjects that have rarely, if ever, been seen in a theatre.

For example, when his two-hander The Mikvah Project was revived at The Orange Tree last year (before it was ripped from the stage by the pandemic)  the only people who would have seen a play about two Orthodox Jewish men who fall for each other while spiritually cleansing themselves would have been those who encountered the original production at The Yard Theatre in 2015.

So although nobody thinks that as a subject life under the Nazis is unrepresented in stage drama, Azouz’s still stands out. “It’s an opportunity to talk about the war from a Sephardic Jewish lens,” is the way he describes it when we meet on Zoom at the end of a day’s rehearsal at the Almeida Theatre where the play has just opened.

“Actually, I think I should clarify,” he adds..  “I think it is actually a mostly Muslim Arab and a Sephardic Jewish lens. When we think of World War Two and the Holocaust we think of Europe.  I don’t think North Africa has been on stage and I thought, ‘how interesting to explore Arab Jewish relationships at a time just before the creation of Israel.’”

In Azouz’s play that Arab/Jewish relationship is represented respectively by a Jewish and Arab couple who were best friends before the Germans occupied Tunisia.  But under the cruel rule of Nazi officer Grandma (yes, Grandma, but more on character names later) played in Eleanor Rhode’s production by Adrian Edmondson, the friendships come under intense pressure.

Take the opening scene in which Jewish Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee) is buried up to his neck in the Tunisian desert and Arab Youssef (Ethan Kai) is standing over him with orders to urinate on him.  But as awful as Victor’s situation is, Azouz is as interested in absurdity as he is atrocity.  For a start, Yousef is Victor’s best friend.

“When I was reading memoirs from the camps in Tunisia, the Nazis had names like Grandma and Little Feller and Memento. It was their nicknames coupled with the landscape — mountains and deserts full of cacti — that made me think of a Western. That’s sort of where the title came from,” explains Azouz alluding to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti classic Once Upon a Time in the West.

However it is not only the landscape that sets this story apart from most other Nazi occupation dramas.  There is, says Azouz, something funny about it too. “People being buried up to their neck is barbaric. But then I would read [while researching the play] that the Nazis would have to keep rotating the Arab guards because they were getting too friendly with the Jews.  And because the Nazis had names like Grandma, there was something very sort of surreal and silly about it. It was horrific but this was not the mechanical or methodical horror of Europe. It was much more wild.  These Nazis were losing their heads in the desert. There was something of a mirage about it;  something much more haphazard and much more uncertain.”

There was also yet another difference, one that perhaps more than all the others goes to the heart of the play. “The Arab population weren’t willing collaborators in the same way Europeans were,” says Azouz.
In terms of their genocidal objective, the Nazis were most successful in countries where there was an infrastructure to support their objective of annihilating the Jews, Azouz points out.
“Fundamentally the Arab nations in North Africa were not seduced by the Nazis in the same way [as the Europeans].”

Read article in full







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