The first documented evidence of a Jewish presence in Tunisia dates back to the second century when a community existed in the Latin territory of Carthage under Roman rule. Latin Carthage contained a significant Jewish presence, and several sages mentioned in the Talmud lived in this area from the 2nd to the 4th centuries.
During the Byzantine period, conditions began to deteriorate, and in 535, when Christianity became the official state religion, discriminatory measures were introduced which barred Jews from holding public office and prohibited Jewish religious practices. Many synagogues were converted into churches and the construction of new synagogues was forbidden. Large numbers of Jews migrated from the cities to live amongst the Berbers in the mountains and desert. With the Arab conquest of Tunisia in the 7th century, conditions improved despite the imposition of the Jizya head tax on Jewish and Christian by the new Islamic rulers.
Conditions began to worsen once again with the Spanish invasions of the 16th century and the concomitant hegira of the Jewish residents of the North African coast. However, with the subsequent conquest of the region by the Ottoman Empire, things against began to improve. However, this period also saw internal divisions split the community between the Touransa, composed by native Tunisians, and the Grana, Jews who followed the Spanish and Italian rites.
During the 19th century, with the advent of French rule, the community was gradually emancipated. However, beginning in November 1940, when the country was ruled by the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy authorities, Jews were subject to new anti-Semitic laws. From November 1942 until May 1943, the country was occupied by German forces. During that time, the condition of the Jews deteriorated further. Many members of the community had their property seized and were deported to labor camps.
The Federation of Jewish Communities of Tunisia as French Colony Protectorate was present at the 1936 inaugural World Jewish Congress Plenary in Geneva and in 1948 the WJC helped to bring about unification of Tunisian Jewry through the Federation of Jewish Communities of Tunisia.
Life became more precarious for the Tunisian Jewry in 1956, when the country gained its independence and undertook a process of “Arabization.” The rabbinical courts were abolished in 1957, followed the next year by the dissolution of Jewish community councils. The Jewish quarter of Tunis was demolished by the government, which justified its actions by citing the need to engage in “urban development.” The World Jewish Congress played a critical diplomatic role during the 1950s and 1960s in enabling Tunisian Jews to emigrate to France, Israel and elsewhere.
The Arab-Israeli conflict was also a source of hardship for Tunisian Jewry. Anti-Jewish rioting followed the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967. During the violence the Great Synagogue of Tunis was put to the torch. While the community was compensated for the damage, these events increased the steady stream of emigration.
The political atmosphere in Tunisia has become increasing uncomfortable for Jews in recent years. In April 2002, a truck exploded outside the external wall of the Ghriba synagogue of Djerba, killing 17 people, including 11 German tourists. During the Arab Spring in 2010, protesters held demonstrations outside of one of Tunisia's ancient synagogues, where they chanted “Death to the Jews.” Since 2013, over 100 Jewish gravestones have been desecrated and in May 2014 the Beith-El synagogue was vandalized.