Legacy of Jews in the MENA - World Jewish Congress
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The Jewish Legacy of Tunisia

Tunisian Jews from Antiquity to Modernity 

Jews have maintained a presence in Tunisia as far back as antiquity. Since the 2nd century BCE, during the Hellenic era, texts and archaeological evidence confirm the existence of a Jewish community, mainly on the island of Djerba and in the Carthage region. Under the Roman Empire (1st to 5th centuries CE), the Jewish population of Tunisia underwent a process of integration into the Latin world. Later, they came under the domination of the Vandals, Byzantines, and Arabs. Judaism was widely adopted among the Berber tribes, as confirmed by Ibn Khaldun’s writings in the 14th century. 

Throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times, the Jews of Tunisia were integrated into Islamic society. The city of Kairouan became a major center of Tunisian Judaism, attracting migrants from Spain, Italy, and the territories of the Abbasid Empire. Between the Ottoman conquest of the Maghreb and the arrival of the French (16th to 19th centuries), Tunisia was administered by dynasties of governors increasingly independent from the local power: first the Deys, then the Beys (Ottoman governors). During this period, the demographic and social profile of Jews underwent a profound transformation. The population grew from 2,500 to 30,000, mostly concentrated around the capital, Tunis. Employed in commerce, handicrafts, petty trade, and sometimes in the administration of finance, some Jews achieved remarkable careers, such as the caïd Nessim Samama (1805–1873), who came to occupy the position of director of finance for the Bey. The settlement of a nucleus of Iberian Jews from the Italian port of Livorno divided the Jewish population, from 1710, into two separate communities: one for Tunisian Jews (Twansa) and the other for Livornese Jews (Grana). The Grana were an economically and legally privileged minority. Protected by the Tuscan consuls, they were active in international trade (playing an important role in the redemption of captives – pidyon shvuyim), entrepreneurship and economic mediation. 

Throughout the 19th century, many Jews observed the increasing European penetration of Tunisia with interest, offering themselves as translators, dragomen, and mediators. The community was also affected by the modernizing reforms of the Beys, who in 1857 proclaimed religious freedom and equal rights, and thus the Jews of Tunisia were projected into the European world. Furthermore, in 1864, a prominent Italian, Baron Giacomo di Castelnuovo, founded the first regional committee of the Alliance Israélite Universelle and the first school in 1878 (Lionel Levy, 1999). These developments, combined with the establishment of the French protectorate in 1881, catapulted the Jewish community into the modern age. 

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The Grana Jews from Livorno came to Tunisia in the 17th century and established themselves as an economic minority with legal privilege in Tunisia.

Jewish Community of Tunisia under the French Protectorate (1881–1956) 

The establishment of the French protectorate in Tunisia in 1881 brought about a new era for Jews, especially as France embodied European modernity and offered unprecedented opportunities for social advancement. The Jewish population grew rapidly, driven by a high birth rate and improved public health. In 1921, the first official census recorded 48,000 Jews, rising to 66,000 in 1936 and 95,000 in 1946, all nationalities combined. 

Demographic growth was accompanied by gradual integration into the European nations. Most Livornese Jews (between 3,000 and 5,000) had adopted Italian nationality in 1861, making up a prosperous, cultured, and highly patriotic bourgeoisie. Many Tunisian Jews pivoted towards France, especially after the Morinaud law of 1923 opened the door to individual naturalization. Between 1923 and 1939, 7,000 Jews became French; just before Tunisian independence, the number had risen to 25,000, a quarter of the total population. 

While still concentrated in Tunis and its suburbs, many Jews left their traditional ghetto, the Hara, to settle in the modern districts of the European city, which was developing alongside the Medina, the Arab city. This move signaled both better living conditions and a marked Westernization of leisure activities: Newspapers, operas, theaters, sports clubs, brasseries, and cafés became part of the daily life of the country's Jewish bourgeoisie. 


As in the past, Jews were well represented in commercial professions. They also played an important role in the credit business, which often drew criticism from the antisemitic press, ready to denounce the "Jewish moneylender". The modernization of the country led to the development and spread of new professions: plumbers, glaziers, electricians, and typographers. Finally, at the beginning of the 20th century, many Jews were active in the world of entertainment, as owners of theaters and cinemas, such as Albert Samama Chikly (1872–1934), known as the father of Tunisian cinema, and in productive and industrial activities. 

The spread of education fostered the rise of a new middle class, employed in administration and the salaried professions. Many Jews became lawyers, doctors, and pharmacists after studying at universities in France (Paris, Lyon, and Aix-en-Provence) and Italy (Rome, Naples, and Florence). Alongside the old Jewish bourgeoisie of Livorno, a new Jewish bourgeoisie of Tunisian and French nationality developed. Nevertheless, pauperism was still widespread in the 1930s. In 1936, one in five people worked on a daily basis for an unstable and uncertain wage (Paul Sebag, 1991). The poor of the Hara, living in conditions of misery, disease, and misfortune, were at the heart of the new Jewish-Tunisian literature of Vitalis Danon (1897–1969) and Raphaël Lévy (1898–1972). 

In the aftermath of the Protectorate, Tunisian Jewry was still divided between the Tunisian Jewish Community and the Livornese Jewish Community (which took the official name of "Portuguese Israelite Community"). The colonial authorities strove to reorganize and centralize communal institutions, not only to overcome the old divisions, but also to secure greater control over the country's Jewish population. In 1888, a unified institution—the “Caisse de Secours et de Bienfaisance des Israélites de Tunis”—was created to administer the community's revenues and provide for the needy. In 1897, the Residency decided to recognize a single Chief Rabbi of Tunisia, that of the Twansa. In 1921, a new, more democratic body was instituted, the Council of the Jewish Community of Tunis, formed by an assembly elected by the population and charged with managing internal affairs. The Livornese opposed the merger, retaining an autonomous section within the Caisse de secours and then the Conseil de la communauté. The "Portuguese section" was not dissolved until 1944 by the French authorities, but the Grana maintained their rite, their synagogues, and even a separate space in the Jewish cemetery. 

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Students from the Alliance Israélite Universelle in 1886. (c) AIU

The colonial era was accompanied by the schooling of the Jewish population. On the eve of World War I, almost 9,000 Jews attended religious schools as well as secular French and Italian institutes. By the eve of Tunisia's independence, the number of students had risen to 14,500, including 7,000 girls. 

Access to modern culture led to the Westernization of customs. French gradually replaced Arabic as the common language of the Jewish community. Hebrew and Arabic first names gave way to Romanesque and European ones. Religious practice weakened in some communities, and several rabbis denounced the transgression of dietary prohibitions, the opening of stores on Sabbath, and indifference to traditional holidays. The education of girls, in particular, marked a major break with the traditional Jewish society: The age of marriage rose, consanguineous unions became rarer, and family size shrank. 

Tunisian Judaism developed its own culture, but one that was increasingly integrated into local the society, as manifested in popular songs, original literature, and a Jewish or Judeo-Arabic press. Jewish artists such as the famous Habiba Msika (1903–1930) renewed Tunisian music, while in painting, artists such as Moses Levy (1885–1968) and David developed original currents. Boxer Victor “Young” Perez (1911–1945), world flyweight champion in 1931, was hailed almost as a folk hero between the wars before being tragically murdered in Europe during the Holocaust. 

Under the French protectorate, public opinion among the Jewish population was divided roughly into two camps: traditionalists, anxious to preserve religious and moral customs, and modernists, eager to free themselves from Tunisian laws and integrate into the Western world. 

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Iberian Jews in the eighteenth century settled in the Italian port of Livorno, dividing the Jewish population into the Twansa Tunisian Jews and the Grana Livornese Jews. (c) Solomon Hart

The 20th century saw the emergence of new ideas. Zionism spread across the country, thanks to more than 30 newspapers (Ben Achour, 2019), the founding in 1920 of a coordinating body, also known as the Fédération Sioniste de Tunisie, and the Union universelle de la jeunesse juive (UUJJ). Several obstacles, including the hostility of French authorities, prevented Zionism from gaining mass support during the interwar period. 

Segments of the intelligentsia embraced Communism, especially after Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Within the Tunisian Communist Party (PCT), the Jewish intellectual youth of Tunis led a battle against fascism and colonialism. During the war, the Communists were hit by cross-repression by the French Vichy police and, during the Axis occupation (1942–1943), by the Germans. After the war, the Communist continued their political activity in France and Italy, like Nadia Gallico Spano, elected to the Italian Assemblea Costituente in 1946. 

Despite blatant antisemitism in some milieus, Tunisia did not experience any serious manifestations of racism until the late 1930s. With the onset of World War II,  this situation changed. The collaborationist Vichy regime extended its antisemitic legislation to Tunisia from 30th November 1940 (first Statute of the Jews). Between 1940 and 1942, the Jewish community was subject to expropriation of property and suffered severe discrimination in schools and the workplace. The German-Italian occupation of Tunisia (November 9, 1942) triggered six months of open persecution, led by SS Colonel Walter Rauff. The Hara district was ransacked on 9th December 1942: Jews aged between 15 and 45 were mandated into forced labor, and the community had to supply over 5,000 men to work. Collective fines were imposed on communities in the south, particularly in Djerba and Gabès, where the Germans requisitioned almost 70 kilos of gold. Violence, exploitation, and summary executions claimed around sixty civilian victims. The liberation of Tunisia by the Allied armies on 6th May 1943 abolished the Vichy racial laws and restored lost civil rights. 

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Pictured is an unknown sketching of the Synagogue of Livorno (Tempio Maggiore) in the 19th century.

Dissolution of the Community: The Departure of Jews from Tunisia 

The decades following World War II were marked by the dispersal of Tunisia's Jewish community. In the immediate postwar period, and especially after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, Zionism experienced an unprecedented boom in Tunisia. The development of mass propaganda and the organization of Jewish Agency offices to coordinate emigration to Israel led to the departure of 25,000 Tunisian Jews in the span of a few years, and 50,000 in the period 1943–1970. 

The exodus of the Jewish minority continued in the wake of Tunisia's independence in 1956. The new government, led by Habib Bourguiba, strove to relieve the concerns of Tunisian Jews. The new Personal Status Code guaranteed equal rights. The policy of inclusion enabled a prominent Jew, Albert Bessis (1885–1972), to be elected to the National Assembly. Nevertheless, the Arabization of the state, and rising tensions with France and Israel prompted mass Jewish emigration. Between  Israel's War of Independence and the Six-Day War, TunisiaJewish population fell from 58,000 to 18,000. Around half of these emigrants were absorbed by France, with the remainder heading to Israel and, to a lesser extent, Italy, Canada, and the USA. By 2018, Tunisia's Jewish population had fallen to an estimated 1,500 persons, between the island of Djerba and the Tunisian mainland. This demographic decline has been accompanied by a general aging of the remaining Jewish population. 

Current State of the Tunisian Jewish Diaspora 

At the beginning of the 21st century, the Tunisian-Jewish diaspora was distributed mainly between France and Israel. An estimated 50,000 individuals emigrated to France between 1950 and 1970, including almost all the Westernized elites who had obtained French citizenship during the protectorate, as well as some members of the middle and working class. Included among them are intellectuals such as Albert Memmi (1920–2020), politicians such as Gisèle Halimi (1927–2020), and artists such as Georges Wolinsky (1934–2015). 

Immigration was clustered in the Paris region (notably Belleville and Ménilmontant), the South of France (Toulouse, Marseille, Nice, and Montpellier), and the Rhône Valley (Lyon and Grenoble). Like their co-religionists from Morocco and Algeria, Jews from Tunisia who had obtained French nationality were able to access the economic aid provided by the French state for repatriates from former colonies. The combined effect of the French school system and the automatic naturalization of children born in France enabled immigrants to integrate into the new society within a generation (Della Pergola-Bensimon, 1989), while retaining a well-defined cultural profile that was reflected in language, music, and cuisine. 

The stream of emigrants to Israel is estimated at around 50,000 people, largely from the more modest and traditionalist elements. It could almost be said that the Tunisian aliyah, like the North African one in general, represented the emigration of a "social body amputated of its elites" (Paul Sebag, 1991). Lacking suitable training, few Jews from Tunisia were able to provide the new state with scientific or administrative expertise. Employed in agriculture and industry, they contributed to the development of kibbutzim in the Galilee and Negev regions, along with other nationals of Jewish communities from the Maghreb. Integration into the new state was not easy, at least at the beginning: Ashkenazim viewed Tunisian Jews, like many other Jews from Muslim countries, with a sense of superiority and contempt. Since the 1970s, Israel has made serious efforts to promote the social integration of Middle Eastern and North African Jewry. The cultural and material heritage of the Jews of Tunisia has been the subject of a policy of conservation and transmission. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Ben-Zvi Institute, and the Haifa Museum of Ethnology are among the most active centers working to preserve Tunisian Jewish history and culture. 

Other emigration flows led a few hundred exiles to settle in Italy (notably descendants of the Livornese) and Canada, giving the Jewish-Tunisian diaspora a global dimension. In addition to this, there is still a small Jewish community in Tunisia concentrated in Tunis and particularly on the historic island of Djerba. Although the Jewish community has experienced terror attacks in 2002 and 2023, to this day, they continue to welcome Jewish tourists and pilgrims to the historic Ghriba synagogue particularly at Passover and Sukkot. 

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The Grand Synagogue of the Hara in 1960.
Jews In Tunisia
Ḥabība Messika (Messica) (1899–1930)

Ḥabība Messika (Messica, Msika) (1899–1930) was a Tunisian Jewish singer and actress who left a significant mark on North African and Middle Eastern music and theater during the interwar years. She was one of the first North African artists to record for multiple labels, and she also won the right to her royalties. Her recordings of patriotic songs and anthems for Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the Bey of Tunis earned her popularity but also sparked controversy among the French authorities.

Albert Samama Chikly (1872-1934)

Chikly was a pioneering figure in the Arabic film industry. Born in Tunis, he was educated in France and returned to Tunisia as the representative of les Frères Lumière, considered the fathers of modern cinema, in 1896. He organized the first screenings of Lumière films and brought other technological innovations such as radio, X-ray technology and even bicycles to North Africa.

  • Olfa Ben Achour, L'émigration des Juifs de Tunisie de 1943 à 1967, Namur, Publishroom, 2019.
  • Abdelkrim Allagui, Juifs et musulmans en Tunisie : des origines à nos jours, Paris, Éditions Tallandier, 2016.
  • Lionel Lévy, La nation juive portugaise : Livourne, Amsterdam, Tunis : 1591-1951, Paris, France, 1999.
  • Paul Sebag, Histoire des Juifs de Tunisie : des origines à nos jours, Paris, L'Harmattan, 1991.
  • Patrick Simon and Claude Tapia, Le Belleville des Juifs tunisiens, Paris, Éditions Autrement, 1998.