'The future of Tunisian Jews is in the Land of Israel'

Targeted again after Oct. 7, Tunisia’s small Jewish community wonders what future it has

Djerba’s Jews were slowly healing from a deadly terror attack in May, but an attack on a Tunisia synagogue and escalated hostile rhetoric are prompting new thoughts of emigration

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A Jewish pilgrim at the Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia's southern resort island of Djerba on May 18, 2022, during the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the synagogue. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)
A Jewish pilgrim at the Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia's southern resort island of Djerba on May 18, 2022, during the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the synagogue. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)

After a deadly May terror attack at the historic Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba during the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, the 1,500-strong community didn’t feel secure enough to restart communal prayer in the island’s main temple until the recent Sukkot holiday in October.

That feeling of security was short-lived.

Violent protests in the majority-Muslim country against Israel’s war with Hamas following the terror group’s murderous incursion into Israel on October 7 are now forcing the millennia-old Jewish community to rethink whether it has a future in the country.

Rivka (not her real name), a local Jewish woman who spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity, said that the Djerba community has been on edge since the deadly Hamas onslaught.

“After October 7, whenever we hear a loud noise, someone shouting, or our children come home late, we always assume the worst. We are always afraid. We won’t stay out late,” she said.

A few months earlier the situation was quite different: Sukkot was a time of celebration and renewal for the largest Jewish community in North Africa, just a few days after High Holy Day services were canceled for the first time in 2,000 years. During the weeklong Jewish festival, a new Torah scroll was inaugurated in the Jewish Quarter of the Tunisian island of Djerba.

The congregation had not held prayer services in the island’s main synagogue, known as the Ghriba – Africa’s oldest still-running synagogue — on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur following a terror attack on May 9, during the Jewish festival of Lag B’omer.

On that day, a Tunisian national guardsman killed two Jewish visitors and three Tunisian security officers in an attack on the ancient synagogue, during an annual event that typically attracts thousands of Jewish pilgrims from around the world. The deadly assault shocked the community to its core and plunged it into fear for its future.

However, almost half a year later, on October 3 in the middle of the weeklong Sukkot festival, Djerba’s Jews felt they could hold a large public celebration. People feted the inauguration of the new Torah scroll on the streets of the Jewish quarter, singing and playing darbuka drums, and sharing food with their friends in their sukkahs or temporary dwellings, David Gerbi told The Times of Israel. The Italian psychologist traces his family roots back to Djerba and is a regular visitor to the Tunisian island.

The atmosphere of jubilation came to an abrupt end on October 7, on the day of Simchat Torah which falls immediately after Sukkot, when some 2,000 miles from Djerba, the terror group Hamas stormed into Israel and carried out the most lethal attack against Jews since the Holocaust.

About 1,200 Israelis and foreign workers were killed in the carnage, and 240 were taken hostage into Gaza. On the same day, Israel declared war on the terror group, unleashing anti-Israel protests throughout the Arab world, often tinged with antisemitism.

French Jewish pilgrims light candles at the Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia’s southern resort island of Djerba on May 18, 2022, during the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the synagogue. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)

Fire at the synagogue

On October 17, during pro-Palestinian protests, hundreds of rioters set fire to Al Hammah synagogue, an abandoned house of prayer in central Tunisia. They hammered down the building’s walls and planted Palestinian flags at the site. Police did not intervene.

“In every event that Palestinians get killed, the Jews of Tunisia get attacked in turn. It’s a ritual,” lamented Tunisian Jewish activist Rafram Chaddad in a recent interview with Al-Monitor.

Some members of Djerba’s community today wonder whether there is still a future for Jews on the island.

“In Djerba, the three religions [Jews, Muslims and Christians] used to coexist in peace, but because of the latest conflict things have changed and the danger for the Jewish population is tangible,” Gerbi said.

“Locals tell me that it is not easy to change your life and emigrate to Israel, where the cost of living is very high, where there is war, and elderly people will struggle to adapt to a new reality. But perhaps this is, in the end, the best choice,” he said.

Inhospitable to Jews

Tunisian President Kais Saied has a history of anti-Semitic statements, going as far as to claim that Cyclone Daniel, which devastated Libya and other Mediterranean countries between September 4 and 12, was the product of Zionist influence. He is a staunch opponent of relations with the Jewish state.

“Our president is always talking about the Zionists,” Rivka told The Times of Israel.

Tunisian President Kais Saied at his office in Tunis, September 18, 2023. (Screenshot: X; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Shortly before rising to power in 2019, he referred to normalization efforts as “high treason.” Last August, he said that the word “normalization” does not exist for him when it comes to Israel.

Pro-Saied lawmakers in the Tunisian parliament submitted a draft bill after the October 7 assault that would criminalize any normalization of ties with Israel and make it punishable with up to 10 years in prison. It would likewise ban any interaction between Tunisians and Israelis at any international event.

Saied’s statements and proposed policies have given Tunisia a reputation for being an inhospitable country to Jews.

“When they hear that, Jews from abroad, from France and the USA, stop coming to visit,” Rivka said. “This of course has an impact on Jews whose income depends on the other Jews – Torah and mezuzah scribes, kosher restaurant owners, jewelers, there is increasingly less income for them.”

The worsening economic situation in the North African country is an additional factor that is pushing many to consider leaving the country.

“In the supermarket, you don’t find flour, sugar, rice, semolina [a daily stable in the Maghreb, used in the preparation of couscous] or milk. Everyday products have become hard to get,” Rivka said.

A member of Djerba’s Jewish community carries a newly inaugurated Torah scroll during the Sukkot holiday, October 3, 2023, Djerba, Tunisia (David Gerbi)

“And there are no jobs in Tunisia. Those who have jobs abroad are doing fine, but those whose source of income is from here feel that the situation is regressing,” she continued. “The education is also not good. As far as I’m concerned, the future of Tunisian Jews is in the Land of Israel.”

Others reject the gloomy outlook. Moshe (not his real name), a Djerba teacher, is confident that the community will live on.

“It was the same when Ennahda rose to power, everyone thought the whole community would emigrate to Israel,” Moshe said, referencing the Islamist party that won the first democratic elections in Tunisia in 2011 but has been on a steady decline since the following ballot in 2014.

“But our lives were good under Ennahda the same way they were under Ben Ali,” Tunisia’s dictator who was toppled in the Arab Spring revolution in 2011.

Citing “bad roads” as the community’s current gravest concern, Moshe laments that Tunisia’s current leadership is not as close to the Jewish community as in the past. “Youssef Shahed,” Tunisian prime minister from 2016 to 2020, “would come to Djerba every Lag B’Omer, and was very close to the Jews.”

Shahed also appointed the first Jew to a cabinet minister post since 1957. René Trabelsi, a Djerba native, headed the Ministry of Tourism from 2018 to 2020. This year, he was one of the organizers of the island’s Sukkot celebrations and the inauguration of the Torah scroll.

Police secure an area near the Ghriba synagogue following a shooting on the resort island of Djerba, May 9, 2023. (YASSINE MAHJOUB / AFP)

A once thriving community under growing threat

The history of Jews in Tunisia dates back to Roman times, before the Muslim conquest of North Africa. For centuries, the community prospered under various rulers, with occasional episodes of persecution – including by France’s fascist Vichy rule during World War II, and then for a period under direct Nazi occupation. In 1948, when the State of Israel was founded, the community numbered 110,000.

It dwindled rapidly in the 1950s, as Jews emigrated en masse to France or Israel, leaving only 20,000 behind. Thousands more left the country in 1967 after anti-Jewish riots erupted during the Six Day War. Today, it is estimated that less than 2,000 still live in Tunisia, concentrated in the capital Tunis and on the island of Djerba.

In both locations, the communities still run schools, and the salaries of the chief rabbis of Tunis and Djerba are covered by the Tunisian government. The community speaks its own dialect of Judeo-Arabic and has unique traditions and celebrations, the most prominent of which is the annual pilgrimage to Djerba on Lag B’Omer.

A stone placed at the entrance to the Ghriba synagogue, on the Tunisian island of Djerba, October 3, 2023 (David Gerbi)

Unusually, Israelis are also issued entry visas on Lag B’Omer, even though Tunisia and Israel broke off diplomatic relations after the Second Intifada.

While the Tunisian government has ostensibly protected the historic minority, life for the community has not been safe for decades. On April 11, 2002, a truck full of explosives was detonated close to the Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba, killing 21 (of whom 14 were German tourists). The attack was claimed by al-Qaeda.

And then in May, Djerba was once again shocked by a deadly terror attack. A Tunisian national guardsman who was guarding the synagogue during the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage opened fire on the crowd, killing two Jewish cousins – Aviel Haddad, 30, who held dual Tunisian and Israeli citizenship, and Benjamin Haddad, 42, who was French – and three Tunisian policemen.

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