Synagogue de l'AIU, Sfax (صفاقس‎‎)‎‎, Tunisia

Former Site of Synagogue de l'AIU in Sfax (صفاقس‎‎)‎‎, Tunisia

Introduction: The Alliance Israélite Universelle (thereafter, Alliance or AIU), an international network of Jewish schools, had a tremendous impact on Tunisian
Jewry. After providing a summary of the history of Jews in Tunisia, we will explore the origins of this system and its consequences on the lives of the



The Synagogue:

Sfax was bombarded during World War 2. Hence all of its public synagogues and most of the private oratories were destroyed. Among the 12 synagogues functioning in Sfax in 1955 was the synagogue of the Alliance. It was a “substitution” synagogue to those destroyed. It was located on the rue Alexandre Dumas, close to railroad tracks, to recently built neighborhoods and to the port, in the neo-Venetian building of the Alliance. The prayer room, at the ground level of the school and facing a courtyard and the street, was a space given by Mr. Victor Guez, a warehouse owner.[ia]

Sfaxi Jewish history: Sfax, a Tunisian city involved in maritime trade, textiles, olive oil, and mining, has attracted Jews since the Middle Ages, although the exact date is unknown. Spanish Jewish refugees settled there in the 14th and 15th centuries. Jews mostly engaged in trading activities. [ib] Also, Italian Jews arrived in Tunisia in 17th century, bringing with them Western culture.[ii] In large cities, such as Sfax, Jews were “concentrated” in Jewish neighborhoods known as “ḥarat al-Yahūd”.[iii]

While relations between Jews and Muslims were overall “amicable”, some tensions existed, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries.[iv] Tensions rose mainly due to two forces: colonialism and nationalism.[v] The French portrayed international Jewry, including North African Jews, in a negative way to the
Muslims, many of whom expressed support to the Palestinian Arabs against Zionism. Furthermore, German Nazi and fascist Italian propaganda broadcasts reinforced the ongoing anti-Jewish campaign. Anti-Jewish riots took place in Sfax in 1932. It has been alleged that Palestinian Arabs instigated local Muslims againstJews, but this claim cannot be confirmed.[vi]

Differences emerged between the Muslim and Jewish communities. A significant difference was the fact that, generally in Arab countries, unlike Muslims, Jews were not afraid of Western imperialist power. The European support of the Alliance, which intervened on behalf of Jews whenever incidents occurred, distinguished the Jews, who became political “adversaries” to the Muslims.[vii] Indeed, since the arrival of French colonial power in Tunisia in 1881, the status of the Jews had “improved.”[viii]

However, even amidst these tensions, there were attempts to reconcile Jews and Muslims. For instance, in Tunisia in 1935, during ceremonies commemorating the 800th anniversary of the death of Maimonides held at the Alliance Israélite Universelle and the headquarters of the cultural association Khaldounia. Muslim and Jewish intellectuals used the event to remind the audience that the two communities had coexisted peacefully for a long time.[ix]

France’s policy towards the giving of its citizenship to North African Jews has been varying. While in Algeria, due to the Crémieux Decree of 1870, all Algerian Jews
obtained French citizenship, [x] there were more restrictions in Tunisia. For French naturalization, Tunisian Jews needed to have a diploma from a French institution of higher education, to be married to a French woman, or to have rendered ten years of service or exceptional service to France. Very few Jews managed to satisfy any of these conditions, so only a few dozens got French citizenship between 1911 and 1914.[xi]

After World War 2, most Sfaxi Jews emigrated either to France or to Israel.[xii]

The Alliance:

Jewish Tunisian children were first taught by Christian missionaries, until the Alliance created schools in Tunisia in 1878, and in Sfax (1905). In the coastal city of Sfax, French influence was greater than in the South of Tunisia. More Jewish children went to school than Muslim ones.[xiii]

The Alliance was founded in Paris in 1860 to promote Jewish rights. [xiv]  While having the political ambition of acting as a spokesperson of the Jewish community with governments to find solutions to Jewish problems,[xv] the Alliance also created a modern Jewish education system. The emphasis on French was a vector of socio-economic progress for North African Jews. [xvi] Also, the emphasis on modern vocational trade encountered initial resistance from the Jewish
community.[xvii] Furthermore, to gather support from traditional communities, the Alliance schooling system also put forth a traditional Jewish curriculum.[xviii] It was the first system which empowered young girls with “mass education”.[xix]

Furthermore, in Tunisia, the AIU was also a driving force behind Jewish unity. Jews of Spanish and Portuguese ancestry and the “Tawansa”, who had been in Tunisia for even longer, nurtured mutual hostilities due to cultural and financial differences. Through the AIU, “a gradual but successful unification process” of these diverse communities was reached after 1900.[xx]

1913 data on the Sfax Alliance school points out that, out of the 2,600 Jews who lived in Sfax, 235 boys and 86 girls were enrolled in separate boys and girls schools.[xxi]  

Between the two World Wars, more than even before, the Alliance, a vector of “Westernization” of Tunisian Jews, encouraged its alumni to enter new socio-professional fields, particularly in white collar positions such as office staff, clerks, and most particularly, bank employees.[xxii]







Sfax, Tunisia

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