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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



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. [i] 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 Frenchwoman, 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
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, incited its alumni to enter new socio-professional fields such
as office employees, clerks, and mostly bank employees.[xxii]

The Synagogue: 












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