Borgel Jewish Cemetery at Tunis, Tunisia

The Borgel Jewish Cemetery can be found along Avenue Khereddin Pach, between "metro tracks and a light industrial area". [3, 9] The overgrown, broken graves stand in sharp contrast to a city that brushes right up against the cemetery’s walls.


The Cemetery

The Borgel Jewish Cemetery is also known as Beth a Haïm, or “House of Life”. [4] Many Grand Rabbis, Jewish soldiers, and other notable people are buried here. [7] The site today holds around 30,000 graves and is the largest Jewish cemetery in Northern Africa. [4]

The cemetery has two main divisions: where the twenssa are buried and where the Granas are buried. [8] Twenssa are Jewish people of Tunisian origin and Granas are Jewish people of Italian origin-- a distinction reflected in the fact that some epitaphs on the tombstones are in Italian. The Borgel is further organized into 24 parts and each part is named after a well-known Jewish person. [4]

Rabbi Eliaou Borgel

According to an epitaph at the cemetery, this site was named after Rabbi Eliaou Borgel. [8] In 1894, the Chief Rabbi of Tunisia, Eliaou Borgel, inaugurated the cemetery. [4] Borgel was the Chief Rabbi from 1885 to 1898. [11] In 1898, he died and was the first to be buried in the cemetery he inaugurated. [8]

World Wars

There is a square specifically set aside for the Jewish people who died during the world wars, with Plot 1 containing Commwealth graves. [3,8] The Jewish servicemen that died during World War I fighting for the United Kingdom are buried here due to the efforts of the Imperial War Grave Commission, which was renamed and is currently known as the Commonwealth Graves Commission. [5] The Commonwealth Graves Commission has identified two Jewish deaths from World War II at this cemetery: Fellous Joseph and Assous Francois. [3] Both men were part of the Pioneer Corps for the United Kingdom. [3]

Origins and Relationship to the Old Cemetery

The Borgel Cemetery also contains graves from an old cemetery that was on Avenue E. Rostand. [4] The graves were transferred in 1958, shortly after Tunisian independence. [4] The original Jewish cemetery at the center of Tunis was called L’Avenue de Londres or The Passage. [13] It served as the primary Jewish cemetery and housed around 60,000 tombstones. [13]

Jewish riots broke out in March of 1887 when the French Protectorate decreed that a French company had the “exclusive right to transport bodies” buried at the old cemetery. [10] In the following years, the old cemetery became a “hiatus” in the development of the city that the French government attempted (and failed) to shut down. [10] After 1894, the government declared that no new graves could appear at the old cemetery. [1, 13]  Therefore, a new cemetery was constructed on the outskirts of the city, which is the current Borgel Jewish Cemetery. [13]

In 1898, the government wanted to expand Roustand Avenue, so the northern part of old cemetery was expropriated. [1, 10]  However, eight tombs of great rabbis were transferred to the Borgel cemetery, including: Avraham Hacohe, Avraham Abenmoussa, Moshé Darmon, Avraham Taieb, Rav Its’hak Lumbros, Messod Refael Elfassi, Yossef Bismuth, and Eliahou Gabison. [1]  

In 1907, the old cemetery was expropriated from the Jewish community, even though Jewish people owned the land. [1] In February 1958, the old Jewish cemetery was registered as a municipal property, despite protests from the local Jewish community. [1] In June of 1958, the newly independent Tunisian government declared the old cemetery a "communal property". [1, 10] After the rabbis and locals refused to transfer graves from the old cemetery to Israel on the government’s order, the graves were exhumed. [1] This was a blow to the Jewish community because exhumation violated the "sacrosanct" rabbinical laws relating to ideas of respect for the dead. [10] Nonetheless, some of the graves of rabbis were transferred to the Borgel cemetery, including Rabbi Hai Taieb. [2] The old central cemetery became Habib Thameur Park, which was built right on top of the graves. [6]

Present State 

Currently, the Borgel cemetery is surrounded by the expanding city. The old cemetery was shut down because it was located at the city center and halted development, so the Borgel cemetery was built. [1] However, the city has caught up with the Borgel cemetery and now there’s a possibility that the Borgel could also be shut down. Additionally, increasing land values make the cemetery a "target for redevelopment if it’s declared abandoned". [2]

Most of the cemetery is neglected and marble from graves has been stolen. [13] Joseph Krief, a native Tunisian Jew, is leading the push to revive the cemetery and prevent it from being redeveloped. [7, 12] Krief has been trying to raise funds to restore the cemetery, with limited success. [2] Additionally, there is a French association, the International Jewish Cemetery Association of Tunis (AICJT), that also works on maintaining the cemetery. [13]

Tunis, Tunisia

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