Great Synagogue at Tunis, Tunisia

The history of Jews in Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia, goes back to Carthaginian times. Some scholars posit a Jewish presence in Tunis as early as 586 BCE (1). In modern times, the Jews of Tunis lived in a Jewish quarter known as the “Hara.” Within this quarter there was a small synagogue. In 1933, a project funded by a French-Jewish philanthropist began the erection of a larger, more beautiful synagogue in the European quarter of the city (2). With its consecration in 1938, it was named the Great Synagogue of Tunis. It is also referred to as "La Grande Synagogue" or the “Temple of Osiris” (3). The Great Synagogue became the most famous of the 82 eventual synagogues in Tunis (4).


The Great Synagogue: After its official use began in 1938, the Great Synagogue became the central synagogue in all of Tunis. A few years after its opening, however, with the German occupation of Tunisia (1942 - 1943), the synagogue was closed to the Jews (5). As the country was liberated so too was the synagogue. After 24 more years of operation, in 1967, as a frustrated reaction to the 6-Day Arab-Israeli War, the synagogue was attacked and burned (6). This was a devastating blow to the Jewish community of Tunis, and was further motivation for many to leave their homeland. The synagogue was renovated by the Tunisian government in 1990 in a bold, art-deco style (7). But the damage to the Jewish community and subsequent loss of Jewish people in Tunis could not be fixed with a renovation.

Another defining feature of the synagogue today is its consistent police and security presence (8). This presence was further necessitated by an attack on the synagogue by Islamic extremists in 2011. This was right in the middle of the Arab Spring, a wave of revolutions throughout the Arab world, which importantly began in Tunisia. The synagogue was severely damaged, but not lost in this attack. A video of the attack can be seen here: http://pamelageller.com/2011/02/video-of-the-attack-against-the-great-synagogue-of-tunis.html/.
Today, The Great Synagogue is one of three remaining synagogues in Tunis (9).

History of Jews in Tunis: As stated before, the history of Jews in Tunis dates back to Carthaginian times. Tunisia was under the rule of several Muslim dynasties beginning in the 7th century. Within this time, Tunisian Jews were granted dhimmi (protected) status (10). Tunisia became a “center of Jewish culture” in the 11th and 12th centuries, and the Jews of Tunis lived securely in the Jewish quarter, ‘Hara’ (11). The jews built schools, synagogues, and other markers of stability and community. In the 15th century Sephardic Jews expelled from Iberia entered Tunis. More impactful, however, was the entrance of many Livornese Jews in the 16th century. This was around the same time that Tunis came under the control of the Ottomans. The tensions between the two groups were so great that the Livornese broke off into their own community in the early 18th century (12).

Under the Ottomans, Jewish communities in Tunis exercised a great deal of self-governance/autonomy, but lived in relative poverty (13). In 1857 a violent attack against the Jews, always a target in times of frustration, precipitated some positive reforms in Tunis, including the lifting of discriminatory dhimmi restrictions and the closing of the Jewish quarter (14). In 1881 Tunisia was made a French protectorate. With the arrival of the French and of other European influences throughout North Africa, modernizing institutions also entered Tunis. The first Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) school was opened in Tunis in 1878. This was the first time education was offered to Jewish children in Tunis regardless of their economic status (15). With influences such as the AIU and with zionist rhetoric also circulating in Tunis in the 2oth century, The Jews of Tunis began to be modernized, “Frenchified,” and more curious about aliyah (return to Israel) (16).

In 1942 Tunisia became the only North African country to be directly occupied by the German Nazi forces. This was a time of great suffering for the Jews of Tunis. After liberation, however, the Jews remained alienated and isolated from nationalist movements. The majority of the Jews of Tunis emigrated between the post-war period and the 6-Day War in 1967. Many also left as a direct response to the anti-semitic backlashes during Tunisia’s fight for independence in 1956. Today, however, in comparison to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia has a somewhat significant community of remaining Jews, reaching about 1,500--the majority of whom do live in Tunis (17). That being said, the Jewish community of Tunis remains clandestine--not wanting to call too much attention--and were banned from running for the presidency in 2014 (18).

Tunis, Tunisia

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