Inside Tunisia’s 2,000-year-old Jewish community: Discrimination and a glimmer of hope

el ghriba synagogue jewish tunisia anti semitism

Djerba’s historic El Ghriba synagogue is nestled on a small island off the coast of Tunisia, its entrance adorned with bright red Tunisian flags that guide tourists towards the serene white and blue building.

Just metres away from the modest synagogue, however, stone-faced soldiers shine a light on the dark history of persecution one of the oldest Jewish communities in North Africa has faced — including on the steps of this very building.

In 2002, Al-Qaeda detonated a truck bomb just outside the synagogue. Nineteen people were killed in the attack.

Inside the El Ghriba synagogue on May 15, 2022. Rachel Gilmore / Global News

While security has since grown tighter, mid-May continues to mark the weekend Jews from around the world flock to the site for their annual pilgrimage. The event had to be cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but otherwise between 2,000 and 3,000 people — and sometimes up to 7,000 — Jewish people visit every year.

The same steadiness cannot be attributed, however, to Tunisia’s Jewish population.

In 1948, there were 105,000 Jews living in the North African country. That number has since dwindled to roughly 1,500.

Why did Tunisia's Jewish population leave?

There has been a recorded Jewish population living in Tunisia for over 2,000 years. According to the New York Times, the foundations of the El Ghriba synagogue date back to 586 B.C. — though its current iteration was constructed in the 19th century.

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Over the course of those millennia, Tunisia’s Jewish population both has been subjugated and has thrived. But the last 70 years in Tunisia have been defined by the community dwindling ever closer to extinction.

A number of key things happened over the course of those 70 years. There were wars. There were antisemitic attacks. Tunisia also secured its independence from France in the 1950s.

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During the Second World War, the Nazis occupied Tunisia for six months, rounding up and deporting thousands of Jewish men, according to Daniel Lee, a professor and expert in the history of Jews in France and North Africa during the Holocaust.

Israel was created not long after that, sparking rampant anti-Zionist backlash in the Arab world due to the displacement of the Palestinian population. That tension boiled over in 1967 with the Six-Day War.

As the conflict kicked off, Tunisia felt its impact. There was an explosion of riots against the Jewish community in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis. The city’s synagogue was set on fire and, according to Lee, thousands of Jews fled the country, fearing for their lives.

In the years since, the Jewish population in North Africa continued to dwindle. In 1985, there were just 5,000 Jews living in Tunisia, according to The Associated Press.

That same year, a gunman opened fire on a crowd in the Tunisian island of Djerba, where most of the Jewish population lived.

By the turn of the century, however, a growing tradition would see the Jewish population in Tunisia temporarily swell for one week every spring: the annual pilgrimage to Djerba. In its heyday, roughly 10,000 Jews would descend on the synagogue for the weekend — though the number of permanent Jewish residents in Tunisia continued to fall.

The site of the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia on May 15, 2022. Rachel Gilmore / Global News

Then, in 2002, Al-Qaeda attacked Djerba’s El Ghriba synagogue, killing 14 Germans, three Tunisians and two French tourists shortly before the annual pilgrimage.

Between Tunisia’s political instability since the Arab Spring and the fear of a repeat of the 2002 attack, the popularity of the pilgrimage dropped. Now, an average of between 2,000 and 4,000 pilgrims descend on the site each year.

In the hopes of coaxing that number back up, the Tunisian government provides the event with massive amounts of security, including legions of armoured vehicles, roadblocks littering the pathway to the synagogue, and helicopters loudly flying overhead.

But those efforts have failed to bring back permanent Jewish residents. Most former Tunisian Jews now live in France and Israel.

Being Jewish in present-day Tunisia

Tunisians generally insist that Muslims and Jews coexist peacefully in the country today.

René Trabelsi, who is Jewish and served as Tunisia’s tourism minister for two years between 2018 and 2020, believes Tunisia’s antisemitism is no worse than the prejudices Jews come up against elsewhere in the world.

“When you go to the Jewish Quarter, there is always security. It is a security that exists almost everywhere. Even the synagogue in Montreal or synagogues in Paris, there is always security,” he said, speaking in French to Global News in the lobby of his Djerba hotel on May 15.

The security in Djerba extends far beyond a handful of security guards, however.

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Security barriers are seen outside the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia on May 15, 2022. Rachel Gilmore/Global News

Police officers carry massive rifles, regularly stop traffic to inspect passports and ID, and the roads have anti-tank roadblocks.

“Unfortunately, there have been attacks,” Trabelsi acknowledged.

Today, however, Trabelsi says he doesn’t see “any danger” for Jews in Tunisia.

“It is true that there are young people who did not even know that there were Jews in Tunisia,” he acknowledged.

“But I think that in general, here in Tunisia, we don’t have a particular problem.

“People live in Djerba, there are Jews here, and they go out into the souk with the kippa on their heads. It doesn’t bother anyone. There are no comments. It’s totally normal.”

Security outside the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia on May 22, 2022. Rachel Gilmore / Global News

Headlines from recent years, however, paint a less rosy picture.

In 2018, two Molotov cocktails were hurled at Djerba’s synagogue, briefly setting the building aflame. Trabelsi’s father, Perez Trabelsi, who is the president of Djerba’s Jewish community, told the AP the synagogue suffered no damage.

“The perpetrators want to sow dissension between Jewish and Muslim communities living in harmony on the island for many years,” the elder Trabelsi said at the time.

Security holds a gun outside the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia on May 22, 2022. Rachel Gilmore / Global News

In 2015, the last kosher restaurant in Tunisia’s capital shuttered its doors. Speaking to NPR, its owner said authorities had warned him of a possible attack on his business.

“I’m obliged to close my restaurant because it’s a security obligation for my clients, my mother and me,” the owner told NPR.

And just last year, Tunisian President Kais Saied came under fire amid reports he made antisemitic remarks.

The Conference of European Rabbis said Saied had accused Jews of being responsible “for the instability of the country,” according to the AP.

Saied denounced the claim, calling it the “propagation of false information.”

However, the country also still has prejudicial laws on the books. For example, despite Trabelsi’s successful political career, he can never be president — because he’s Jewish. Tunisian law stipulates that the president must be Muslim.

Trabelsi wants to see that law changed.

“A president must be a Tunisian,” he said.

The constitution grants Tunisians freedom of religion, he added, while requiring that the president be Muslim.

That, he said, is a “contradiction.”

The future of Tunisia's Jewish community

Walking into the El Ghriba synagogue in 2022, a young man greets tourists, providing them with the necessary scarves and fabric to cover themselves before entering the religious site.

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He explains that he’s working on his day off. He’s Muslim, not Jewish, he tells Global News, but he likes being at the synagogue.

A young Muslim man works at Djerba’s El Ghriba Synagogue on May 15, 2022. (Rachel Gilmore/Global News)

The Jews working there are like his brothers, he explains. They respect him when he fasts, abstaining from quenching their thirst or smoking a cigarette in front of him.

Overall, many in Tunisia have hope for the future of the Jewish community — including Trabelsi.

He said he constantly tries to convince Tunisians living in France or Israel to come home and invest in their country.

“Tunisia is not a rich country, but we have a very rich people, a unique people,” he said.

“If we truly want a democracy where people have freedom and justice, where everyone has food to eat and jobs to do, they must help Tunisia.”

Inside Djerba’s El Ghriba synagogue on May 15, 2022. (Rachel Gilmore/Global News)

The scenery doesn’t hurt either. With sparkling blue seas, sandy beaches and lush palm trees, it’s no surprise Djerba has turned into a popular vacation venue for European tourists.

In the last three years, something remarkable has been happening among Tunisia’s Jewish population: growth.

In 2019, there were only 1,000 Jews in the country. Today, there are around 1,500. Trabelsi expects this growth to continue.

“They’re getting married, they have children — and the population is growing every time,” he said.

“I feel that things are going to move forward bit by bit and that. Life is going to go on favourably.”

— with files from The Associated Press

This story was produced with funding from Journalists for Human Rights and Global Affairs Canada as part of the project Canada World: Voice for Women and Girls. Click here for more information.